Transitioning from corporate America to entrepreneurship takes determination and drive.
If you want to start a business but don’t know where to begin, you’re not alone. More Americans continue to leave the corporate world to start businesses.
A few years ago, I was a vice president at a Fortune 500 company, a divorcee and a single mom. As a child of divorce I was determined to make my relationship with my ex amicable, for the sake of my daughter. We had agreed on child support and would share my daughter’s other expenses.
I had no idea how difficult it would be to actually manage this arrangement. There was no platform available for parents to track, organize and manage child support and shared child expenses. In the U.S. alone there are more than 39 million parents struggling with this issue.
It was then that I decided to take an unforeseen turn in my life and created a startup — SupportPay by Ittavi, an automated child support payment platform built specifically for parents. As a founder of a thriving business, I’d like to offer some advice to budding entrepreneurs.
Don’t be blinded by a false sense of security
One of the first things I heard from others was, “Wow. It’s risky leaving the security of corporate America.” But there isn’t much security in corporate America either — you could lose your job at any moment for a number of reasons.
At least I’m in charge of the finances, the business plan and can control my schedule — the success of my company is in my hands.
Success doesn’t happen overnight
Every day you see stories of companies being bought for millions and valued for billions. The stories make it seem so easy — and quick. But in reality it takes time.
Fundraising is a full-time job — and takes much longer than anyone anticipates. If you remember you are running a marathon and not a sprint, adjusting to the demands of startup life become much more bearable.
Learn to separate work and home life
If you think you’ll have a better work/life balance after starting your own business … think again. It’s better to set boundaries from the start.
I shut down my computer at 6 p.m. every night and dedicate 6 to 9 p.m. to my daughter. Three hours of quality time every night is better than more hours of being partly present.
Never delegate unless you know what you want
Coming from a career in product management and marketing, I knew nothing about coding or product design. The first thing I did was learn the technologies so I could define what was desired and tell if outsourced work was quality and if time spent on it was realistic.
There isn’t room for a backup plan
You can’t go into the startup field thinking you can always go back to your old job. Learn from roadblocks and continue on — that’s one quality every entrepreneur must have. Remembering why you started this and remaining committed is the only way you will be successful.
The most important lesson to remember when starting your own company is that you are not alone. Network with other entrepreneurs, and never hesitate to ask for advice or an introduction to someone who can help.
Entrepreneurship may not be for everyone, but with a little drive, determination and passion, success is possible. ●
Sheri Atwood, founder of SupportPay by Ittavi, the first-ever automated child support payment platform, is a successful marketing and product executive with Fortune 500 experience. Atwood was named a “Top 40 Under 40 Executive in Silicon Valley” in 2009. For more information, visit www.supportpay.com.
Learn more about SupportPay by Ittavi at:
Myth: Women and men are equal in the workplace
We wish it were already true — but it’s not. Women top out at around 15 percent of leadership in almost every profession and the pay gap persists.
Studies show that progress has stalled for over a decade.
People think employers and the government can fix these problems. When we wait for top-down solutions, we overlook simple steps. Like ending the “Girl Scout Tax:” The cost of being too accommodating in the workplace. Research says that women are expected to look after others at work, if humanly possible. The good thing about this kind of tax: It’s in your power to give yourself a tax break. Practice saying “no” to requests that your male colleague would decline.
Myth: Men are more ambitious than women
Researchers find that women are at least as aggressive as men — but only when we are anonymous. We are less likely to say out loud that we want to be CEOs. The fear of being disliked is cultivated in women in a way it’s not in men. We are told, in one way or another, no one likes an ambitious woman.
Columbia psychologist Anna Fels says that’s another problem we can correct. Women who succeed get quiet nods of approval while men get roaring applause. We can each make things better in our personal lives by surrounding ourselves with men and women who embrace female success with the same vigor and excitement as the male kind.
Myth: When women become mothers, they don’t want to work as much
It’s a convenient refrain because it means no one is unhappy with the way things are — women are OK with giving up good jobs when they become mothers. The best way to toss this myth out for good is for those moms to succeed as great employees and as great parents.
We don’t tell men it’s their “choice” to work, that they can rely on someone else to make the money. Let’s tell women just what we tell men, that work is the way we build skills and create economic security. Striving for the best job we can get is healthy for all of us. Even mothers.
Myth: Children of stay-at-home mothers do better than the children of working moms
People assume that it must be better for kids if the mother stays home. Where are the studies showing that kids with working mothers do worse? Do they drop out of high school more frequently? Are they more likely to use drugs?
