Meet Brazen Member

Meet Brazen Member: Susan Stewart

Author Susan Stewart Published October 17, 2017
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Welcome to “Meet Brazen Member” an exclusive Brazen series featuring our Brazen Growth Group Members. We are excited to share a little bit of their professional and personal stories with you!

 

What is your favorite book?
The Glass Castle

 

One skill you’d like to learn this year?
Tiling

 

What business woman or woman-led business do you admire and why?
Sheryl Sandberg- I was inspired by her book Lean In.

 

What is your favorite non-work related hobby?
Taking our dog Sadie for a walk with my husband.

 

What is your favorite quote?
“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid. ” -Albert Einstein

 

Who from history would you most like to meet and why?
My grandmother. She died before I was born and I often wonder what she was like.

 

How do you relax after a long day? Is there a small luxury you treat yourself to?
A glass of wine and a game of spider solitaire on my phone. I also get a massage once a month.

 

Besides social media and news sites, what website do you check often?
Containerstore.com

 

If you had an extra hour every day, how would you use it?
Prayer/quiet time in the morning before everyone else gets up in the morning. It helps me prepare for my day.

 

What is the inspiration behind your business?
I was always helping friends with organizing and decorating and my husband suggested I do it for a living. It’s awesome getting paid to do what you love!

 

What do you love most about being the boss?
Setting my own schedule. Getting to decide when and how much I work.

 

Which of your personal attributes do you think equips you the most to be an entrepreneur and why?
Tenacity. There have been a few times over the years that I’ve wanted to throw in the towel but I do not give up easily. My tenacity has allowed me to push through a recession, a relocation of my business (from Phoenix to St. Louis) and 2 rounds of breast cancer since I started Perfectly Placed.

 

What is your favorite app/software that helps you with productivity?
Acuity – my scheduling software. It sends reminder texts/emails to clients before their appointments.

 

What is the hardest part about being a female entrepreneur and how do you overcome it?
Boundaries. I want to please everyone and often that means putting myself last. My friends and husband have permission to get on me about it. I’m trying to be better about not feeling guilty about having fun or resting.

 

What is your favorite piece of business advice?
Take 25% of every sale and set it aside for taxes. I wish I had followed this advice. I would have saved myself a lot of pain.

 

What is your preferred accounting software?
Quickbooks.

 

What is your favorite business / startup book?
Organizing From The Inside Out by Julie Morgenstern

 

What service does your company outsource?
Accounting

 

What is your favorite business / startup podcast?
Story Brand

 

What is the first position you hired?
Organizer

 

What is the most important piece of technology your company uses?
Label maker

 

How did you hear about Brazen and why did you decide to sign up as a member?
I met Jennifer Ehlen and she told me about Brazen.

 

How has being a Brazen Member impacted or changed your business?
I’m pretty new to Brazen but I’m excited to be a part of the Growth Groups. I’ve always wanted to do something like this.

 

 

What is the #1 benefit you feel you receive as a Brazen member?
Being a part of a Growth Group. I’m so glad to have peers with whom I can problem solve.

Interviews

Using Experience and Expertise to Craft a Business Set for Success

Author Retta Leritz Published October 31, 2017
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From starting her own business, to operating under the umbrella of an established company, Retta Leritz is about to embark on her latest entrepreneurial endeavor that will share her classic yet quirky design skills with the world and hopefully help her craft the lifestyle she is looking for.

 

 

What inspired you to start your business? What pain were you solving? How did you get motivated to take the first step?

Long hours and late nights are no stranger to me, as I have started small businesses in the past. That said, I feel I am approaching a “Part Two” in my career, and I have been searching for something to re-energize my spirits and mesh better with my new life.

 

While I love my current job as an interior designer, it isn’t one that scales well. The sleepless nights did not cause any bother when it was just “me”, but with a new family and husband, I am finding that I, myself, can only put in so many hours a day. Having worked in the product end of design in the past, I was motivated to create another tangible item that could scale better, and would allow for me to live fully both inside the office and out.

 

Having worked in the product end of design in the past, I was motivated to create another tangible item that could scale better, and would allow for me to live fully both inside the office and out.

 

What sacrifices have you had to make to become a successful entrepreneur?

