Earlier this year, NJTechWeekly.com became concerned that many tech startup founders in one part of New Jersey don’t know founders in other parts of the state. We decided to remedy that by pairing up two tech startup founders who had not yet met each other and having each interview the other. This article and others to follow are the result of that undertaking.
In this story, Kirsten Lambertsen of Kuratur (Red Bank) interviews Kirsten Bischoff of HatchedIT (Springfield). The fact that these two founders are female is no accident (though their sharing a first name is). It seems to us that female founders are often more isolated than their male counterparts, so it was even more important that they meet each other. Moreover, October 15 is Ada Lovelace Day. Lovelace is widely thought of as the first programmer — male or female — and with these first two interviews we wanted to celebrate female tech industry founders as well as programmers.
Kirsten Lambertsen: When did you first start planning HatchedIT, and when did you and your partner go full-time on it?
Kirsten Bischoff: When Megan [Brown] and I first conceived of HatchedIT, she was about six months’ pregnant and I was working as a freelance reporter for a financial news site, so we were both lucky to have a fair amount of time to really focus on what we wanted to build and to prep (as much as possible) while our development team built the site. We actually thought of the idea in October 2010 and spent the next four months sketching it out and doing research on the online calendar/social network space and figuring out everything that we wanted the site to do.
Neither of us knew about wireframing at that point, so our initial outlines for screens for the site were all done in Keynote. We worked with our development team from April through our launch in September 2011. At that point, we both realized we needed to quit our jobs and give the company our full focus for the next year (Megan returned from her maternity leave at JPMorgan in May 2011).
We got the phone apps up and launched and spent the rest of the year pitching women, families and bloggers at every event under the sun. We had a booth at the legendary BlogHer conference in New York City, we’ve driven to Cincinnati to pitch moms at an event and we’ve even sat outside in all sorts of weather to pitch potential users at events like ladies’ night out and the New Jersey Balloon Festival. It’s been quite an adventure.
KL: How much has HatchedIT diverged from your original concept and vision?
KB: It’s funny, right from the start we had a very clear idea of what we wanted the site to do and how we wanted it to look (just ask the programmers who had to get through our PowerPoints — LOL). We had both always worked for businesses that had cutting-edge technology for organizing event planning and meetings, and we couldn’t figure out why the same thing had not been perfected for families.
We always envisioned HatchedIT.com to be a platform. In fact, we had to rein ourselves in because we had such a large vision that it sometimes would overwhelm people when we were describing the site as the tool we envision it can be.
At launch we wanted to provide a shared calendar and a place to add and share photos. Then we added a shareable to-do list and group chatting. We have so many plans for further improvement on the site, and changes continue to roll out (even this month!). Most of the time I just wish we could do it all faster.
KL: It appears that neither you nor your founding partner is a software developer. Who does your coding and server upkeep? In other words, how did you solve that challenge?
KB: When we started out we were lucky to have two close family members who are programmers and who really held our hands in walking us through what was possible and what was not. Personally, while I am not a programmer, I was also lucky enough to grow up in a time before Windows, when people thought that anyone that wanted to use a computer would need to be able to program. I also went to a school, Oak Knoll, that had a very forward outlook on technology. In the fourth grade we learned Logo. From there we moved on to BASIC, and then in my senior year of high school I took AP Pascal. I may not be a programmer, but I am very lucky that I have the ability to break down how things may or may not be able to work. I can’t touch the amazing job that our development team has done, but I like to feel like I can be right in there with them on the conversation.
Regarding finding a programming team, Megan and I felt very strongly that we wanted to use a U.S.-based team. First of all, if we were going to spend that much money (we are bootstrapped) we wanted to align ourselves with a U.S. business. It wasn’t easy to find a business that didn’t outsource overseas. When we found Hudson Horizons in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, we were thrilled. We clicked with their team right away. It has always felt like we were a single unit working toward a goal, and we have the added bonus of being able to go up to their offices and sit down with them whenever we want. I can’t say enough about the team up there (especially our lead programmer, Eric Solan, who has answered a million and one questions over the past few years and still smiles when [we] arrive at his office). Truly, working with them has been one of the highlights of our entrepreneurial experience.
KL: Did you ever have a moment where you thought it just wasn’t going to happen? How did you get past it?
KB: I don’t think that we ever had the feeling that it wasn’t going to happen in terms of launching the site and the apps. We have certainly joked that we may have been building a very expensive piece of technology for ourselves, because our whole family uses the site. But we also knew that because we were building it for ourselves, and because Megan and I both have very different needs and requirements, it would work for all families.
