76 Passion, Persistence and How to Get A Technology Startup Funded
Entrepreneurs need to think BIG if they want to persuade venture capitalists to invest, and technology entrepreneur Theresa Szczurek shares what it takes to bring investors to the table, and why she brought in a male CEO in her first company to get the check. Now founder and CEO of Radish Systems Theresa provides practical tips to grow, fund and scale your business.
Melinda Wittstock: Welcome to Wings of Inspired Business Theresa.
Theresa Szczurek: Thank you for having me, glad to be here Melinda.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, it’s great to catch up with you after all these years. I remember meeting you first, and hearing about Radish Systems way back in 2011 when we were a part of the same cohort at Springboard, which is a wonderful organization for any women out there who are trying to figure out how to get capital for their businesses. It’s great to catch up after all these years.
Theresa Szczurek: Yes, it is. What a small world, thank you.
Melinda Wittstock: I know. So what is inspiring you right now?
Theresa Szczurek: I’m inspired by improving the way people communicate with businesses, especially in the health care space, to positively impact health and lives. For example, there are millions of telephone calls made per day to health organizations and they provide value in decreasing emergency room visits and improving satisfaction. But yet, there are challenges. Many times people can’t understand, the calls take a long time, and sometimes there’s such frustration people abandon. So what Radish, my company does with our solution ChoiceView, is to allow voice and visuals to be combined to improve understanding, recall, retention and satisfaction.
Melinda Wittstock: So you’ve been at this for a while. When did you found the company?
Theresa Szczurek: We founded the company in 2009 right after the iPhone came out. See we had been doing this integrated voice data for a long time, since my Bell Lab days and since our first entrepreneurial venture, which we sold. When the smartphone, the iPhone came out we said, “Wow, this exactly what we were trying to build in our first company. We have to do it again”.
So we brought our team back together and especially have been helping people who have mobile devices and/or browsers to be able to talk, or chat, and see visuals in their browser. So for example, you call a company, how many times have you been frustrated because you’ve gotten a long frustrating automatic phone system that might say press 1 for this, or press-
Melinda Wittstock: Oh, it’s horrendous. It drives me crazy.
Theresa Szczurek: Well imagine instead, when you call, you could get a visual interaction with voice. You could see a visual menu of the options, tap it, it could send you information. You might actually be able to complete the call there without actually having transferred to a live agent, but if you do transfer to a live person, that person can continue voice and visual sharing. Send you a picture, a document, even a video clip.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s fantastic. So, who are the companies, remind me how Radish System is sold. Are you direct to consumer, or business to business, how does it all work?
Theresa Szczurek: Great question. Yes, we are business to business. So we license our software to businesses that then over the top of their current infrastructure, can add this visual capability. So one segment we focus on is healthcare. Could be hospitals, federally qualified health centers, could be payers like insurance companies. When they are interacting with patients, or other clinicians, they can much more efficiently share information. What we’re finding is great results where not only are the callers more satisfied and they’re actually able to save time and money, but in some cases we found that their health has improved. So we also have re-sellers and also seeking other original equipment manufacturers who can imbed our core capability into theirs.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s really fascinating. So, when you think of all the challenges, cause we all have challenges on this entrepreneurial roller coaster we’re on-
Theresa Szczurek: Oh yes.
Melinda Wittstock: What have been some of the biggest ones for you, and how have you gotten around them, through them, over them?
Theresa Szczurek: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-Well, first of all, there are many challenges along the way but you have to have what I call passion and persistence. If you’ve lit your fire and you know you’re doing something meaningful, you will persist and keep on. So, one of the biggest challenges I think for women entrepreneurs is attracting funding.
Melinda Wittstock: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-
Theresa Szczurek: So we have been creative, I mean this is why we affiliated with Springboard Enterprises, which helps women led companies get access to capital. We started with Founders Capital, we brought in Angel Investors, we have had our team really put in sweat equity in terms of supporting the vision, and we have bootstraps through really creative marketing efforts. We’ve won some grants, and continue to look for … of course the best source of funding is from the market: the customers who are buying, licensing your products and paying a fair amount for it. So, we’re always looking for other businesses who want to improve their interactive voice response systems and turn them in to visual IVR’s, or they want to improve their live assistance and turn it in to visual live assistance.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, and you mentioned really something, so many women have to do, including myself, is find this alternative route, because we don’t necessarily get venture capital money. That it is very difficult to get Venture capital money.
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Theresa Szczurek: Yes.