The sacrifices are never-ending as an entrepreneur. From financial to personal, I have taken many. 

 

In the past, I accumulated business-related debt, which always left me feeling numb. I also missed many weddings and girls’ weekends, due to both the financial strain and stress on my schedule. The hours of sleep that were lost are too many to count. 

 

That said, the benefits of owning a business continue to outweigh the sacrifices. What I have learned is that you have to put in your dues. The wins do come, but sometimes they come months and years down the road. When they arrive, though, they are worth all the sacrifice.

 

What motivates you and how do you stay motivated?

Lucky for me, I have a solid, support group made from a variety of other, female entrepreneurs. We come from many backgrounds, are many ages and have businesses in vastly different sectors, but we find we go through the same struggles. 

 

To have their unwavering support – whether it be given in the form of advice or just a shoulder to lean on when times are tough – is priceless. There is solace in knowing I am not the only one experiencing certain issues. 

 

I also have an incredible family and husband who are cheering me on from behind the scenes. From the start, they have encouraged, critiqued, and supported me in ways too many to list. 

 

If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?

In a way, I am starting my career over again. While I am and always will be a designer, I’m about to embark into a new category. Lucky enough, I have learned a lot of lessons over the years, which is allowing for me to go in with a different mindset. 

 

From the start, I am going to be more mindful of cash flow. I also am utilizing real metric systems to capture data – instead of just assuming things that may not be entirely accurate. 

 

I have also learned that I am only as good as the team around me. This time around, I am enlisting help from the beginning. Whether marketing, accounting or logistics, there are people out there who know more than I do. Instead of ‘roughing it’ on my own, I’m going to invest in systems that will put me on top sooner. 

 

I have also learned that I am only as good as the team around me. This time around, I am enlisting help from the beginning. Instead of ‘roughing it’ on my own, I’m going to invest in systems that will put me on top sooner.

 

How has your business changed your life? How has it changed the lives of others?

Since I have yet to release the ‘new’ company, I can share that it probably has yet to change lives. That said, I DO see how my efforts have influenced my stepchildren. To share with them the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of entrepreneurship is a powerful story. 

 

I want them to grow up and learn that work isn’t a bad word. Though there are times I have to sacrifice playtime for my job, I hope they will understand and appreciate what I have built over the years. 

 

The biggest payoff would be to see them pursue their dreams and goals – no matter how lofty they may seem.

 

When customers hire your services, they are getting your personal aesthetic and vision. Some might say that sort of individual focus might prevent growth. How has your personal taste helped and or hindered the growth of your company? How have you used the personalization of the design industry to grow your business?

Admittedly, it IS hard to scale an interior design business, as I can only share my vision and talent with so many customers at a time. This conundrum actually has been the inspiration behind my new chapter. 

 

I am creating a line of products that encapsulate my style and can be sold to a larger demographic. It will allow for me to reach a much, much broader market.

 

Overall, though, my personal style has also been a great benefit to my career. I have built a brand on ‘me’; I have a classic, yet somewhat quirky and unique aesthetic that seems to stand out from the masses. From interiors to paper to – now – children’s clothing, I am finding that my customers seek me out because they appreciate my taste – no matter the genre of design. 

 

Interior design is a well established industry. What are some new, exciting things happening in the interior design world? How do you find new markets and clients? How has technology changed your business?

The world of interior design has changed a lot over the years. Introductions like Pinterest and Houzz have given the general audience access to design ideas and products that were originally limited to designers. On the one hand, it has allowed for better communication tools with clients. On the other hand, it has forced us, as designers, to place a stronger value on our talents and skills. 

 

We’d love to learn more about transitioning your business to operating under the Castle Design umbrella. How has this helped your business? What have you had to do differently?

The move to Castle Design has been one of the best decisions I made for myself as a business owner. 

 

The model at this firm is unique and allows for me to still operate my design business autonomously. I have an incredible boss who encourages self-growth and places tremendous value on supporting our needs. At Castle, I am backed by a full staff: project managers, office staff members and a strong leadership team. I now spend my days working as my best self, which is that of a designer. My clients are lucky to receive more attention, as I am not spending extra hours pushing through issues that are not my strong suit. 

