The Power of Geek

E-commerce is flourishing at ThinkGeek under the watchful eyes of Katy McCarthy

Katy McCarthy is not what one would consider the conventional geek. You won’t find a collection of Marvel comic books sprawled on her coffee table or the newest gaming console hooked up to her TV. But the chief executive officer of Geeknet and ThinkGeek is trying to erase those lines that define geekiness. “I do think I’m a geek,” McCarthy says. “A geek can be anyone who turns their interests into passions and can share that passion with a group of enthusiastic fans.”

If you haven’t heard of ThinkGeek, some of the Virginia-based company’s best sellers include R2D2 measuring cups; flux-capacitor car chargers; and a sixteen-bit game controller doormat; and this just scratches the surface of the endless toys and novelties offered from the quirky company.

Although ThinkGeek is still in its adolescence, its revenues and sales don’t mirror that. Last year the company posted $138 million in revenue. Since its founding in 1999, the little Internet startup has grown into a full-fledged online retailer. It is ranked as 175 on the Internet Retailer Top 500 List. Internally the company grew 182 percent from 2009 to 2013. One of the reasons for that is McCarthy. She wanted to bring in a new team with higher e-commerce expertise.

From corporate to contemporary

As former chief financial officer for General Electric Healthcare and GE Transportation, McCarthy brought her financial and business prowess to ThinkGeek. She spent eighteen years with GE, dedicating a lot of time to international acquisitions. McCarthy’s career at GE eventually led her to Geeknet, which owns ThinkGeek. “A board member at GE was also an investor in Geeknet and took the role of interim CEO of the company,” McCarthy says. The leadership change resulted in McCarthy taking on the role as executive vice president and chief financial officer. A mere two years later, in March 2013, she took over the reins as CEO.

Although a vast difference from the corporate setting at GE, McCarthy acclimated quickly to the startup culture. “I learned at GE how to switch industries and get up to speed in a new area in a short amount of time,” she says.

Most days, McCarthy comes in wearing a comfy pair of jeans, and has her yellow Labrador Molly by her desk. But it isn’t just the relaxed company culture that McCarthy enjoys; it’s also a way for her to work more directly with the company goals. “Of course it was a transition, but I welcomed the opportunity to come to a smaller, more entrepreneurial company where you are able to get involved in so many things on a daily basis,” she says.

ThinkGeek: The Next Generation

With fewer and fewer brick-and-mortar businesses, the growing e-commerce game is getting stronger. However, McCarthy looks at the competitive market as a good thing. “I think it’s an opportunity, because that means there are so many more people who shop online, and it will just continue in the future,” she says.

ThinkGeek is stepping up its game with  an in-house R&D team called GeekLabs. McCarthy notes that maintaining product leadership is one of the company’s biggest goals. So as silly as a Star Trek Enterprise pizza cutter (McCarthy’s personal favorite) may seem, products like this are the lifeblood of the company. “We put a tremendous amount of focus on our GeekLabs, which is our ThinkGeek-designed and -manufactured products, to differentiate ourselves in our space and in e-commerce,” she explains.

GeekLabs may be where the bulk of the ideas come into fruition, but company feedback is more than welcome. McCarthy is trying to cast a net to mothers like herself. “My daughter loves Hunger Games and Doctor Who, so our audience is even for people who are gift-givers or know someone who would enjoy our products,” she says. “The culture is about creativity and curiosity and passion. Employees aren’t just employees but also customers and fans.”