Melinda Wittstock: So a lot of women that I’ve interviewed have just given up on that path all together, and I think these VC’s are leaving so much value on the table by not understanding, or not seeing the potential of women led businesses. I mean, did you try and go and get VC funding? I’m sure you did.
Theresa Szczurek: Well it’s interesting because only 5% of Venture Capital funding goes to women led businesses.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s crazy. I’m sorry.
Theresa Szczurek: It’s very, very low. Part of it may have to do with some women led businesses don’t fit the formula. They don’t, women don’t necessarily plan to build a hundred million dollar company. So I often encourage them to set a bigger vision so that they will have easier access to the capital sources.
Melinda Wittstock: But even then, even when you have a business that has a potential of being like a billion dollar moon shot, it’s still hard for women to get funding.
Theresa Szczurek: Oh yeah.
Melinda Wittstock: Why? Why is it?
Theresa Szczurek: Well I think people like to invest in other people that are like them, and it’s unfortunate but many of the venture capitalist’s maybe feel more aligned, or connected, or have more interaction with other men. So that’s why there are organizations out there like Springboard Enterprises, who are especially helping female entrepreneurs tap in to this network. Now for my first company, which was a venture-backed company, I ended up bringing in a male CEO. Now, I’m not against males at all, we need strong male advocates on our team, and I found in that case working together, we were able to get the company funded through venture capital and so you have to sometimes leave no stone unturned and try many, many different routes.
Melinda Wittstock: I’ve talked to so many women who’ve had a hard time selling say, Enterprise software, without bringing a man to the table. Women who, the only way, like you describe in your earlier business, have gotten venture capital only when they brought a man to the meeting. Most recently, I don’t know if you read about this, but there was a company in Los Angeles, two women who invented a fake male.
Theresa Szczurek: I heard about that. That’s right.
Melinda Wittstock: I guess you got to do what you got to do, but you know I agree with you that there’s room at the table for everybody, and men and women when they’re working well together, that’s just kind of an unbeatable combination and it’s great. Is there something that we do differently, like you mentioned that people like to fund people like them? There’s a couple of ways of solving this problem and one is just to get more women VC’s. So, do we collectively just need to have better and more exits and take that career path? Is that an answer, or what other answers could there be?
Theresa Szczurek: Well, the venture capital arena has been slow to change with regards to that, unfortunately while there may be more women VC’s now and there are some venture capital firms that fund women companies, it hasn’t been changing fast enough. And there’s actually even been discrimination and sexual harassment and other kinds of suits. One of the things that I think is changing this, or has the potential, is technology itself.
Melinda Wittstock: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-
Theresa Szczurek: With these crowd-funding platforms. So you let the consumers decide who they may want to fund. Now not every business and especially mine, which is business to business, would be appropriate for that. But consumer-oriented businesses, where consumers can really understand and see the value. That might be a potential, but really you need to have money to make money. Otherwise, you come in at a disadvantage because you don’t have as much marketing resources, or even engineering resources, or sales resources, which is so critical to get the market traction.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, that’s true. So for a female founder who’s starting out, and doesn’t have say a lot of capital, what’s your best advice?
Theresa Szczurek: Well first of all, I say preparation needs to meet the possibilities. So I encourage all entrepreneurs, especially women, to make sure you have at least three years of funds to support yourself and your family, or some sugar daddy that can help you, like a very supportive husband can help I’ll tell you. To make sure you have some resources available that you can fall back on.
Then you need to build a network, and that network should have both men and women. It’s interesting because there’s now starting to be more women Angel groups. We are headquartered in Boulder, Colorado there’s a group called the Rockies Venture Club who helps entrepreneurial ventures get funded and they have a special cohort of Angel Investors who are women. So yeah, women let’s help other women. It’s interesting because women have access to a lot of resources. They may have inherited it, so let’s put it to work to help other organizations, other women.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, that’s true. It’s interesting this theme of women helping other women as well. I’m old enough to remember a time when I think a lot of women in business were really in scarcity mode. There was almost like a feeling that you know, if one succeeded the other one couldn’t. Very much a scarcity mindset, and that seems to be changing. At least I hope so, it’s one of the reasons why I’m doing this podcast and writing my book, because I want to create. I really want to be the change I want to see.
Theresa Szczurek: Yeah.
Melinda Wittstock: So giving forward to other women, and really helping to advance their businesses. If we can all do that together, whether it’s just through affirming and acclaiming each other, all the way through to when we exit, writing checks for each other. Are you encouraged that, that change is really happening now?
Theresa Szczurek: Well I think it is beginning to happen. I am one of the most optimistic, eternal optimists.