 

I’m able to work more efficiently, which has also allowed for more reasonable work hours. With the ‘extra’ time I have in the calendar, I can focus on my ‘chapter two’ and spend real, quality time with my family. 

 

My biggest asset is to be a product of my mother and grandmother. Their senses of style were entirely unique, and they gave me a perspective that has encouraged uniqueness and confidence.

 

Your mother and grandmother were also designers. How have the women in your life influenced you and your business? How do you support and influence other women and women entrepreneurs?

My biggest asset is to be a product of my mother and grandmother. Their senses of style were entirely unique, and they gave me a perspective that has encouraged uniqueness and confidence. 

 

When it comes to encouraging and supporting other, female entrepreneurs, my biggest hope is that I can share my story. Every one of us who embarks on starting a business faces challenges, and I have learned to embrace mine. There have been many failures, but also many successes. Each one has put me where I am today. Those are the stories I hope to share, as there is power in knowing you are not alone in this journey. 

 

We heard you’re up to something new! Can you give us any insider info on what you’re up to next?

While the details of my ‘something new’ are still to be released, I am happy to share that I am entering the world of childrens wear. I found that there is something missing in the market, and I am eager to share more in the near future! 

Interviews

People and Planning Over Profits

Author Lisa Nichols Published October 24, 2017
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There is something to be said about planning. For Lisa Nichols, that means planning your next step, planning your next hire, and planning to plan. Lisa also believes that the success of her company, Technology Partners, is not about the bottom line: it’s “doing what’s right over doing what is profitable.”

 

Tell us about the biggest mistake you made with your business. What did you learn from it?
Unfortunately, I have made several but I think one of the biggest mistakes I have made is not always “planning to plan.” What I mean by this is when we are running our own business, sometimes we are operating more in the urgent/tasks at hand rather than stepping back and taking the time to plan our actions and next steps. If you do not schedule this time, it will not happen and it is crucial to do this to take your business to next level.

 

The other big mistake and lesson learned the hard way is to “hire slowly, fire fast.” Spend more time on the front-end when hiring and you will have fewer issues on the back-end. It is not just the hard cost of hiring the wrong person; it is the opportunity cost of not having the right person in that role for that time period. 

 

It is not just the hard cost of hiring the wrong person; it is the opportunity cost of not having the right person in that role for that time period. 

 

Besides learning from mistakes, we can learn from successful moments as well. Have you ever learned something from a great success?
Over six years ago now, we added a Solutions Group to our staffing business. It has been very successful with an average growth rate of 26% year over year. The lesson learned here was not to bite off more than we could chew. We have slowly added practice areas to this group as one group gets successful. There has been a tremendous amount of focus and energy that has been applied to growing this group. If we tried to tackle too many new initiatives at the same time, I am confident that this group would not have experienced the growth that they have. 

 

What is one thing you’ve learned that you wish you knew when you got started?
Planning is never a waste of time. 

 

In your opinion, what are 3 key elements for starting and running a successful business?
1) There is no substitute for hard work.
2) Lean into mentors and others who have run successful businesses.
3) Manage your overhead. It doesn’t matter what your top line looks like, if your overhead is out of control, your business will not survive. 

 

What do you wish you would have done differently? And what did you nail from the start?
I wish I had taken more calculated risks and time boxed experimentation. We have tried a lot of things like growing in other metros that did not pan out. I wish I had defined more clear expectations up front as to how long we would try and grow these metros before we moved on. 
I have always cared more about the people than I have cared about the profits. At the end of the day, we are here to change lives and make a difference. I would not change this as this is the only way to lead in my mind. 

 

Let’s talk about advice. What is the best advice you’ve ever received? The worst? What advice would you give to a young woman thinking about starting her own business?
“Failing to plan is planning to fail” is the best piece of advice I have received. “Go with your gut” doesn’t always pan out. I have gone with my gut before and it took me totally down the wrong path. I think that the best way to approach decisions is to gather as many data points as possible, listen to your intuition and then make an “educated” decision. 
“There is wisdom in many advisors” but just make sure that the advisors you are surrounding yourself with are the right ones. It is imperative that you have the right team around you. Spend your time on building the “right” team. 

