Expect to be a jack-of-all-trades in the early stages of your company and be ready to constantly shift gears. If you are the type who is best at focusing on one large and in-depth task, then you need to surround yourself with other team members who can each do a whole lot of diverse things. Startups cannot afford to hire a subject-matter expert for each company task. They need key team members who can each handle a broad array of things. I myself have done our books, welded parts, and managed HR, all while being CEO!
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ellen Mell. She is the CEO of Custom Technologies — an engineering and manufacturing business that creates success for their clients by providing holistic product development, manufacturing, and business services. Ellen is also a registered U.S. patent attorney and an adjunct professor in the School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis. Her class “From Concept To Market” teaches business administration and intellectual property law topics to undergrad engineers.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My career path first started very early. My mom was a business operations and administrative manager, and my dad was a mechanical engineer. Neither had the luxury of attending college and both were self-taught. I took after both of them in many ways. Dad, who was incredibly talented as an inventor and manufacturer, particularly liked to say I was a carbon copy of him. It wasn’t that I was forced to follow in their footsteps — I wanted to. I remember when I was a very small child, Dad couldn’t keep me away from his workshop down in our basement. I was just a very hands-on kid who didn’t mind getting dirty. My dolls and other “girl” toys were pristinely stored on my bookshelves, while I was typically downstairs playing in the grease and sawdust.
Before I was born, my parents had founded a manufacturing company based on some of my dad’s inventions. Dad did the physical work and Mom kept track of the finances along with all of the operational tasks. To support their product needs, they had an aluminum foundry, a mold-making shop, and a machine shop, so I grew up very familiar with the manufacturing world. At eight years old, I remember having a matter-of-fact discussion with them about a plan for me to go to college and become an engineer. Since it was the mid-1970s, I didn’t even realize that a girl becoming an engineer was a bit of a rarity. In my house, however, it was the norm.
I realize now that there were three things that allowed me to pursue my technical career without a second thought. First, I grew up in a household where both parents respected each other equally. Second, my parents didn’t try to influence me into a gender-typical path. It wouldn’t have worked with me even if they had tried! And third, I was — for years — the only little girl in a neighborhood full of boys.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Honestly, every single day of my job is interesting. If someone had been watching us in the early years, though, it would have been pretty interesting to see us making waterslide molds in our garage. Between the black gel-coat goo and the white fluffy fiberglass backing, our team looked like a sad flock of tarred-and-feathered fake chickens. To this day, we still find things in our house that have black gel-coat goo hardened on them. The really interesting part was when we weren’t sure if we could get the waterslides through the garage door after they were finished. They were huge! I’m pretty sure that our neighbors thought we had gone completely crazy during that project.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I believe that the funniest early-stage story was more of a generation-gap mismatch rather than a mistake. I was about 24 years old, fresh out of graduate school for physics, and I was enlisted to install a computerized accounting system into my parents’ manufacturing business. My partner was my parents’ steadfast bookkeeper — a lovely lady in her mid-sixties who had never used a computer before. She eyed me distrustfully the minute I walked into the room carrying the worrisome box labeled “IBM.”
“Here’s the computer,” I said. “It should really help make things easier for you.” She nodded, clearly unconvinced. I glanced at the computer’s keyboard and added encouragingly that it was pretty much like a typewriter. She pulled her chair forward and asked where she would put the paper in. Choking back a laugh, I responded, “Well, you don’t because It’s all electronic now.” She connected my answer to video games and we finally had some common ground. She then grabbed the mouse with confidence, picking it up in both hands, thumbs on top. Aiming it carefully toward the computer’s screen, she said she was ready with the remote! After this, I realized that people know a lot more than I do in some aspects and I know more than they do in others. We knew that we both had a lot to learn and it was a good lesson for sharing individual strengths.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I had a baby after graduate school, so my husband and I decided to move back to Missouri to become involved with my parents’ business. By that time, it had been operating for over thirty years and was struggling severely. We worked for four awful years trying to save it, but ended up failing spectacularly. We were all deeply in debt on behalf of the business and were about to lose our family home. My parents were well past retirement age at this point. The harsh reality was that even if we got “normal jobs,” our earnings would not have been enough to support all of us. Our drive to succeed was to figure it out, do it FAST, or lose everything. That’s when my current company was founded. We literally started doing business out of our garage and we said yes to any customer project we could find! And slowly, somehow, every month we were able to scrape up enough money to keep our home. All of us pitched in — quitting just wasn’t an option.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
With what I’ve already said, my answer is my family. They are an unbeatable team who have stood — without fail — right by my side. Whether my decisions were wise or foolish, they’ve supported me and our business with an unwavering constancy. We have one child of our own, who is highly talented and now also supports the business. When times were very tough financially, I have to say there was a lot of arguing between us. At one point, I threatened that it might be most financially lucrative for us if we hired a camera crew to do a reality TV show and tell the world how insane our lives were. I did get vetoed on that one.