Melinda Wittstock: So many of us are, us entrepreneurs.
Theresa Szczurek: You have to be.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah.
Theresa Szczurek: So, I believe it is starting to happen and women can help other women, but do not neglect strong male advocates.
Melinda Wittstock: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-
Theresa Szczurek: Who also can write a check or bring in other contacts, open a door. They can, if you find the right kind of champion, help. For instance, I have a very supportive Co-founder and Chief Technical Officer, who’s a man, as well as our Chief Architect who’s a man. They have had to believe in me, and I believe in them. So, together I think we can change the world. I think it was Margaret Mead, “Don’t ignore the fact that one women can make a difference and indeed that’s the only thing that ever has”.
Melinda Wittstock: So tell me a little bit about who you were as a little kid? Did you always know that you were entrepreneurial?
Theresa Szczurek: I didn’t know that: I always knew that I was a take charge, get things done, person. I grew up in a large Polish Catholic family in the suburbs of Chicago. I was the fourth out of five kids and I was always seeing things a different way. Telling my older brothers and sisters a different perspective, and how to do things. So I started off actually, I loved math and science, and so I pursued those STEM careers and became and Engineer for Bell Labs, and started developing and designing telecommunications systems.
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Now in that arena, there were as many women. I just had to get used to being one of the few women and that environment and needed to work harder, smarter and stand out in order to survive and thrive. That led me to the business side of the house, and once I discovered Marketing and Strategic Planning and the business side, I knew that’s where I belonged. So I transferred from Bell Labs to AT&T, and was climbing the corporate ladder going from Product Manager, to Product Line Manager to ultimately overall Business Manager. But I realized, if I was going to work this hard, which I was, I wanted a piece of the action.
Melinda Wittstock: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-
Theresa Szczurek: So at that point I started doing things to help me on that path. One of the other things I do really recommend to entrepreneurs is to get as much education as you can. There are two sources of that. One is the traditional, academic route and that’s good. The other is, street smarts. You need both. So I had left the big corporate arena to pursue the entrepreneurial dream, and I ended up deciding to finish my MBA and PhD first before actually finding the right idea, with the right partner, to pursue our first technology venture.
Melinda Wittstock: Mm-hmm (affirmative)- I think you mentioned something about, and of course this is your book, about passionate purpose.
Theresa Szczurek: Yes.
Melinda Wittstock: That is so critical to be on a mission, be in alignment I guess, with your values, who you are, what is the core problem that you want to solve and just have that guidance. Now you have actually a four-stage pursuit of passionate purpose success formula. What are those four stages?
Theresa Szczurek: Okay, thanks for asking. You know, when I sold my first company, which was a good exit, people kept asking me, “Well how did you do it?”. I decided to write a book and discern the whole process and I also did a major research study where I interviewed about 80 people from all walks of life. Some very successful at finding their passionate purpose, and others were not. So, basically you need to light your fire, unleash that zeal, fervor, passion, and then direct it towards a meaningful goal.
So the first thing, stage one, is know yourself. What do you care about? What are your values? What are your talents? Then secondly, figure out how to align those, what I call your passions, with the needs of the world. That happens in stage two. So you find your passion and purpose. Then stage three is to pursue that purpose with all your heart, all your soul, persistently with the right people until stage four, you assess progress. Here’s where you step back. How is it going? Should I stay on the same path, or do I need to make some mid-course corrections? Make some of those corrections, and then continue on this path. It’s a sacred circle of life, whether we realize it or not we’re following this in terms of then re-affirming who you are, what your purpose is, pursue it with a plan and then re-assess. This works for both personal and professional endeavors.
Melinda Wittstock: You know, I was just thinking that. Really it is a road map to life. I’ve come to the conclusion that entrepreneurship is probably the best therapy or personal growth mechanism of anything because it does force you to do exactly what you describe, because if you don’t do this, if you don’t know yourself, if you don’t align your true, unique mission or authentic purpose with a product or a service that people actually need and want to buy, and if you don’t pursue it with your heart and soul, and if you don’t pivot and make course corrections and all of that, you can’t succeed. But all of that presupposes that you are not coming from and ego place, you’re coming from a much more conscious and evolved place.
Theresa Szczurek: People can go to my website pursuitofpassionatepurpose.com you can find out more about this approach and there’s free blogs that I post monthly, which has access to other really helpful information, because it’s the four stage process, and then using what I call six success strategies along the way, that help you in this path.