 

You work in the traditionally male-dominated IT industry. Assuming you have encountered it at some point, how do you handle both explicit and implicit gender bias?
This is true; however, it has never been an issue for me. I have found in my own career that as long as I am approaching my role with excellence and competence, I will have the respect of my colleagues and peers. 

 

“As long as I am approaching my role with excellence and competence, I will have the respect of my colleagues and peers. “

 

Technology Partners covers a lot of IT services: staffing, web and app development, IT support, cloud services, analytics, etc. Where did it all start? How will Technology Partners continue to expand?
It all started with wanting to create a better eco-system for the IT consultant on the staffing side. Giving them control over their careers, better pay and interesting work is what will attract IT workers to your company. At the end of the day, we have always believed that if we do right by our employees, then our employees will do right by our clients. 
Again, I believe that the real growth trajectory for Technology Partners will come from our Solutions Group. We want to help our clients unleash the possibilities that technology can bring to the table. We have built a team of really smart, passionate IT professionals who are experts in understanding not only the business but how technology can support that business. We are solving business challenges with technology. It is not just technology for technology’s sake. 

 

You place a high value on doing what’s right over doing what’s profitable. How has this motto affected your business?
This is the only way to do business and build a business that is sustainable. If we cannot create a win-win-win, then we are not interested. I think a testament to how this philosophy has affected our business is that over 80% of the clients we service today have been clients now for close to 20 years. There is a trusted partnership that has grown because we value “doing what’s right over doing what is profitable.” 

 

You can find Lisa and Technology Partners on Facebook and Instagram @TechnologyParters and on Twitter @ClearChoiceInIT. Check out their website at technologypartners.net.

 

Technology Partners is an award-winning, certified Women Business Enterprise that provides premier IT staffing and solutions. In our 24 years of experience, we have partnered with hundreds of clients across a range of industries nationwide, with client and consultant relationships that have lasted as long as we’ve been in business. Built upon a revolutionary transparent-margin business model, Technology Partners provides better value for our clients while giving our consultants higher salaries and career control. Founded by a former IT consultant, we’re committed to partnerships with our clients and consultants in thoroughly understanding their needs and providing them with the utmost service.

Interviews

Be Fearless in Your Fundraising

Author Stephanie Leffler Published October 10, 2017
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When it comes to fundraising, Stephanie Leffler has heaps of experience. She shares lots of tips and information with us that any female entrepreneur, whether seeking investment or not, would find helpful. And on top of it all she seems to have navigated the investment waters with a bold and brazen attitude!

Where did your organizations funding come from? How did you obtain investors for your venture?

Our seed funding was supplied by me and my business partner. We sold our first startup and had funds available to invest into this new venture. That got us through the first few years. We then raised a Series A round from Highland Capital, a venture firm based in Boston and Silicon Valley. Finally, we raised a Series B round led by Lewis and Clark Ventures in St. Louis, along with participation from Highland Capital.

 

Seeking funding can be intimidating. Tell us how you felt about it. Was it a scary process for you? Or were you confident? Why?

When you outline an idea that you are passionate about, you feel exposed. There is always a risk that they won’t like it. The reality is that you might go and see ten potential investors and nine of them might not like your idea at all, but all you need is one. The key is to go in with complete confidence and stand behind your idea. Do not come at it with weakness or fear. Put your knowledge on display. Teach the investors something and you’ll gain an advantage. I believe that just about any idea can be sold with the right amount of confidence.

 

Teach the investors something and you’ll gain an advantage. I believe that just about any idea can be sold with the right amount of confidence.

 

What are some interesting or helpful things you learned about funding that you might not find in “Seeking Investment for Dummies?”

One of the best pieces of advice that I can give would be to hire a great, well-connected lawyer. You will need a lawyer to help you negotiate and manage the legal part of your round. Getting connected with the right lawyer can help create the network effect you need in order to get funding. It’s not a great position to be seeking funding. It’s much better for VC’s to hear about your company through the grapevine or from someone they trust, forcing them to reach out to you. If you start by hiring a well-connected lawyer, they can help you create buzz and generate interest. For me, that part of the process was relatively unexpected.