The largest research on child development says kids do equally well whether moms work or not. In fact, studies say that female employment leads to good things for kids — more involved dads see themselves as equal parents. In the U.S., more than 70 percent of people under 30 think marriage is best when both men and women have jobs and care for kids.
Myth: The more hours you work, the more successful you will be
Research from places like Harvard Business School increasingly shows this isn’t true. Focused, structured teamwork matters more than hours at your desk. We build better, more productive teams when women are half the room. And if we want more satisfied clients, employees and shareholders, we need to retain our stars — who are often working parents. ●
Sharon Meers is co-author of “Getting to 50/50,” now out in paperback. She is the current head of Magento Enterprise Strategy, part of eBay Inc. Meers is a former managing director at Goldman Sachs. For more information, visit www.gettingto5050.com.
Learn more about “Getting to 50/50” at:
Supply chain events are increasingly showing up in business news, whether it’s regarding product shortages that cause customer dissatisfaction and lost opportunities for corporations, or breaches of laws or decency in the supply chain, such as the use of child labor or unsafe labor conditions that damage brand reputation.
From an executive standpoint, risk management through the supply chain has become a mandate. Front-page exposure can create tense boardroom discussions and dramatic same-day fluctuations in share prices.
What changed? With the global economy came global markets and global suppliers. Second, third and fourth tier suppliers are often in different parts of the world, subject to different regulations, and multi-channel or omni-channel strategies add complexity. Each new supplier, each tier of suppliers and each tier of customers add a heightened level of risk and thus an increased requirement for risk and compliance management.
Corporations are simply not ready for this challenge. So what actions should supply chain executives take?
- First, incorporate a risk assessment into the corporate supply chain strategy that again has been aligned with corporate goals, as well as customer goals. A corporation should start by making a detailed map of the supply chain and identify points of vulnerability. It should examine the viability of each supplier and transit route, and align with current and future customer requirements.
- Second, be proactive. A risk assessment not only identifies that there is a risk, it also reviews the severity of the risk and identifies contingency plans. For instance, having a single source supplier may be seen as a significant risk, but having two suppliers that have no spare capacity or cannot substitute for each other may be equally risky. Being proactive also means identifying early indicators that risk may in fact be turning into reality. Big data analysis and the ability to discern key indicators of future problems are important to getting a jump-start on fast resolution.
- Third, know the environment. Regulations influence almost every step in the supply chain and require real-time monitoring and auditing. Since regulations vary from country to country, a company with globally dispersed suppliers faces the herculean task of monitoring supplier compliance across multiple regulations.
- Fourth, think broadly of what constitutes the supply chain. Data integrity and availability are certainly part of the supply chain, as Apple realized recently when its servers overloaded with a release of a new operating system. Order sites, call centers, transportation networks, post-sales service and reverse logistics are part of the supply chain.
- Fifth, build a corporate culture that is attuned to risk responsiveness. For a high profile, public company, this means creating a culture of proactive risk management that extends to all stakeholders, internal and external. The board and CEO should communicate a clear message regarding the corporate policy on ethical issues.
Constant vigilance must be part of the corporate culture of risk detection and responsiveness. There will still be surprises, but early indicators and contingency plans will support fast mitigation. ●
Hannah Kain is the founder, president and CEO of ALOM, a leading global supply chain company headquartered in Fremont, Calif. For more information, visit www.alom.com.
Connect with Hannah Kain at:
In a market as competitive as the Bay Area, companies need an edge when recruiting top talent. Pay grades, flexible schedules and vacation time are critical bargaining chips, of course, but one area that is often overlooked is employee engagement opportunities.
Research demonstrates that the new generation of employee is actually demanding social giving opportunities. They want to engage in their community and their world — and they expect their employer to not only be on board, but to provide the opportunity.
When companies view their volunteer programs as strategic assets and incorporate service into their business planning, they have a competitive advantage when it comes to engaging a younger workforce. A culture of volunteerism can help satisfy energetic millennials’ desire for stimulating and diverse work assignments and leadership opportunities, while responding to their desire to make a meaningful difference in society.
Improve your bottom line and your reputation
A volunteer program benefits more than employees, however; companies profit as well. Volunteerism helps employees build their leadership capabilities and expand their skill set. Think of it as free professional development for your staff as you groom your future leaders.
A report from the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship found that there is a proven correlation between a corporate culture of volunteerism and increased employee satisfaction, loyalty and productivity. In the end, these factors tangibly improve the company’s bottom line.