Don’t get me wrong — there are still lots of moments of panic. Having a cofounder is probably the only reason why we have gotten through it. The fact that we are family (sisters-in-law) is also probably the only reason why we still speak! (In fact, Megan is still my best friend, so while lots of people cringe when we say we’re a family business, it can be done!) We were lucky, though — we both seem to always be able to muster a rah-rah moment when the other one is feeling stressed, and … we had a lot of support from our families and recognition from very public places right from the start.
KL: Is there anything you’d do differently building the business, if you could go back in time?
KB: I always think that maybe we should have focused more on building in viral network effects. But I don’t think that was a mistake because that isn’t really what our brand is about. As wonderful as it would be to have a product that sees outrageous viral growth, we are focused on providing a private social network that families can use and feel safe with. The viral networking tools that other small “private” social networks have leveraged in order to see outsized growth (such as Facebook integration or scanning phonebooks) really weren’t strategies that meshed with how we want to establish our brand. Families trust us with important information and feel as though they are sharing their calendar, their intimate family photos and other communications with a closed, private circle of individuals. That’s very important to us.
KL: Who are your heroes? Who do you think about when you’re in the struggle?
KB: My heroes are most definitely my parents. I know that Megan would likely have the same answer. We both had fathers who were entrepreneurs and so I think that this has always been in our blood — we were very lucky to find a project that we could focus on together.
In fact, in addition to having his own business, when my dad was my age, he also taught himself how to program and in his spare time built an inventory system for a large supermarket chain on Long Island. I can vividly remember him poring over reams of paper that would spit out of the dot matrix printer on his desk in our family room. That sort of work ethic and enthusiasm to always keep improving his own business skills was an invaluable lesson to be able to witness. In fact, I have adopted my dad’s favorite catchphrase and find myself saying it to my daughter quite often: “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.”
During my life, whenever I have had a dream to accomplish something, both of my parents have worked very hard to give me an incredibly generous amount of emotional (and financial) support (yes, still today). They are probably the biggest cheerleaders for both me and HatchedIT.com. And while my focus is on being an entrepreneur, I am also a parent. What I find so extraordinary is that all of the lessons they have given to me by their example make me a better businesswoman and a better mom.
KL: If you could have one super power — the ability to be invisible or to fly — which would it be and why?
KB: This is so funny. I write stories, and I just had two characters have this same conversation. So I am all prepared to tell you my answer! If I wanted to fly, I can take a plane. But there is no way to be invisible other than wishing for it as a superpower. My only problem with being invisible is that I don’t know how it works with clothes. Would my clothes become invisible, too? Or would I have to run around freezing cold every time I wanted to be invisible? If I could have invisible clothes, it is definitely the perfect superpower. Especially because I have a 14-year-old daughter, and I think that being invisible could come in very handy as she goes through high school. LOL.
KL: Have you run into any problems related to being a woman in such a male-dominated field as a tech startup?
KB: Megan and I have been asked this question a lot. There have definitely been hurdles. When someone dismisses you because you are a woman in business or because you have created a tool that is targeted at a female user base, it can be maddening. Especially when the female consumer has been proven to power the family purse strings (and, by extension, the entire U.S. consumer market)!
However, we both came from the finance industry, which is very male-dominated. So when we get into a tech networking event or work with our programmers or pitch to investors (all usually 99 percent male groups) and face any pushback at all due to our gender (or not due to our gender), it doesn’t feel very different than our previous work experiences. Both of us learned very quickly in our previous professions that if you believe in something, you need to stand up for it … otherwise it is very easy to get steamrollered by male opinions, which are typically more powerful just in their sheer number.
I also think that having people around us (both male and female) in our family — and our groups of close friends, who believe in us so strongly — has made any gender hurdles we have faced seem absolutely surmountable.
Kirsten Bischoff is a founding partner of HatchedIT.com. A graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, she has spent most of her career entrenched in the highly entertaining world of … finance. Bischoff gained experience running internal operations at a hedge fund startup that grew to have $1 billion in assets. She then spent three years as an executive assistant at BlackRock. She most recently toiled as senior editor at an online financial news publication and is currently a contributor to Forbes.com. Bischoff lives in Springfield, New Jersey, and when she isn’t working on HatchedIT.com, she can usually be found playing chauffeur to her “overscheduled” 14-year-old daughter, Sophie.