 

We know the importance of a pitch deck and a strong ask. What was your hook? How did you get investors to take the bait? Why was your pitch so compelling to them?

The most important hook is the size of the market and the value that can be created with your solution. Investors want to know that you can build a company big enough for them to get a return. Establishing that, not through gut instinct, but through actual data, is tremendously important. Investors see upwards of 50 pitches per month. Your pitch has to check all of their boxes: a solid market, a good go-to market strategy, and having an experienced team or a plan to bring on an experienced team. You have to be able to demonstrate that your technology works. Your pitch has to do all of these things, and above all else, it has to do so in the form of a story. People generally make decisions with emotion, and even though you’re dealing with very logical people in the investment world, if you’re not weaving together a clear and coherent story, it will fall flat.

 

Investors want to know that you can build a company big enough for them to get a return. Establishing that, not through gut instinct, but through actual data, is tremendously important. Investors see upwards of 50 pitches per month.

 

What went right when you were raising capital for your business? Did you get all that you asked for? What went wrong?

What went right:

Both of our funding rounds. We got what we asked for. The key to doing so is having multiple parties at the table. You need to have more than one firm who is interested in investing because you can’t aggressively ask for what you want unless you have more than one person interested.

 

What went wrong:

You have to hold a lot of meetings in order to get a handful of people interested. In some cases, you’ll go into a meeting and the person sitting on the other side of the table has zero interest in what you are saying and they may not even want to be there in the first place. You just have to pick yourself up, walk out of that room, and ask yourself if there is anything you can carry forward into the next meeting to improve upon and move on. I experienced that more than once in the fundraising processes but I didn’t let it slow me down.

 

What advice would you give to a female founder seeking investment capital?

Number one: don’t contemplate gender when you’re thinking about raising capital. I don’t think there is anything that is gender specific when it comes to raising capital. Number two: show up early, be prepared, make sure your technology works, shake hands firmly, look the investor in the eye, have your shoulders back, have the body language of a winner and of a leader, and make no apologies for your pitch. Investors will likely ask questions that you don’t have an answer for, and you can absolutely say, ‘let me get back to you’, or ‘that’s a great question, we need to think through that’, and then come back to them with an answer. You have to be able to take those questions and not get rattled. Above all, know your numbers and be prepared to speak to the basics (how many customers are you going to acquire in year one, what revenue are you projecting, if it’s a SaaS product, what kind of churn are you projecting). Even if you are pre-revenue, you need to be able to answer those questions so you aren’t caught off guard.

 

Before OneSpace, you founded MonsterCommerce. What lessons did you bring to OneSpace from MonsterCommerce that have helped you succeed? Have you been able to avoid mistakes you made before? Have you been able to grow faster?

I’ve brought forward so many lessons learned from MonsterCommerce that it’s hard to choose the most important. The biggest lesson learned is that recurring revenue is a very helpful monetization strategy to help grow a successful company. The biggest mistake that comes to mind was underpricing our product. We were looking at the market in terms of what customers would pay instead of what value the product would create. We probably left money on the table with the way that we priced our product at MonsterCommerce.

 

While OneSpace did not start out as a recurring revenue business, we had a vision from day one to launch a software as a service product (SaaS) and build that revenue model, and we have now successfully done so. At OneSpace, we think about pricing in a much more value oriented way: what is the value we are driving for the customer and how much value is our platform creating? I feel much more comfortable with where we are from a pricing perspective at OneSpace versus MonsterCommerce.

 

At OneSpace, we think about pricing in a much more value oriented way: what is the value we are driving for the customer and how much value is our platform creating?

 

Can you explain a little bit about how OneSpace helps its customers and how you use the OneSpace methodology and process within your own company?

OneSpace is a platform that allows companies to scale quickly with on demand talent. We use our own platform in many places in the company, one example is within our sales team. We research companies and people within those companies who might want to buy the OneSpace platform. To execute that research, you have to look at hundreds of companies a day, which would take our team a great deal of time to complete. To save our team time, we built a workflow on our platform that leverages freelancers to find all of the information we need to make better decisions about whether or not a customer is a potential target. That has been a major advantage for us.