Melinda Wittstock: Ah – that’s wonderful. Thank you for mentioning that. One of the things when we were talking a little bit in the pre-interview, you mentioned to surround yourself with positive people. Energizers, not people who drain your energy. I can’t emphasize that enough, was that something that you learned in the kind of school of hard knocks? Did you have people around you who weren’t supportive, and then had to kind of assemble your tribe, if you will?
Theresa Szczurek: Yes, and also in my research this is what I call the Pack Strategy. You wouldn’t go on a trip without some sort of suitcase or pack, so it is with the pursuit of a passionate purpose. What you want to do is take out the hindrances, those things that are bogging you down, holding you back and you want to pack, or put in, the energizers. One of the things when I interviewed people, I asked them, “Well what energizes you?” And they said, “Oh, people. The right, proper people”. I say “What drains your energy?” And they say, “People. The improper people”.
So this is where you do a little assessment. There may be people in your life that you’re not going to cut out completely. They may be relatives, or they may be some of your investors, but you need to minimize the impact. I remember when we were working to fund Radish Systems, my company, and one of the people I knew from the telecommunications industry came to us early on and he wanted to invest. In the first encounter I could tell that he was going to be an extremely difficult person who would drain our energy. Even though he was ready to write a million dollar check, I walked away from it. Life is too short and that was not the right thing for a path of success. So that’s where knowing yourself helps, but also unpacking those improper people and bringing along those energizer.
Melinda Wittstock: Ah, that’s so true and I think sometimes people, even the people around us who mean well but say things like, subtle things, kind of like “Are you okay?” Or “Are you sure?” Or things like that. I think they think that they’re helping, but they’re really not and there are so few people that really understand what the life of an entrepreneur truly is. That at any given time there are so many things that you can’t control. The odds are in many cases so against you, you have to be as you said, you’re an optimist.
Theresa Szczurek: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-
Melinda Wittstock: But somehow, and we carry so much responsibility, we’re entre-pioneering every day, writing new rules every day, innovating all the time, and you know that’s not for the faint hearted. That’s not for everybody, but it’s also really difficult for, I call them civilians, I guess right, to understand. So making sure that you just surround yourself even with really supportive friends and partners, husbands.
Theresa Szczurek: Exactly. There’s different kind’s of supporters. In your business world, you want to have a good team of people, I always try to hire those who are even more confident than I am. You want a group of inspires who bring in connections, or perspectives, experience. So those might be your professional team, you also want mentors. People who have done it before who will tell it like it is. Then you need your intimates. Those are the people who, your close friends, your family, your spouse, who you can really unwind relax with. So it’s a … and in that connection, I call this the people who sort of, the connection strategy. You want to not only have connections with yourself, because it’s your inner, wiser, older self that’s going to help give direction, but then it may be people but it may also be the greater universe. Like it may be animals, it may be a higher purpose, you know God, whatever works for you. So you need all of this these connections.
Melinda Wittstock: So, so true. I thank you so much, for offering all this amazing wisdom Theresa. It’s so important for women to hear from women who’ve really been through this. Serial entrepreneurs and we have so much to share with each other and I know that you have a special offer for our listeners, at least listeners who qualify. Can you tell us a little bit about this?
Theresa Szczurek: Sure. So if you as a listener has a business that makes and takes telephone calls, may have an interactive voice response system, but are interested in going to the next level, I would like to talk to you. If there’s a match between what your goals are and what Radish Systems offers with our ChoiceView solution, I’d like to offer a free trial of our ChoiceView solution. So you can reach me by going to our website radishsystems.com and just leave a message in the Contact Us, especially that you heard about this through Wings of Inspired Business with Melinda Wittstock and I’d like to talk to you.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s awesome and of course we’ll include that everybody in the show notes so you know how to find Theresa Szczurek and Radish, like the vegetable, Systems for ChoiceView Visual IVR. That’s awesome. I think I will check that out as well.
Theresa Szczurek: Yes.
Melinda Wittstock: Great.
Theresa Szczurek: You might qualify.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, I think Verifeed probably does, we do predictive social media analytics, and so…
Theresa Szczurek: Oh wow.
Melinda Wittstock: So yeah we probably would do, so that’s awesome. This is so inspiring Theresa, that you so much it’s great to catch up with you after all these years. Congratulations on all your progress, it’s amazing.
Theresa Szczurek: Thank you so much and tell everybody good luck in pursuing your passionate purpose.
Melinda Wittstock: Yes. So thank you for putting on your super shero wings and flying with me today.
Theresa Szczurek: Thank you.