BEHIND THE SCENES with Luke Malone

Though you’ve been a print reporter for over ten years, you'd done very little business reporting before joining StartUp . What drew you to working on a show about business?

Honestly, when the job first came up, I wasn’t sure I was the right fit. I knew what StartUp was and I quite liked the show, but I was like, “No, this doesn’t sound like me.” I’d done zero business reporting. But the team was so smart, and the way they spoke about business was really different than what I had in my head. The format of StartUp is all about the human stories behind businesses. The business itself is - I don’t want to say incidental - but it’s really the backbone that holds everything together. I think that’s what I liked, and what the listeners like. In the end, we're telling stories about people. And business is an area that’s way more interesting than I gave it credit for.

How did you first learn about Mary Going and her business St. Harridan?

She actually emailed the show. She wrote in and said, “I’ve got this business that caters to the gender non-conforming and trans communities, and it isn’t doing so well.” To be honest, I didn’t think the story was going to go anywhere, because I wasn’t surprised that such a niche company might be having financial problems.

It was only when I spoke to Mary on the phone and realized just how personal the business was to her that I got really excited. I had been speaking with countless other business people and start-up bros and bro-esses, and I found that many of them were just coming to the business with the goal of making money, and what they’re actually doing - what product they’re making - was almost secondary. They’d change it on a dime. What really struck me about Mary’s story is that her business truly grew from herself and her experiences growing up, which pushed her to create something that she didn’t have, and that she wanted to give to other people. Once I got off the phone I was like, “Wow, this could be something quite interesting.”

This episode is structured very differently than other StartUps, in discrete, non-chronological scenes. Can you talk about the process of fitting the story together?

The structure came about largely because it was almost two competing stories: one about Mary’s business and its struggles, the other her background, family, and experiences. At first they didn’t interweave as beautifully as I thought they might.

I had all this tape, and I mangled together an atrocious first draft. It was much more of a regular narrative flow. And I presented it to my team - I was lucky enough to have Alex Blumberg in the room, and our editor Peter Clowney - and we realized that this isn’t working, but maybe we can play around with structure and blend these two stories in a nice way.

In order to not confuse listeners, we wanted to make it very clear that the different scenes were distinct sections. We thought about how we might use music to delineate, or some hokey chime in between. In the end, slating each scene with a date was decent.

For me, the central scene is that confrontation with Mary’s mother, Dot, when Mary comes out to her for the first time. How did you learn about that moment?

Oh my god. It was a moment alright, even in real life. Early on in the interviews I asked Mary a really standard question, “What’s your biggest fear about losing the business if it does go under?” She said, “Telling my mom and stepdad.”

I think I said to her, “That’s super interesting, because you’ve got two kids, you’re the primary breadwinner, isn’t bankruptcy a bigger concern?” And Mary was like, “No - it’s a concern, but we’ll be ok at the end of the day.”

It struck me that a 49-year-old woman would worry so much about what her mom thinks. So I knew something was there, but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. When I flew out to Oakland we sat down and I was like, “What is the deal with your mom? Tell me exactly what happened when you came out.” When she told me, I could have just turned inside-out by how shocked I was. I was literally shocked into silence. I didn’t see that coming. I’m a gay guy. I have lots of gay friends. I’ve heard lots of coming out stories. I have my own coming out story. And I’ve never once heard of someone’s parent pulling a gun on them. So, it was something.

And Mary and her mother had never spoken about that incident?

I feel like sometimes when shitty stuff happens in a family, when it’s not addressed directly straightaway, it’s easy to never ever bring it up. When is the right time? What are you going to do, call up your mom on a Tuesday afternoon and say, “Hey, I have a few questions about that time you pulled a gun on me?”

But then you have a reporter in town, dredging up the past. It was hard, sitting down across from Dot and pummeling her with questions about a time she behaved pretty atrociously, but she was a good a sport. And they’ve certainly spoken about it now.

Any updates? What’s going on now with Mary and the business?

Mary’s branded-out, expanding the business to include other designers. She’s starting an "online department store" called Harridan Township, which is basically an umbrella for a bunch of different brands, a collection of labels “as fluid as your gender.” She’s trying to expand at the same time as keeping St. Harridan running. Her idea eventually is to have an online store in which there’s no such thing as men’s sizing or women’s sizing - basically to eliminate gender altogether.

Do you think it’s smart business?
Maybe ask me in a year when I’m more familiar with business! It sounds great, but Mary’s in a really tough position because she’s building a company that’s part of a niche part of a smaller population. LGBTQ people are a minority, and gender non-comforming people are an even smaller minority within that. So she has a bigger hill to climb in order to make a successful business. Having said that, there aren’t many other businesses like this around, so Mary and a few others have really tapped this market. Even though Mary’s doing this for altruistic reasons, there is this big possible revenue pool that she’s entering.

Last question: do you own a suit?

I have one suit. It cost me 800 dollars, I’ve worn it once, and I don’t know when I’m going to wear it again. I love the idea of suits, but I’m very much a jeans and t-shirt kind of guy. And any time I’m in a suit for longer than an hour, I start to get a little bit shifty, like some 10-year-old at a wedding.

I didn’t wear a suit when I married my husband. We just went down to city hall and got married. I wore pants, a shirt, and this really quite nice outer-jacket I bought in Paris that I should have taken off, but I spilled something on my shirt so I had to wear the jacket the whole time. It was a long thigh-length jacket, like a thin overcoat. Everyone was like, “Why were you wearing that jacket in the wedding photos?” I was like, “It’s because I spilled food on myself and I’m gross.”