And if that wasn’t enough of a reason, there’s one final piece of the equation. A 2013 Deloitte survey found that 88 percent of companies who offered a corporate citizenship initiative that promoted volunteerism felt that their organizational reputation in the community was improved as well.
Talk about a sound return on investment.
Implementing a model
For small to midsize companies, offering in-house volunteer programs may be difficult with limited resources and competing priorities.
Fortunately, for Northern California companies, there are existing places where you can point your employees for volunteer opportunities. A sampling can be found online at www.californiavolunteers.org, www.volunteermatch.org or www.unitedwaysca.org/find.
The one essential change that needs to occur internally is the cultural shift toward supporting this effort. Your company may handle this in a variety of ways:
- Ask a staff member to organize a Saturday volunteer opportunity.
- Institute paid “volunteer time off” for employees — giving them one or two days in a year where they can volunteer with an organization and on a day of their choosing.
- Create time during staff meetings to acknowledge the volunteer efforts of employees and leadership who are serving as the face of your organization in the community.
Countless other ideas await, limited only by your creativity. Whichever volunteerism model you choose to create, know that your investment is one that you will see returns on for years to come. ●
Anne Wilson is chief executive officer of United Way of the Bay Area, a nonprofit organization committed to cutting Bay Area poverty in half by 2020. Wilson serves on the Advisory Board of the University of California Berkeley School of Social Welfare, the Advisory Council of Dominican University’s Brennan School of Business and the United Way Worldwide National Professional Service Council. She has been named one of The San Francisco Business Times’ annual “Most Influential Women” for the past nine years. For more information, visit www.uwba.org.
Learn more about the United Way of the Bay Area at:
It’s important to know the desired outcome before entering into a marketing program, says Ryan Barringer, senior vice president of marketing and brand strategy at Bridge Bank.
“Too often a manager invests in a campaign without having first identified the appropriate criteria to evaluate its performance. The output might be obvious — a TV spot, a sponsorship, or a viral video aimed at delivering impressions. The question then becomes, ‘What is the outcome of those impressions and how will they affect revenue, if at all?’” Barringer says.
Smart Business spoke with Barringer about ways to determine if marketing campaigns meet goals and the differences in marketing to businesses as opposed to consumers.
What are the desired outcomes of typical marketing programs?
With any campaign, the ultimate goal is to somehow match the benefits of your product or service with an interested buyer who is willing to pay for those benefits. But there are different paths toward that goal. The marketing effort could be about educating the audience about a product feature, or simply to build awareness of a new or unknown brand. Or maybe the goal is to enhance the credibility of a brand by association with another well-known brand, thereby leveraging the equity of a complementary brand.
These goals all help enable an eventual sale, but the ultimate measurement of them is not necessarily the sale itself — it could be an increase in awareness or trust in the brand, or visits to your website.
Do you determine what would increase sales, and design a campaign to reach that goal?
The marketer or business owner should put themselves in the buyer’s shoes, maybe sit down with a customer and learn about the journey they took in making a purchase. Tracing the steps to a sale helps in figuring out where you can have an influence.
Also, there are nuances depending on your sector; business to business marketing is a bit different than consumer marketing in that purchases are usually at higher price points — you’re selling servers, buildings or vehicles as opposed to meals or sundries, so the risks of a poor buying decision are different — and there is usually more than one buyer that needs to be educated. It’s not just me making a purchase on behalf of my company, my manager is also involved.
That makes the role of brand more important — the old adage that no one was ever fired for buying IBM computer equipment. IBM had done great work building trust and credibility in its brand, thereby making it easier (and safer) to buy their products.
So how is the effectiveness of a marketing program measured?
It depends. Some say that sales might be the ultimate metric, but that obscures other important drivers like corporate reputation or convenience. It’s up to the buyer of a campaign to decide the metrics, which may or may not come at a cost. Marketing research can reveal answers to goals, such as whether the audience has a better understanding of your product, or increased awareness or perceived value of your brand. An initial survey can create a baseline to measure against to determine if the campaign had an impact. Digital campaigns are far easier to analyze, and can offer many different opportunities to sustain engagement with a potential customer.
Where do businesses make mistakes with marketing efforts?
One is not understanding what a campaign will deliver. As mentioned, it’s not always about revenue; it could be awareness or increasing the attractiveness of the brand, or even correcting a misconception.
Business owners often overlook the importance of things such as the use of modern graphic design. If you’re presenting an outdated visual representation of your company or offering, that could actually create suspicion among buyers that your business might be outdated or irrelevant.