Suffice it to say, I’m super lucky. I’ve had four wonderful people support me professionally for many years, and they are counted as both my family and best friends. Two years ago, my dad passed away. There isn’t a day that goes by at work that I don’t deal with some task that brings him to my mind. I hope he would be proud of where we’re going.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Don’t point fingers — solve the problem.” People don’t really want to hear whose fault something is — they want the problem fixed. If someone on our team has a criticism relating to a project, I try to encourage open discussion but insist on a suggestion to go along with the criticism. I try to say, “Yes, thanks for that concern and I see the possibilities of problems there. What do you recommend we do to improve it?” I want to lead by example with that philosophy, too. No one wants to hear pointless criticism, and nobody cares that you prove someone else is to blame. In our company, our mantra is, “It doesn’t matter who caused the problem — fix it!”
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
Simply put, Custom Technologies makes products for other companies. However, we are different because we streamline transitions between product development stages. We handle it all from design and prototyping, all the way to full-scale production. With us, there is no need to go to a design firm, and then a prototyping team, and finally to a manufacturer. By eliminating these handoffs, our customers save time and money, and (most importantly) avoid miscommunications. Our customers range from large, established companies to early-stage startups. Sometimes, our job is simple like when we make a single component for an established company. Other times, our job is very complex like when we help customers design and launch multi-component products made of machined parts, molded parts, electronic parts, and sometimes even on-board software.
Here’s the pain point we are helping to address: You will spend less time on your product launch project with us because you no longer need to go through the process of finding suitable companies to do each step. Because every step is handled in-house, we can overlap steps and compress the time-to-market timeline. Gone are the days of long conference calls between all the various parties hired onto your project. Maintain one point of reliable contact at Custom Technologies for all your product development and manufacturing needs.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We consider ourselves partners with our customers, and we rescue them when they stumble. We even rescue ourselves when we stumble! Again, no more finger-pointing — regardless of who is at fault, we fix it. Years ago, we did a huge automation project for a global small-engine manufacturer. We were being paid in progress tranches during the project, and each time we approached a payment milestone, we were sweating bullets to have enough cash on-hand to get there. When the time came for the final onsite install, we ran into a problem. We delivered the machine to our customer’s site over the weekend and we had until Monday morning to get it installed and running. Otherwise, a whole production line was going to be down.
As we lowered the new machine into place, we realized that the machine we built would not fit between the two machines it was supposed to be in line with. It was a nightmare and frankly, if we didn’t get paid for the final installation soon, we were going to run out of cash in the bank. It took about one hour of panic to realize the mistake was not ours as the customer gave us an incorrect dimension. I think many companies would have walked away and demanded payment, but we did not. Our engineering team started planning and sketching right there on the production floor. Then, they started tearing things apart while taking a bunch of items back to our facility for rebuild. By Monday morning, our customer was up and running. What happened wasn’t our fault, but we solved our customer’s problem. That’s what we do!