 

As our name implies, we encourage women to be brazen and bold! Tell us about a moment you were brazen in your business. When did you do something bold? Were you excited or scared? What was the outcome?

I have done a lot of things that I feel are brazen or bold, and in almost every case, I have been a little bit nervous. There are two particularly “brazen” moments that I feel are applicable to any entrepreneur: the feeling you get when you are asking a customer to sign a big contract, and needing to let somebody go who has been important on your company’s journey.

 

I once heard a mentor of mine say, “If you don’t feel uncomfortable asking, your price is probably not high enough”. That is definitely one area where everyone should challenge themselves to step outside of their comfort zone.

 

Every once in a while there is somebody in the company that needs to move on, and you know it would be best for them and best for the company. There is never going to be a good time to do it, but the key point is you have to be brazen. You have to take some risk and go out on a limb that your gut instinct is correct. It is a scary thing, but you have to do what your gut tells you. I’ve never regretted doing so.

 

You can Follow Stephanie and OneSpace on Instagram and Twitter at @onespace_com, Facebook at OneSpace.com, and check out their website at onespace.com

 

Stephanie Leffler is the CEO of OneSpace, an all-in-one workflow automation platform that brings businesses in need of flexible, on-demand talent together with freelancers seeking assignments that match their skill sets. We’ve helped companies like Staples, Overstock, and Instacart rapidly scale their operations by giving them instant access to talent where and when they needed it most.

 

Prior to OneSpace, Stephanie Leffler founded MonsterCommerce, an ecommerce platform that grew to serve over 8,000 small businesses. MonsterCommerce processed more than $3 billion dollars in annual sales and posted annual revenue exceeding $20 million in the year prior to being acquired.

 

MonsterCommerce was voted an SIIA Codie Award finalist for Best E-Commerce Software, recognized as the Fastest Growing Private Company in St. Louis by St. Louis Business Journal and chosen as one of St. Louis’ Top 50 Businesses by STL Commerce Magazine.

 

Leffler has been recognized by Ernst & Young as an Entrepreneur Of The Year Finalist, by the Stevie Awards as a Best Young Entrepreneur Finalist, and by the St. Louis Business Journal as a “30 Under 30” and “40 Under 40” honoree.

 

Leffler mentors entrepreneurs through the Pipeline for Entrepreneurship organization and serves as a guest lecturer at Washington University’s Olin School of Business and at St. Louis University’s John Cook School of Management.

Event Recap

So You Think You’re Not Tech?

Author Brazen St. Louis Published October 3, 2017
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So you think you’re not “tech?” Think again! Brazen Members has the opportunity to meet and speak with Lisa Nichols of Technology Partners, who debunked some tech myths and demystified some intimidating aspects of technology. 

“Don’t just use technology for technology’s sake. It has to solve a business challenge!”

 

What are some fears that get in the way of entrepreneurs using technology to help them grow?

 

1. Entrepreneurs are often controlled by the tyranny of the urgent rather than the tyranny of the important. They feel like they don’t have time to learn it!

 

2. We often don’t have a lot of margin and are afraid to choose the wrong thing, or even worse, spend time learning the wrong thing.

 

3. You don’t know what you don’t know!

“Worried you’ll look uninformed? Don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know… and don’t make it up”

 

 

What are some simple ways to start incorporating technology for growth?

 

-Use more video! This is how many people want to get information, including your customers.

 

-Find someone who is a SME in the area of technology you need help in, they can often help you find an off the shelf solution to the challenge you’re facing.

 

-Make sure you know what you want, especially if you’re outsourcing your technology and hiring someone to build something for you. Being able to communicate your priorities will help be efficient with your time and money. What do you need to have in the MVP? What is the bare minimum? Know this and avoid expensive mistakes.

 

-Knowing your bare minimum will help you get it out to your customers to test – they might want something different or delivered in a different way than you thought – let them tell you!

 

 

Other tips from Lisa:

 

-Know your Net Promoter Score – who are your promoters and who are your detractors, both within your company and among your customers. Know what level of satisfaction you are providing!

 

-What are some easy tools? The Invisionapp will help you communicate your design vision to developer.

 

-Open communication, being available, and coachability (what you envision might not be the best approach) make for a successful partnership with a technology company.