Buyers consume information differently and it’s important to reach them through the proper channel, whether it’s a video, website or social media. Technologies are changing ways consumers enter into that buyer’s journey. If you’re not attuned to those changes, you’re going to miss out on an opportunity because your competitors will beat you to the punch. ●
Insights Banking & Finance is brought to you by Bridge Bank
As technology continues to make the world seem smaller, more U.S.-based companies are looking overseas for untapped opportunities. International expansion has traditionally been undertaken primarily by large, multi-national companies. Today, small, private companies are increasingly venturing outside the U.S. But seeking overseas opportunities comes with a different rulebook. What are the hazards and pitfalls that companies may encounter when expanding internationally?
Smart Business spoke with Greg Brown, tax partner at Sensiba San Filippo LLP, to discuss why more businesses are considering overseas expansion and what they need to know before investing in international markets.
Why are more and more companies looking overseas for opportunity?
In recent years, we’ve seen locally based companies looking into international expansion for two primary reasons: increased sales opportunities and access to new talent pools. Consumer markets are expanding across the globe, while Bay Area technology companies are increasingly looking to India, the U.K. and Asia for specialized talent. In both cases, in order to increase their probability of success, company decision-makers need to educate themselves or partner with those who know about the geographies they are entering.
What’s the first thing a company should do prior to opening a foreign operation?
Most businesses considering foreign expansion already have a good idea where they want to go and why they are going there, but their certainty isn’t always the result of thorough planning. It is not unusual for a business to make a snap decision about entering into a contract with a foreign customer or to hire a talented foreign employee without doing its homework. While the business decision may make sense, the company may not know the operational or cultural challenges and the tax implications of the decision.
Companies venturing out should use qualified advisers who have local connections and experience in the country where they are considering doing business. These advisers can navigate through the applicable laws and provide valuable advisory services to the stateside leaders. Many law and accounting firms have international resources and can often connect their clients with these advisers through global professional affiliations.
How can culture affect the outcome of an overseas venture?
Cultural differences are often overlooked during international expansion. Without prior experience in a specific location or the luxury of a local partner, it’s easy to miss cultural differences that could significantly impact the success of a venture. An understanding of proper manners and etiquette are important and should be valued. A local adviser or business partner can help you understand cultural differences ahead of time and potentially avoid embarrassing faux pas.
How important are the tax ramifications of international business?
The tax ramifications of operating in a foreign country are an important aspect of the overall business decision. Businesses should consider what level of activity would cause them to come under the laws of another country, and what they’ll need to do to ensure compliance. Even having a few employees in a foreign country may require the company to file tax returns and possibly pay tax. Establishing a subsidiary comes with additional requirements, such as transfer pricing agreements.
Moving existing employees to another country or having them work overseas will more than likely require them to pay foreign and U.S. taxes. It is normal for companies to enter into agreements with these employees in order to equalize the financial tax burden and benefits that result from overseas employment.
Any other advice you want to share?
Have a clear vision of what you want to do, educate yourself and your team, and use competent legal, tax and business advisers. Start by talking with your lawyer and accountant. Many professional advisory firms have experience in foreign operations and very useful contacts in other countries that can help ensure that your venture has the greatest possibility for success. ●
Insights Accounting is brought to you by Sensiba San Filippo LLP
A 52-year-old businessman has sole ownership of a business and his wife takes care of their home. They have three children, ages pre-teen through early college. One or two of the kids have voiced an interest in working in the business, but the businessman realizes his children won’t be ready to take his place, even the oldest, as talented as she is, for a while.
So, what does he do over the next 10 or 15 years? Does he need to stay until they are ready to take over? What if something takes him out of work for a year, such as an illness or injury?
“Having a long-term plan is always important, but you’ve got to think of the contingency. What if something unexpected happens?” says Ricci M. Victorio, CSP, CPCC, ACC, managing partner at Mosaic Family Business Center. “And if you don’t want to close the doors, then you have to start thinking: ‘What’s my backup plan?’”
Smart Business spoke with Victorio about creating a leadership team to bridge the gap between your leadership and when your successor can start running the company.
What’s the first step to creating a backup succession plan?
First, establish a path for your children so they know what’s expected of them — if, of course, they are even interested in joining the company. What kind of education and experience do they need to be a qualified applicant?
If you have more than one child interested in working for the company, you’d be wise to understand how they can best contribute without stepping on each other’s toes. Don’t set them up to compete with each other. Let them know that there are no elevators to the top. Once they come to work, it is important to you that they learn the business from the ground up, earning their promotions and respect of their co-workers.
Then, if there is a gap, you need to think about how to protect your company.
How can you ensure the company stays successful, no matter the situation?
