Startup Lessons Learned: A 40-Something First-Time Entrepreneur
My vision: a low cost, simple software tool as an alternative to the traditional first attorney visit and help startups save time and money.
By Mary Juetten (Founder, Traklight)
After over 25 years of varied leadership and management roles plus business and financial consulting experience including successful turnarounds in the public and private sectors, I went back to law school in 2008 at 44 years old. At the time I was a recovering accountant, holding both a Canadian CA and CPA and wanted nothing more to do with Corporate America.
My teenagers thought it was crazy to start again and turns out that they were partially right. When faced with the idea of taking the bar and starting over as an associate, I balked.
I am now the Founder and CEO of my own startup, Traklight and here are my five lessons learned that I hope help as you start your own company.
First, Why Did I Start Traklight?
Sitting in a joint MBA/JD class in January 2010, I was shocked by the stories of small companies and inventors losing their ideas or receiving cease and desist letters because they have accidentally infringed on others’ Intellectual Property (IP). When assigned a project to analyze a company’s IP, I looked online for guidance and there were no software tools. The entrepreneurs that in my law Clinic were either afraid of the cost of an IP attorney, did not understand they had IP (everyone has some IP!), or were too embarrassed to ask for help.
My vision was to create a low cost, simple software tool as an alternative to the traditional first attorney visit and help startups save time and money. Along the way we were given the idea of creating a complimentary storage product that would time-stamp files and organize IP and other business contracts.
I used my accounting, audit, finance skills plus my scant computer logic knowledge (one college logic class in the 80s plus COBOL and PASCAL – see I am in my forties!) and built the monster spreadsheet that was everything for our ID your IP® except the actual code. For the first year after law school, I worked at another local software startup and learned the basics about testing and working with developers. But it was not enough.
Lesson #1 – Tech Literacy
Traklight’s website launched October 2012 with a few paying customers & partnerships but I lost over a year on development failures and thousands of dollars were wasted. It’s like the car repair of our generation; non-technical founders seemingly at the mercy of developers. On my third try, I found the perfect CTO who understands my limitation as a non-techie and is able to translate my ideas into code and reality.
Looking back, it was not solely the developers’ fault; I should have made an effort to be more technically literate. I then perhaps would not have just accepted a choice of Ruby over PHP due to alleged security concerns. Or I should have been able to translate my vision for my software into a wire frame so that I knew what to expect when it was coded.
Think of your project as your baby, you would not only interview caretakers but you would ask for references and past projects. Do the same for developers and ask for at least three references and review past projects. Finally, if the developer is becoming a co-founder, spend a lot of time together first.
Lesson #2 – Business Partners – Date Date Date
Breakups can be hard but the deadly part about a business partner split is the distraction from your core business. Based on some painful experience I now treat the whole process like dating. Have coffee, date, live together first, draw up a prenuptial, and then make sure there is solid marriage contract. And if it goes bad, turn it over to an independent person to resolve.
By that I mean – meet and hang out, get to know them as a person – what makes them happy, mad, and what they want at the exit or end of the relationship (it is not a job, it is a partnership). Have them do a small project for you for free (if they will not, it’s over); draw up a exit plan if the relationship tanks (if they won’t sign, it’s over); have a full and formal partnership agreement (LLC, Corporation whatever). NEVER do business on a handshake with a partner.
And most importantly share the same values. A partner must be someone you would be happy to have over to your house to hang out or spend time with your family, kids or pets. Do not ignore your gut.
Lesson #3 – First Focus on a Niche
Like many other entrepreneurs, I constantly have ideas for improvements for our software or new markets. When we created our
go to market strategy, it includes seven customer profiles and eight customer channels. As I am writing this article, I am thinking of a new feature for our product!
It was very hard for me to limit my passion so I created a parking lot for our product development and sprint lists plus I have an email folder for IDEAS. I am part of the residential client program at the Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation where I regularly ask the mentors and staff to help me slow down. We are now focusing just two types of customers and three channels!
Lesson #4 – Founder Wander – Avoid the Shiny Objects
My Advisory Board pointed out that I had so many great ideas presented to me by our team and potential partners that I might be led far off the path. It’s a tricky balance between being ready to pivot based on your customers’ feedback and sticking to a product development map.
Founder Wander to me is more like Founder Flounder, as in a fish out of water, flopping around on the dock. Some days when I am overwhelmed by ideas, I am that fish. I have learned to say no, most recently to partner who wanted us to develop an offshoot of our product that would involve new tests and algorithms and created a huge diversion from our product development path. Bonus lesson, have an Advisory Board from day one.
Lesson #5 – Do good and you will do well
Whether it’s my consulting and turnaround background or being a parent of teenagers, I am often first to volunteer and to just get something done. I think it is very important to give back first and have adopted that approach in the Arizona startup ecosystem, especially with female founders. It was also the inspiration for our site’s list of resources and education on the IP Cloud page; having companies succeed is our mission.
By connecting and collaborating plus leading with IP education, I not only made business connections but I made some even more amazing friends. This whole notion of work life balance and integration (nod to Zappos’ Tony Hsieh) works.
Today, Traklight is committed to educating customers, identifying IP and empowering companies to protect and leverage their ideas and I love being an entrepreneur!
Women 2.0 readers: What do you think of the video?
About the guest blogger: Mary Juetten is the founder of Traklight. A native of Canada, Mary lives in Phoenix with her husband and teenagers. teenagers. In addition to volunteering as a mentor at Arizona State University and co-working space CO+HOOTS, Mary is active locally with the Arizona Tech Council as Co-Chair of the Startup & Entrepreneurship Committee, Startup Arizona, and is Co-President of 85 Broads Phoenix and a member of the UIA, CfIRA and the CfPA.