On June 25, 2008 Wendy Cobrda, of Earthsense
, was interviewed by Jill Hurst-Wahl as part of the Talking Business: A Conversation With...
series. Wendy's business moved from a home-based enterprise to a full-fledged business in the Syracuse Tech Garden's incubator office space.
Wendy's entrepreneurial spirit was fueled by her experiences working in the corporate sector. She graduated from SUNY Oswego with a degree in broadcasting, and then did traffic reporting in Manhattan for some years. Radio broadcasting was a more rigid form of employment than she liked, and she eventually got involved in research and presenting statistics for market research. She held a series of jobs with five different companies that involved different kinds of marketing data collection and analysis; over 10 years, she gained experience working with ratings data, panels, and GIS (geographic information systems) data among other types. Her final corporate position was with a company that made software for mailing list cleanup and maintenance; while working with their clients, she realized that most of these companies were not using their available data for marketing as well as they could.
On the last day of her corporate career, she got an unexpected contracting job from a client contact, and saved that client millions of dollars with her services. She spent the $20K of contract funds on start-up expenses, beginning with hiring an accountant and filing business incorporation paperwork. She also made an effort from the very start to appear as professional as possible, acquiring her own web domain and email addresses, a separate phone line for her consulting business, and eventually an answering service that met her needs as her employee base started to grow.
Her best projects as a home-based business were with HP; counter-intuitively, her HP contacts liked meeting at her house, and her excellent services continued to beat out the large consulting firms that competed for the contracts. But at the end of 2006, Wendy had decided that she wanted to grow her business out of her house, and that it was time to separate her work and personal life. She was tired of having people at her home each day, among other things - and her electricity bills were outrageous from powering all the business electronics!What were the mental and physical hurdles to moving your business to the Tech Garden?
Wendy has two young kids, and family and friends are very important to her. It was mentally difficult to adjust to not being at home and available to her family and friends at all times. However, she no longer works all hours as she did when her office was in her home, which doesn't mean she works less - just smarter, not harder.Do you still have a home office?
No. Wendy's husband now uses the home office space; they had an interesting sort of role reversal in this respect. She now travels quite frequently and her husband has taken on more of the homemaking roles. She really values his support for her ventures, and they clearly have a very functional team approach to handling a busy household.So you have employees here in your Tech Garden office?
Yes, there are two or three based here in Syracuse, and she has 8 employees around the country. She has always run a virtual organization and would like to do more collocated work; she is looking to expand the local presence with more Syracuse-based employees in the future.What is your vision for the new workplace?
There is a sense of purpose and camaraderie in the office, plus the opportunity for serendipitous meetings with contacts and colleagues that she wouldn't experience if she was working out of her home. Even if you're very social (as she is!) the opportunities to make those contacts is limited when you're physically isolated; she has observed a huge shift in her ability to network. In addition, she feels a sense of being "more professional" by being in the office and surrounded by other businesspeople. She has mentors across the hallway and feels there is nothing like face to face meetings for getting business moving.What do you have in the office here that you couldn't fit in your office at home?
Wendy has always had enough room for what she needed, although her home office space shrank over time. Now that she has more space, she has room for the things that she has wanted in order to make the workplace more comfortable. At home, her electric bills were "insane" from running the business machines, but she no longer has to pay a separate utility cost from her office rent. In her new office, she was able to personalize the space and make it an inviting environment.You've owned just two businesses, so maybe you're also a "serial entrepreneur", but you also work in marketing...
The business names were the same, but Wendy evolves the products and services as new ideas and demand arise. She feels this is a particularly helpful aspect of being located with other businesses, as others can help you with a sanity check on your latest, greatest ideas, which may or may not be all that great in practice.What is the difference between marketing and market research?
Wendy sees marketing and selling as the same thing; the difference is the spin you put on it. "I'm a gambler. You have to bet on yourself." She wanted to break through the traditional barriers of what market research has meant in the past, helping her clients with positioning and understanding the market, and trying to go above and beyond. In her 10 years of corporate experience, she learned a lot about what was already being offered, which helped her understand what she could offer that was novel and would add value for clients.
Question (Sean Branagan): One of the most impressive things about Wendy's approach to business is her fearlessness about the size of the companies she pitches. Most small businesses think local and don't try to get big clients. Who have your big clients been?
Wendy said that HP, Turner Broadcasting, and John Hancock were big clients for Catenate. Her current business, Earthsense, has signed Dannon and General Mills, and is pitching companies like Coca-Cola. "You're right; we're fearless." She has met many young people who want to be consultants, and her general advice to them is to work in industry. Her key experience was working at 5 different companies, which gave her knowledge of the norms in the area where she now competes, and ideas about what else might work. Working in broadcasting meant that she met many celebrities, so she is not impressed by big names and takes a direct, straightforward approach with everyone. "Life is a game of poker" and you must have the attitude that you have the best hand; until someone else can show that she doesn't have the best marketing research data, she will feel certain that her data is good and worth a premium. It's all about attitude; entrepreneurs are crazy. Growing a business is really hard, but once you get to a certain point, "you're halfway in and you might as well keep going."
Audience Question: What have some of your business challenges been?
Wendy: It took 10 years to find a business partner; it's really difficult to find someone you can trust, who is just different enough from you to balance your efforts without driving you crazy.
Jill said that we tend to try to do business with our buddies, and that's not always a good decision. To that, Wendy responded that she has been fortunate that she can be honest with her coworkers, though the efforts required for growing and adjusting to changes in staffing are always challenging.
Jill said she works from a home office and has learned to tell telemarketers, "The landlord takes care of that" because they don't know that she's the landlord. Wendy has gone to actually having a landlord - how has that been?
It's nice not to worry about the electricity, and in the future she's hoping to have others take care of the IT infrastructure (computer networking, etc.) She feels lucky to have a good relationship with her landlord, who doesn't allow issues to escalate. The Syracuse Tech Garden has been a good business space for her. She has been told for years that she needed an assistant; she's not good at administration, but rather at inventing. Now that she has the office space, she has hired a person who helps take care of the day-to-day pressures and tasks that she's not so good at.When you were working in your home office, how did you make infrastructure decisions?
She's a self-admitted techno geek; she adopts technologies that are fresh and new, particularly anything that she feels can save her time. She has learned that there are tricks to making her business look better through use of infrastructure technologies; for example, she used an IP-driven phone number with extensions that can be assigned to employees around the company. Small businesses need to look professional to compete effectively; dedicated phone lines, a web domain for your email addresses, legitimate licensed software, and business insurance (which was required for big contracts) are all investments in professionalism. Her first moves with her first consulting fees involved making her business look professional, including accounting services and banking as well as incorporating. She's now trying to get financing and is meeting with potential investors. She finds it useful to dress the part for the people she's meeting; this gives her credibility when meeting with clients, and having the latest tech gadgets is good for addressing a tech-savvy audience.How do you stay focused on what's important?
Wendy laughs. She is currently focused on getting clients and delivering services; she's getting better at delegating to her employees and some days she even leaves work without her work laptop. While she still has her phone on and has 3 computers at home to check email, leaving the work computer at the office is a psychologically important break between work and personal life that helps her feel more balanced.This project was made possible, in part, through an Enitiative award. Enitiative is funded by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, focusing on entrepreneurship in the arts, technology, and our neighborhoods. To learn more about Enitiative, please visit www.enitiative.syr.edu.
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