Generally, small businesses are run in a hub and spoke management style. Lots of people have responsibilities, but the business owner makes the decisions.
Some of these owners are partners with a family member, which can provide a built-in succession fail-safe. However, many may need to establish a leadership team comprising trusted key managers capable of running the business in their absence to bridge the succession gap.
Rather than relying on one person who could, despite all good intentions, fail miserably or leave for a better offer, a management advisory team with executives and managers from various departments is the perfect leadership contingency platform. Then, if you go down, for whatever reason, you have people who can run your business as if you were there. And this leadership team can mentor your children when, or if, they join the business.
In order to get them to think beyond their regular management duties, incentivize them for stepping into a leadership role. For example, put a percentage of profits into a deferred compensation retirement plan. If you make it a 15-year vested policy, it ensures they stay interested in the company’s performance long term.
The team will need to meet on a regular basis to learn how to work together, share resources and be able to have a round-table discussion where everybody isn’t looking at the boss like a deer in the headlights. It’s like bringing an MBA training program to your conference room, tailored to fit your business and group.
You will also need to create a charter agreement that identifies your vision for the advisory board, along with specific objectives, expectations, benchmarks and incentives. Create a five- to 10-year strategic plan that will guide the team in decision-making. Begin transferring authority to make decisions as you become comfortable with this team.
Over a period of time, usually three to five years, there will be a gradual transition as trust develops between the owner and managers. Managers will respond to your trust and feel respected as they step up in responsibility to make operational decisions. You will have passed on the core values and decision-making criteria that made your business so successful in the first place to a team of people who can protect your legacy to survive and thrive into the next generation. ●
Insights Wealth Management & Finance is brought to you by Mosaic Financial Partners Inc.
Many businesses assume that employment at-will means the employer can terminate the relationship at any time. While the default assumption is that employment is at-will, some actions taken by employers can create an implied-in-fact contract.
“That’s where employers can often get into trouble with a disgruntled employee. At-will employment allows the employer to fire an employee at any time without having to show good cause, as long as it’s not for a discriminatory or punitive reason. But an employee, if they’re upset about getting fired, can claim they had an implied-in-fact contract and can only be dismissed for good cause,” says Stacy Monahan Tucker, a partner at Ropers Majeski Kohn & Bentley PC.
Smart Business spoke with Tucker about what at-will employment means and how businesses unknowingly create an implied-in-fact contract.
What types of interactions can be interpreted as an implied-in-fact contract?
Courts will look at the totality of an employer’s relationship with its employee when determining if an implied-in-fact contract exists. The key question is whether an employee had a reasonable expectation of an implied-in-fact employment contract. A court will consider many factors, including the written and verbal policies and procedures used by the company, the employment manuals, any employment-related agreements such as confidentiality agreements or noncompete agreements, and the interactions between the employer and the employee, as well as the employer and other employees. While many factors will not create an implied-in-fact contract alone, combined they can weigh heavily in favor of such a finding.
Factors considered by courts include the length of employment, the use of progressive discipline to make its termination decisions, statements made to an employee that he or she doesn’t have to worry about losing his job unless a mistake is made, and a requirement of signing a noncompete agreement or confidentiality agreement as part of the employment arrangement.
An employer might have written policies or employment documents in place that it thinks make it clear employment is at-will. Many handbooks state the employment arrangement is at-will. But frequently those handbooks also state that nothing in them is intended to create a contractual relationship. That can inadvertently invalidate all previous statements supporting the at-will relationship, as the document specifically states it does not define the contractual relationship. Moreover, the requirement that an employee sign a noncompete or confidentiality agreement can support the argument that the employee paid consideration by signing such an agreement and thus entered into an implied-in-fact contract. Many employers do not realize the importance of having employment documents reviewed for consistency.
How should companies approach handbooks and policies?
Companies should have their employment documents drafted by an employment attorney rather than just a human resources person, who often has cobbled together information from previous handbooks without fully understanding the legal ramifications. An employment attorney can ensure that the documents are clear and work well together.
A best practice is to have a written employment agreement that every employee signs. It should clearly state that the arrangement is at-will employment and the agreement is integrated, which means that if a provision is found to be ambiguous or unenforceable, the rest remains in full force. That reduces the chance of an employer being able to invalidate the entire agreement.
Many of these employment issues can be avoided by careful review of internal policies and documents before problems arise. That’s why it’s important to develop an employment contract and a cohesive body of employment documents that work as a unit. Then you can cover issues you want to address and minimize any surprises down the line. ●
Insights Legal Affairs is brought to you by Ropers Majeski Kohn & Bentley PC
Barney Pell, CEO of QuickPay Corp., envisions a future in which parking facilities utilize tiered rate structures similar to ones the hotel and airline industries have established.