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
In 2020, undoubtedly our most exciting project has been the development of the AssistiVent. It is a low-cost, emergency ventilator that was developed to answer the call for medical devices during the COVID-19 pandemic. We developed it in conjunction with a team of doctors and engineers from Washington University in St. Louis. Hopefully, if we continue to flatten the curve, it will never be needed on the front lines. If it is needed, we’ll be proud to say we’ve played a part in providing a solution that could save lives.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I’ve personally had no problems being a woman in tech. Maybe it is because I grew up not knowing there would be, or could be, any problems being one. I was, by luck of my childhood circumstances, simply blind to the potential of a problem even existing. Because of that, I didn’t have a gender-based lack of confidence. If anyone ever did discriminate against me because I was a woman, I simply would not have picked up on it. More recently, I’ve realized that I’ve just bowled forward for years with the confidence of someone not expecting a roadblock. Over the years, I’ve met a few other women in tech who claimed they felt intimidated or somehow held back in their career because of their gender, and I have to admit my reaction was to be baffled by it. It’s made me step back and really think about how things would have been for me if my personal upbringing had been different.
I’d recommend my path to other women who are experiencing or anticipating a problem — bowl forward like there is no problem. And maybe, just maybe, there will be no problem. It is a chicken-or-the-egg challenge to be sure, but if you are expecting a roadblock, you’ll likely find one. If women can find ways to stop expecting a problem, I think that’s part of the solution that will have a big impact.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
I’m now discovering that many women in tech deal with gender-pigeonholing, intimidation, and probably in some cases outright discrimination. I think that artificially forcing a fix is a mistake. In my experience, pushing anyone ahead of anyone else, artificially, just to correct a perceived or real discrimination, creates resentment against that person and does more harm than good. If women are perceived as being given a leg up because of historical inequalities, they are going to make that perception a reality. Some people will look for any excuse to “correct” the problem, and stymie someone they think doesn’t deserve their position. Back to my favorite quote, this is just finger-pointing!
So, what is my solution? For me, it has been to be even better than expected, and to work even harder. It is certainly not “fair,” but fairness isn’t everything. It is certainly other people’s job to keep an open mind and judge you individually, but if you find yourself in any sort of stereotyped minority (be it gender, race, hair-color, age, political group, or the color of your car), and if you don’t feel pleased with the stereotype your group has been labeled with, then it is also your job to help convince others that the undesirable stereotype is wrong. Surprise people, shake up their beliefs, and push past any preconceptions they might have. That is the long-term solution to improving the lot of women in tech and in any field.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
We’ve reached that stand-still phase more than once and right now, we are again revving our own engines. Like so many companies, large and small, COVID-19 gave us an unexpected setback and we’re finding ways to grow in the face of adversity. We’ve been focusing on assessing and recognizing our own strengths (what makes us special) and we are driving our marketing team to communicate these things to customers who can benefit. To me, that is key: finding people you can help.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
Right now, I’m in the mode of soliciting that advice instead of giving it! Seriously though, in the tech world it is key to keep a balance between the product development team and the sales team. I’ve seen situations where startup companies stagnate themselves because the sales team communicates tomorrow’s wish-list of product features to the overeager product development team, and then the whole team tries to procrastinate a product’s launch date to add more and more features. They all strive to develop tomorrow’s product instead of focusing on launching today’s product. In tech, startup companies must focus on selling minimum viable products that are ready to sell today, and they must make sure that their sales team stays focused on finding customers interested in buying today’s products today. Otherwise, startups can starve for cash waiting for the perfect, feature-heavy product to arrive.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
Our industry is heavily reputation-based and word-of-mouth is huge for us. Our best sales tool, so far, has been referrals from one satisfied customer to someone else. I also split my time between my office at Custom Technologies and my law office. Last year, I had a new neighbor across the hall so I introduced myself and offered a lunch date. Turns out that my neighbor was a one-man marketing firm, and he had a client who was looking for a manufacturing partner. The client had an early-stage prototype and they were striving to get all the parts working smoothly together. We were able to help the client finalize their product design, work out the bugs, and streamline it for manufacturing efficiency. A year later, their product is officially launched and their sales are ramping up. We are now their exclusive turnkey manufacturer, and it is a win-win partnership between us.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
Encourage ongoing communication, don’t surprise each other, and don’t do all the talking! Ask the customer what their problems are and then truly try to put yourself in their position. What do they really need? Let them tell you about themselves because learning happens while you listen.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
Solve your customer’s problems and be the solution they need. If your customer messes up, help them fix their mistakes. I’ve seen a lot of companies who seem to feel satisfaction and relief if they can prove that something was their customer’s fault and not their own. That is narrow, short-sighted thinking. Treat your customers as your friends. If they mess up, help them recover.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Recognize that the lines between your professional and personal lives are going to be very blurry. Be ready and willing to live and breathe the business for a long time. That’s why it is crucial to surround yourself with people who support the effort of growing your business. I was lucky that my family was utterly devoted to growing our business. If you’ve ever watched the series “Silicon Valley,” the insanity portrayed isn’t too far from the mark for a tech startup. It takes time to put all of the processes in place for a business to run smoothly. If you are someone who needs to drop your work at the end of the traditional business day, then you are going to have a hard time growing a business.
