Founding Wordnik—An Interview with Erin McKean

Sarah Wagner March 6, 2014 0
Founding Wordnik—An Interview with Erin McKean

Starting a successful online business is not easy for anyone, and women may face extra challenges due to social norms.  But that does not mean that women cannot succeed in the business world. In fact, from 2002-03 to 2013, the number of women business owners tripled.  Women are still the minority in the field—but they have made significant progress.

Erin McKean, founder of the popular site Wordnik as well as Reverb, is a prime example of this progress.  She is an extremely successful woman in business, and especially, tech.  What exactly is McKean’s profession? She is a lexicographer, which means she crafts and compiles dictionaries.

In her 2007 Ted Talk (shown at the bottom of this article), she says despite the fact that she loves books, “The book is not the best shape for the dictionary.” So she founded Wordnik, a dictionary site that is not limited by a book format.  Her website can house as many words as she and her coworkers find.

Teachers and students at Archer find Wordnik to be a helpful tool in learning vocabulary.  Sydney Stone ’16, says, “I love how Wordnik gives real world examples for all of the world.  It helps me understand the words so much more.”

English teacher Jenn Babin agrees, saying, “Wordnik is one of my favorite vocabulary resources. The list of example sentences that Wordnik provides for any entry is a valuable way for students to easily see how the word is used properly in various contexts. The site goes beyond just simple dictionary definitions and allows viewers to see the nuance of a word’s use, including common idiomatic phrases and prepositions that are associated with it.”


Erin McKean presents in front of an audience. CC-BY George Hall. Used with permission from McKean.

Not everything about McKean’s journey has been easy, though. She told the Oracle that “perhaps the biggest challenge I have faced and am still facing is ‘impostor syndrome.’” But she doesn’t attribute most of her challenges to her gender.

She says, “Of course, there are lots of other challenges in running a startup…  I think most of these challenges are felt by both male and female entrepreneurs, but probably male entrepreneurs are not asked as often ‘what does your husband think?’ or ‘how does your kid feel about having his mom run a Startup?”‘

While both her husband and child support her in her endeavors, she does not think that those types of questions are necessary.

The Oracle asked McKean what advice she would give to young girls interested in starting a new business.  She said: “Don’t second-guess yourself, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Mistakes are how you learn things! Go out and talk to everyone you can. Let them know you’re starting something new, and ask for advice. Everyone loves to give advice. (Don’t promise to take any of it!)”

She adds, “Don’t worry about ‘bothering’ people; most people like to talk about themselves. Every day think of one thing you can do to move yourself closer to your goal, and do it. Even if it’s a tiny thing (like sending an email) it’s one more thing you hadn’t done yesterday… Don’t be afraid to stop doing things that aren’t working. Only work with people you like, but don’t only work with people just like you.”

Featured Image: Photograph of Erin McKean CC-BY Joseph Gerharz. Used with permission.

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