“You used to buy an airline ticket and it was all one type of seat,” he says. “Now, there are different prices for everyone depending on when you purchased the ticket, and whether it’s economy, business or first class.
“With parking, there really aren’t ways for you to pay more for a better parking space, or less for something that’s a little less convenient. If that can be done, it would provide more convenience and options for customers, and money for parking facility owners.”
QuickPay, which recently completed a $5.5 million round of additional funding, was founded in 2010 with the concept of leveraging mobile technology to make it easier to find, access and pay for parking.
“It wasn’t my idea originally,” Pell says. “I met an entrepreneur in a parking lot. He was promoting a new app — it was at the prototype level — that would let you pay for parking using your iPhone.
“I was coming off three years working at Microsoft, and the last year of that I was leading Bing’s local and mobile search teams. I was looking at the trends in what mobile devices would mean for location-based activities and thought parking presented a really interesting opportunity.”
Using QuickPay, you can find a parking space and pay from your phone. Drivers can even use the platform to raise gates at parking facilities.
Parking represents the gateway to local commerce, Pell says, and has been a neglected area that could help fuel economic growth.
Developing the technology
A challenge QuickPay faced in creating an app was addressing the security required within the parking industry.
“Ultimately, you’re paying money for the privilege of parking legally and not being towed,” Pell says. “If there’s any weak link in the system, someone will be stealing and cheating. So the industry has all kinds of controls and systems in place. That sets the bar very high for a new technology to come in.”
QuickPay took an approach to work in parallel with existing systems, recognizing that not all customers will use mobile devices. Instead of removing old systems, the app simply affords customers another option.
“But when you have two systems running at the same time, those systems have to work together and not get in the way of each other, introducing a new set of loopholes,” Pell says.
The app was tested through working with local and regional parking operators in the Bay Area. Pell advised them to be patient as the platform was being developed to address the myriad issues that were identified.
“We had to scale up before starting to work with the really big guys, the national parking operators with very complex and mature systems,” he says. “We had to do a huge investment in reporting systems so that every single transaction gets reported the way they need to integrate with existing banking and credit card reconciliation processes.”
The platform also needed to account for various rate structures that included parking meters with rates of $1 an hour and garages with incremental rates that are dependent on when customers enter and exit.
“Some places might even have 40 different rate structures that depend on time of entry. In order to go live in each location, we’ve had to match the structures and complexity they have with existing equipment,” Pell says.
Ramping up for growth
ABM Parking Services & Operations Services, with 14,000 locations, was the first large-scale operator to come onboard.
“They needed to make sure that a solution was working across all their different environments and existing systems,” Pell says. “That’s what required us to level up our entire business.”
With the knowledge and experienced gained from working with ABM, QuickPay plans to use the latest funding to achieve the next level of scale with other national operators that have not been announced.
“We’ve built this product and the platform and features that are required,” Pell says. “We’re doing a lot of investment in automating our processes so we can be onboarding and tracking facilities quickly. If that process is manually-driven, it will not be able to scale.”
Growth also will mean expanding slightly from the current 20 employees.
“We have a really good core group. This is the kind of company that can serve a large base of users in different communities without that much additional head count,” Pell says. “We’ll be looking to expand in some key areas by five to 10 people in the next year, but we don’t see a need to be a 100-person company.”
Beating the competition
QuickPay’s success stems from addressing two areas that other apps have not covered — off-street parking and gated facilities.
“A lot of companies involved in mobile payments are European-based and handle mobile payments in parking meters, pushing data to the people doing the enforcement,” Pell says. “Meter readers see the meter hasn’t been paid, then look up the license plate to see if it has been paid for by the mobile service. Most are variations of that approach.”
A problem with off-street parking is finding a way to enable a customer to lift a gate. QuickPay solved that by developing its own gate kit.
“The hardware plugs into any existing gated equipment and can detect when cars are present to lift the gate,” Pell says. “It talks to our system running in the cloud. The experience you have as a QuickPay user is that you drive up, scan a quick response (QR) code that’s really just a sticker attached to the entry gate, and then the gate magically opens as if you had a garage door opener on your phone.”
The same process is followed when leaving the parking facility, and the customer is charged and sent an electronic receipt.
“It’s a beautiful experience that allows you to skip cash machines,” Pell says.
QuickPay’s other main business differentiator has been developing a system that accommodates a complex variety of rates.