- Expect to be a jack-of-all-trades in the early stages of your company and be ready to constantly shift gears. If you are the type who is best at focusing on one large and in-depth task, then you need to surround yourself with other team members who can each do a whole lot of diverse things. Startups cannot afford to hire a subject-matter expert for each company task. They need key team members who can each handle a broad array of things. I myself have done our books, welded parts, and managed HR, all while being CEO!
- Build your core team with equally motivated, self-starting individuals. My husband and I were once involved in a tech startup with a partner we thought would be great. We were the tech side of the equation, and the partner was going to be the sales side. Unfortunately, we soon realized that our partner’s motivations and drives to grow a company were much different from our own. We needed to grow the company big, because we needed a large income to support our extended family. Our partner, on the other hand, needed no income from the new venture. He viewed the startup as a side hobby. He didn’t have the drive that we had. As we applied pressure for ever-increasing sales, he backed away with distaste. Neither of us was right or wrong, but we were certainly different in our needs and desires. We learned an important lesson — make sure the motivations and goals of your core team are properly aligned with your own.
- Focus on launching a minimum viable product. Don’t be seduced into thinking that every bit of feedback from every potential customer should go immediately into your first product launch. Get your product to market in its simplest form that solves a novel pain point. Sell the core product first, then carefully consider adding improvements later, and prioritize them rationally. The original iPhone certainly didn’t do everything the newest version does now, but people readily bought it as it was then.
- Be agile and ready to pivot. Don’t become so in love with your tech creation that you cannot recognize when something needs to change. It has been said many times that the true key to success of a startup is its ability to change plans along the way. While no startup should jump and change its product for every customer, if every customer interaction is telling you the same thing, be sure to listen!
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
What if we could find a way for environmentalists and business owners to be on the same side for once? Wouldn’t that be powerful? In today’s hyper-polarized political climate, it seems that nobody wants to find middle ground anymore, yet I believe it is there. There are people on one hand (including me!) who are very worried about the environment. Those people don’t want commercially-focused companies doing bad, harmful things to the planet. Then, on the other hand, we have the commercially-focused companies (including mine!) worried about trying to compete with lower-cost imports from other countries. One of the primary reasons those imports are lower cost, however, is because we as a nation don’t hold those other countries to the same environmental standards that we do of our own U.S.-based companies. BOTH of these groups would benefit if we restricted the flow of goods from countries who are doing bad things to the planet. We as a society have to start saying NO to buying goods from countries who have nasty track records with the environment, not to mention nasty working conditions for their employees.
My inspired movement is simple: encourage laws that help the environment and our U.S.-based businesses at the same time. Do this by requiring imported goods to be produced under proper environmentally-friendly conditions that are on par with what we require of our companies here at home. Specifically, I propose to initiate an import tax that is based directly on each country’s environmental-friendliness score. It would be good for our local businesses, and it would be good for Mother Earth. I think that is something both sides can agree on.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
I’d very much enjoy meeting Mike Rowe. I’ve been a fan of his for many years and feel that many of my own societal and professional goals are closely aligned with his. In my mind, Mike stands for practicality, and he has genuine support for honest work and quality results. I always heartily enjoy his “Dirty Jobs” and “The Way I Heard it” programs. His Wikipedia article says that he “describes himself as a cheerleader for both blue-collar workers and white-collar workers, hoping to promote individual initiative and positive thinking throughout the U.S. economy.” That’s something that I can definitely get behind!
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!