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Inking the deals Featured

7:41am EDT May 24, 2005
While entrepreneurs often reap the greatest rewards when they take the boldest actions, lawyers typically earn their keep by advising clients how best to avoid risk.

So it comes as little surprise that lawyer Johanna Hambrose at first found herself erring on the side of caution when she joined Electronic Ink, the company her husband, Harold, launched in 1990.

But Hambrose says her legal training hasn't gotten in the way of success for Electronic Ink. In fact, while she concedes that she might have been cautious in her approach to the business early on -- she came on board full-time to run daily operations in 1995 -- Hambrose credits her legal training with providing her with the determination to move the company forward.

"I think practicing litigation for so many years made me very strong-minded and strong-willed," says Hambrose, Electronic Ink's COO, co-owner and general counsel.

Electronic Ink designs electronic interfaces such intranets, extranets, Web sites and free-standing video displays for clients in financial services, health care and government. Employing the talents of designers, programmers, psychologists and linguists, Electronic Ink designs interfaces that accommodate the way people respond, think and comprehend, rather than compel users to adapt their behavior to the technology.

In addition to its Philadelphia headquarters, Electronic Ink has offices in the Raleigh-Durham area and in the United Kingdom, and is planning an office in New York, where it has its biggest concentration of clients.

Johanna and Harold Hambrose have split the duties of the company in a way that complements their individual skills, forming a team that fills the needs of both the creative and the operations sides of Electronic Ink.

"He [Harold] still runs the creative side of the organization and the delivery team," Hambrose says. "I run the business side, so I guess it's the right brain, left brain cliché type fit that we have here."

Hambrose spoke with Smart Business about making the switch from full-time lawyer to entrepreneur, the challenges of working with highly skilled professionals and raising two children while building a business.

How did Electronic Ink get started?

My husband started Electronic Ink 15 years ago straight out of college to treat the design of digital products more like the design of everyday, three-dimensional products; that is, involving designers and people who understand how human beings interact with any kind of products, in this instance, technology, to give form to the product, to make it useful in the end user's hands. So he started working on the design of OS/2 from IBM (and) the design of Citibank's public access cash machines.

The company has evolved through the years, starting with product design and then adding human factors analysts, cognitive and behavioral psychologists who understand how humans interact with machines. They're trained to observe human behavior, to understand how form is interpreted from a computer screen, understand how human beings build mental models when they move through a software or technical application.

We built a technology team, and they really served as a bridge between our design and human factors team and the technology teams that our clients were using, whether in-house or a third-party vendor, to make sure that what we were designing could actually be built, that it was feasible, that we could push the technology as far as we could to get the most out of it to make it usable.

How did you come to enter the business?

I practiced law in Philadelphia for about 10 years, and as Harold's contracts were increasing in size and number, I was devoting more time to negotiating them and building the business.

I took the leap and came over and ran the business side of the company and Harold ran the creative side.

What skills that you acquired as a lawyer are most valuable to you as a business owner?

The law gave me a very good foundation. I was trained as a lawyer to never take a given situation or a given answer as the end or the truth, that there was a side to everything, and it was just figuring out how to advance your goal and your side.

I believed in Electronic Ink and what we were doing. The mission became, how do I spread this story best, how do I create the best case around this company and the offerings. At that point in my career, I had met a lot of people in Philadelphia, so it was really just spreading the word.

It was making sure that all the checks and balances were in place, creating a good foundation for the company, that the contracts were strong and protected as a company, as well as guaranteeing that what we were delivering to the client was accurate and there wasn't anything or too much left to interpretation. Harold was out working on projects, so it gave me the opportunity to really go around and try to create a heightened awareness on a day-to-day basis.

Does working with a group of highly creative and technically oriented employees pose a challenge?

It certainly does. It is everything that we do when we go to work for our clients. We understand the people we're working for and what their goals are and what they're trying to do.

I think what we've tried to do here is understand our employees and what their personal and professional goals are ... and how to support them in their professional growth, with the end goal of having them stay with Electronic Ink. As long as we keep these smart people together, we will continue to attract the most exciting and cutting-edge projects, and with these smart people and these smart projects, we'll continue to attract the talent that is chasing good mentorship and high-profile work.

How do you balance your responsibilities as a business owner and a parent?

We've owned our company and my husband and I worked together when it was small. We lived a couple of blocks away from the office.

I brought the babies into work when I needed to. I could always stop home a couple of times a day and make sure everything was OK. We make time for each other and can coordinate at any moment of any day where one can jump in and the other can back out to take care of something at home.

How did you come to establish operations in the United Kingdom?

A lot of our clients in the U.S. had parent or sister subsidiary companies in England. We were leading a lot of technology efforts here in Philadelphia.

They were introducing us to their European audiences. Harold had worked in England for several years for IBM. He had a lot of contacts there and a love of the country, and it was a very fortuitous opportunity to try to set up an office overseas and have the business and get personal contacts there to help get it started.

We're working with Barclay's, Microsoft Ltd. and the BBC and other clients we can't mention.

How did you survive the dot-com era?

I think when times were the strongest, we were able to create a strong base by attracting good talent from all over and getting truly experienced and seasoned professionals. We were working on these large systems for big blue chip companies. They were always less glamorous internal systems.

It seemed that investors and the press were always focused on the next dot-com incarnation, but I think we stayed true to what we were doing so that when that virtual bubble burst, companies were not investing in new technology as they had in the past, so they needed to ensure that their existing systems worked better and that people worked more efficiently, and that is where we were.

We were able to save technology investments by increasing usability of these systems at significant cost savings. We were actually saving on dollars that had already been invested in existing systems.

What are your challenges as you go forward?

As a service company, the key to our success is our team and the talent we are able to attract. I not only have to attract them to Electronic Ink, I have to attract them to Phi ladelphia.

Harold and I love the city, and usually when we can overcome the bad press the city has had and get people here to visit it, they fall in love. We have a vibrant culture in this city, with the restaurants and shops, new apartments going up every month. Hopefully, that will continue to support us in our efforts to attract the best and the brightest.

Attracting salespeople has always been a big challenge for us. Selling services is harder than selling product, and finding someone who is able to understand our unique service offering and articulate that to a prospect will always make finding the best salespeople for us a challenge.

How to reach: Electronic Ink, www.electronicink.com