“We can support any number of rates at the same time, and even add personalized features that can take it ultimately down to different rates for each individual person who parks there,” Pell says.
That’s where the future of the platform gets exciting, according to Pell, because it will help fill empty parking spaces by enabling better inventory management.
“Parking in the United States is estimated to be a $26 billion a year industry. If we are, as I believe, in the early days of optimizing yield for parking, then there’s a lot of value that can be captured for owners of parking facilities,” Pell says.
Although QuickPay was created as a customer convenience, convincing parking facility operators and owners of potential benefits has been a critical part of the company’s success.
“You have to really think about each group of stakeholders and the ideal experiences for them,” Pell said. “That’s your guideposts to build the best products and the best business.” ●
Learn more about QuickPay at:
How to reach: QuickPay Corp., (650) 290-7763 or www.qpme.com
Business became more personal for Neil Grimmer when his first daughter was born. After seven years working as a design leader at IDEO and coming up with health and wellness innovations for food products, he saw a need to take the same approach to make better baby food.
“I starting taking that innovation methodology and coming up with concoctions in our own kitchen,” says Grimmer, president, co-founder and “chief daddy-O” at Plum Organics. “That was really the impetus for starting the company.”
The company’s early days consisted of a small group of parents who wanted what they couldn’t find — healthy and convenient food choices for their children.
“We started out doing a line of healthy lunchbox snacks, and very quickly moved into the baby food space with the spouted pouch,” Grimmer says.
Here’s how Grimmer capitalized on his personal experiences as a parent to drive Plum Organics to see significant growth year after year.
Designing an identity
Once Grimmer launched the flexible spouted pouch with its large cap, it helped Plum Organics stand out in the grocery aisles with packaging that was different, eco-friendly, portable and convenient.
Inside the packaging, parents discovered an eclectic mix of ingredients that were relatively new to the baby food marketplace.
“We brought culinary-inspired recipes that weren’t commonly found in baby food — putting things together like raspberry, spinach and Greek yogurt, using ingredients like purple carrots, quinoa and amaranth,” Grimmer says. “We took the superfoods that are out there and brought them into the baby food category.”
One final element that set the stage for success was the mindset the company’s founders brought to the brand as young parents themselves.
“It’s by parents, for parents,” Grimmer says. “It had a sense of humor, but we also took the job of feeding our little ones the very best food very seriously. So it was a very approachable brand which deeply connected with parents around the country.”
Whether they had children or not, company leaders developed a personal connection with parents through a shared focus to bring better food to kids.
“That was one thing that really drove us through some of those tough early years to success in our later years. We catalyzed a movement. The idea of making it a mission to get better food to children took it outside the core objective of running a business and gave us a higher order of purpose and passion,” Grimmer says.
Finding a purpose
At the heart of the company’s mission was a belief that you should “walk in the shoes of those you serve.”
“That’s at the heart of our innovation process,” Grimmer says. “In the early days, we were all young parents. Living through those moments from zero to 1, from 1 to 3, you understand those phases deeply. As your little one grows through all of these different stages, their needs, wants and desires change pretty dramatically.”
The business was organized around the unique needs and requirements of each age phase, addressing solutions to help parents by understanding their concerns and needs. Grimmer says adopting a similar philosophical approach would serve companies well, no matter the industry.
“Give purpose and passion to the work that can deeply connect with you,” he says. “People who work for companies are hungry for that sense of purpose and passion. For companies, and CEOs specifically, to focus on that makes a lot of sense.”
Plum Organics has expanded that sense of purpose to help needy families with the creation of a program called Full Effect.
“Now that we’ve reached a certain scale and have a good, solid foundation, we’re able to expand the work we do beyond just getting better food to kids in their homes to starting to address the nutritional needs of little ones around the country who go hungry,” Grimmer says. “We had the privilege of working with the filmmakers who released ‘A Place at the Table,’ which really articulated the issue of hunger in America.”
About 16 million children in the United States go hungry every day and chronically miss meals.
“As a company that’s in the business of bringing better food to kids, we felt we had to play a role in helping ease that pain,” Grimmer says.
With Full Effect, Plum Organics worked with nonprofit partners Conscious Alliance, Convoy of Hope, Homeless Prenatal Program and Baby Buggy to supply families with 500,000 Super Smoothies in 2013. The goal for 2014 is to up the donation to 1 million.
“Our employees are really excited about being engaged in the program,” Grimmer says. “It’s a way we can start to help really expand the impact we have in the world.”
The past year saw another significant development for Plum Organics in a June 2013 partnership with Campbell’s, which will allow the company to continue to operate as a standalone entity.
