“There’s nothing more fun than starting something from nothing,” entrepreneur Saki Dodelson, CEO of Achieve 3000 (Lakewood), a company offering differentiated online instruction to students, told a group of women gathered in late March 2012 at the NJTC Women in Technology Peer Network Breakfast in East Brunswick.
Fellow entrepreneur Randi Altschul, inventor and founder of Pop Test (Cliffside Park), agreed, though for her the joy lies in having an innovative idea, turning it into a business and then selling that business.
Altschul has started and sold many companies, some in tech, some in other industries. Her inventions include a disposable cellphone and a paper laptop.
Dodelson lives for the ongoing success of her business; Altschul lives for the exit. Both women had worthwhile stories to tell and were excellent advocates for their chosen methods of operating a business.
Also on the panel was Judith Sheft, associate vice president of technology development, NJIT (Newark), who in her work mentors many kinds of young companies and connects them to the institute. Moderating was Susan Okin Goldsmith of SorinRoyerCooper (East Brunswick), a law firm with close ties to the New Jersey tech startup ecosystem.
Eighty percent of Dodelson’s employees are women, whom she has found excel in particular areas. For example, a man might look at “his numbers” last year and be satisfied if he “made his numbers.”
Women, she said, like to look back and analyze: maybe they met the company’s projections overall, but there were business areas needing improvement. Women will likely continue to investigate and analyze until they understand how to make the needed changes.
One of the greatest challenges women face is realizing that a company is not a family but a team, Dodelson said. On a team you sometimes have to fire people because they don’t work out, circumstances change or the business changes. Women tend to personalize the workplace, which they shouldn’t, Dodelson observed.
In her world of invention, Altschul takes a very practical approach. While she says she surrounds herself with people smarter than she is, she also looks for team players with an entrepreneurial spirit.
“They know they won’t get compensated until the exit, and they have to be on board with that … I also don’t have any employees. Everybody is a partner. If you don’t want to have skin in the game, I don’t want you in the game,” she said.
Taking another approach, NJIT’s Sheft said relationships are important in business. She emphasized fairness in negotiations so everyone feels well served. Based on her experience as the lone woman in a group negotiating a business deal in Japan, she suggested finding a way to relate, outside of business, to the individual across the deal table.
Sheft noted that in Japan, one doesn’t discuss business at lunch, so when she lunched with her counterpart she began discussing a Japanese movie she had recently seen. This helped create a rapport that engendered trust and helped the negotiations.
Networking was and is very important to all the women’s success, the panelists said. Altschul recalled pitching at a Venture Association of New Jersey (VANJ) meeting where she initially knew no one but met someone who offered valuable contact information that led her to a key partner with the exact industry contacts she needed at the time.
Her advice to women tech entrepreneurs: don’t be afraid to talk about your ideas; no one will steal them. Be open and honest.
Goldsmith pointed out that Richard Woodward, president and COO of Vascular Magnetics (Philadelphia) and a NJTC Venture Conference winner in 2011, didn’t receive any money as a direct result of that meeting, although he found the experience valuable. The money he eventually got came from his next-door neighbor’s friend.
“So the moral there is to network, network, network … you never know who your contacts are going to be or how you are going to get them.”