Setting the table for growth
With its acquisition by Campbell’s, the company heads toward a new phase with a powerful food industry player able to support its growth.
“But we are continuing to run the company around the values and beliefs that we created in the early days,” Grimmer says. “They are quite frankly one of the few partners we’ve found that would give us that kind of operating freedom.”
Keeping up with product demand has been a problem from the beginning. In 2013, the company grew more than 50 percent. Plum Organics had a four-year compound annual growth rate of 99 percent.
“That kind of year-over-year growth is difficult for any business to keep up with,” Grimmer says. “That is one of our key challenges, like it is for any business going through scale and growth.”
Three growth levers have led the way, the first one being the consumers served by Plum Organics. By segmenting products into three different portfolios, the company centered offerings on the needs of babies, toddlers and children. Moms can find healthy foods that grow with their families as children progress from birth all the way to age 10.
“We wanted to be a solution for her and her family,” Grimmer says.
A second growth lever was derived within each of those three consumer segments by looking at the various eating occasions in which the availability of healthier options would make parents’ lives easier.
The final area of growth was geographical — expanding into Canada, opening a business in the United Kingdom and creating a distributor-based business in Asia.
“We realized that this idea of healthy food for little ones isn’t an exclusive concept to the United States,” Grimmer says. “Parents around the world are time starved, but want the best for their babies and kids.”
Keeping up with demand has meant entering into partnerships with manufacturers and bringing in Italian machinery to increase production capacity.
“The machinery would sputter and hiccup, but we became very experienced in how to modify and tune those machines to be very reliable workhorses,” Grimmer says. “We’ve also put a lot of focus on securing an organic supply of our fruits and vegetables, which obviously fluctuates with the seasons.”
Growth has not only created challenges from a production standpoint, but from a staffing perspective as well. Plum Organics expects to add about 20 more employees to reach a total of 90.
Despite the pressure to add personnel quickly, Plum Organics is cautious about ensuring new hires are a good fit.
“One of the pitfalls that any fast-growing company runs into is wanting to fill the seats that are available and fill roles as quickly as they can,” Grimmer says. “If you become impatient with your hiring process, you can end up filling a role with someone who fits the box on talent, but not on culture.
“What we’ve found is that spending the time to hire the right people, giving time to do the process effectively, has allowed us to find people who not only fit the technical requirements but also added to the culture.”
Part of that culture means being willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.
“That’s one of our core truths. As CEO of the company, if I need to wash windows or take out the trash I’ll do it at a moment’s notice if that’s what it takes to move the needle on our business. We require everyone at all levels to have that same attitude,” Grimmer says.
A winning culture has been a critical part of the Plum Organics success story, according to Grimmer, and one that has set the business apart from its competition.
“What made us different as a brand was that first we made it personal, the idea that it is a brand and company by parents, for parents,” he says. “It’s a fun, stylish brand that also brought health to the home. It’s not just about making healthier products that are ho-hum. It’s about bringing those two things together — engagement and health.” ●
- Walk in the shoes of those you serve.
- Find your purpose and passion.
- Hire for culture as well as talent.
The Grimmer File:
Name: Neil Grimmer
Title: President, co-founder and “chief daddy-O”
Company: Plum Organics
Born: Ipswich, Mass.
Education: He received a master’s of fine arts in product design from Stanford University, and a bachelor’s of fine arts in conceptual art/sculpture from the California College of the Arts.
What was your first job and what did you learn from it? I worked flipping burgers in a fast food restaurant for a summer. I became a vegetarian by the end of the summer.
Who is someone you admire in business? Jed Smith, the founder of Drugstore.com and executive director of Catamount Ventures. He funded my company based on our mission to bring better food to kids from the very first bite. I admire his vision to see the possibilities of a business at its earliest stage and his entrepreneurial spirit to weather the storms of a startup.
Do you have a favorite Plum product? What products do your children enjoy? I personally love our organic baby food pouches, which are purees of superfoods like organic fruits and veggies mixed together with ingredients like ancient grains such as quinoa, amaranth, Greek yogurt, beans, and herbs and spices. My favorite variety is our Raspberry, Spinach & Greek Yogurt.
My girls love our Mashups organic squeezable purees for kids, as well as the organic Fruit & Veggie Shredz.
If you weren’t president of Plum Organics, what would you like to be doing instead? There is nothing I’d rather be doing. If I weren’t president of Plum, I’d be trying to get a shot at running Plum Organics.
Learn more about Plum Organics at:
How to reach: Plum Organics, (877) 914-7586 or www.plumorganics.com