“It Takes a Village” The 5 Lessons I Learned Being a 20-Something Founder

I had the pleasure of interviewing Kirsten Morefield, co-founder and COO of Cloverleaf.me, the SaaS platform on mission to make every team a thriving team. Cloverleaf.me provides data-driven insights to empower every person in the organization to increase their relational and communication effectiveness, ultimately improving productivity and engagement. The company is just over a year old and has a lot to be proud of, including their recent $1MM seed round, press in the likes of Forbes and Fast Company, and their growing list of clients across the globe.

Jean: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory” of how you become a founder?

I do not have the typical entrepreneur story of starting businesses in my childhood. I actually never considered it until my early 20’s when I heard a story about a guy in my hometown who dropped out of grad school to start a really successful business. I was shocked to learn that ANYONE can start a business. And thus my dream was born. I started working on a business plan, reading a ton, and decided to work for a business or two to learn. When I was 27 I had my first child and left my job with the plan to start a business after I “figured out” how to be a mom. A few months later I ran into an old co-worker who serendipitously was starting a business and asked me to be his partner. And thus, the rollercoaster began!

Jean: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We’re taking something old and using technology to get it in the right hands at a critical time in the global economy. Let me break that down. There is powerful psychological data out there that has been proven for more than 100 years to be incredibly accurate and impactful in business. But the delivery method is either long documents or expensive consulting engagements, both of which have a high barrier to entry and low “stickiness” effect on business outcomes long-term, not to mention they aren’t scalable to large workforces. At the same time, right now businesses are struggling to figure out how to unleash innovation and higher productivity in a knowledge based economy where work is down by groups of people coming together to solve complex problems. That’s why there is so much focus on “culture” and “engagement” — but really what’s needed is for people to understand how they work best, be empowered to do their best work, and understand how their best work fits with their teammates’ best work. We empower this from top to bottom, allowing enterprise leaders to see the strengths, thinking styles and work styles across all of their people, and allowing their people to understand themselves and their teammates to ultimately change the way they work.

Here’s a great story. There was a group of executives who were doing some pro-bono consulting for a non-profit merger, and there were some intangible issues arising between the executives and the nonprofits. The executive group got on Cloverleaf and realized they had almost no relationship-building focus or strengths, but that their non-profit clients were heavily focused in that area. So they did a happy hour together. Such a simple thing! And the project took a great turn for everyone to become quite a success story.

Jean: Are you working on any exciting projects now?

Lots of them! My favorite, I must say, is building out our “digital nudges.” McKinzie found that to change behavior, employees need to interact with a learning over 50 times. So we’re taking the powerful insights on our platform and pushing them to people in 2 sentences over time through our integrations with email, slack, calendar, and wherever else they’re are already working. Our pre-funding hack was to simply email them. But who wants to get more emails?

Well, these turned out to be wildly popular. Our open rates are through the roof. One CEO told us “these emails are

GOLD!” And here’s another great story:

One day my business partner was stopped by a stranger.

“Darrin Murriner?! Are you with Cloverleaf?”

“…Yess….” He said, a bit taken off guard.

“I LOVE your email tips! I got one about my nonverbal facial expressions right before I went in to negotiate my salary, and it was so spot on! It made a huge difference in that conversation.”

When you get strangers stopping you to tell you that your emails are life-changing, you know your on to something!

Jean: Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?

Absolutely. It’s an oldie and not at all about SaaS. And while I’ve read some SaaS game changers, I have to say the most impactful book for me was The E Myth by Michael Gerber. I read it when I first realized anyone could start a business, and I couldn’t put it down. It tapped into an unknown passion that was innate within me — building and scaling business to create impact far beyond myself. My heart picks up pace even now thinking about how exciting it was to first be introduced to the concept.

Jean: What are your “5 Lessons I Learned as a Twentysomething Founder” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

1. No one knows what they’re doing — Ok, so I actually learned this in a previous job when I was managing long-term projects for huge multi-national conglomerates, like GE, Terradata, Cisco and Intel. While there is more data now than ever before — we’re still all just giving business decisions our best effort with big risk. And this is not a negative statement, it’s an encouraging fact. There are not “those who know” and “those who don’t know.” Rather there are “those who learn and adjust with persistence” and “those who settle.”

2. Opportunities come in unexpected forms — I tend to want to get straight to the point and only take a “yes” as a “yes.” “Maybe” seems like a time-suck, and time is one of my most precious resources. My business partner, Darrin, however, is highly optimistic about “maybe”s, and this optimism has turned quite a few “maybes” into “yeses.” For example, when we were raising our seed round, one particular investor saw us pitch 3 times over 6 months, and every time he told us “your pitch is terrible.” Then one day he emailed to commit to our round, and not only that, he committed double what he normally would have.

3. Hire people who love to learn — In all of our interviews, my job is to gauge how much the person has a track record of seeking opportunities to learn — nerding out over tech podcasts, self-teaching new skills, taking online courses, etc. It’s not enough if the person already has the perfect skillset. In an early stage startup, we all need to learn and adjust as we wear the many hats. This has been a really successful strategy at Cloverleaf. It’s enabled us to hire people who don’t yet have the perfect skillset, giving them an opportunity and us a financial benefit. Those who love learning quickly come up to speed in delivering much more than their resume could show. For example, our engineering intern took less than a month to get up to working on his own building out the next iteration of our product faster than our UX designer could keep up.

4. Pain is not a closed door — Our culture says “when one door closes, another one opens,” but I’ve learned that we can be too quick to call a door closed. Sometimes really hard resistance can come from a door worth pushing through. For example, our post-accelerator “valley of death” was perfectly timed with the summer — when prospective clients and investors were non-responsive on vacations. But come the fall, all opportunities accelerated. I see quite a few promising companies shut down in short seasons of pain like this, but with persistence (and sometimes a necessary pivot), the season passes. The problem is that when you’re in the season, it doesn’t feel short, and there’s no end in sight. But it comes. Just keep on pushing.

5. It takes a village — this is just as true for starting a business as it is for parenting. Mentors, advocates and friends have pushed Cloverleaf to new levels all along our journey, from making connections to the right people, to providing hard lessons learned, to all around moral support. Twice a month I meet with 5 other female founders in Cincinnati, and these women have not only become some of my closest friends, their stories and learnings have been enormously helpful to Cloverleaf.

Jean: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)

Yes, there are plenty! Jason Lemkin, Reid Hoffman, Sean Ellis and Joel York to name a few. Above all, I really wish I could find a woman and a mother who has successfully scaled a SaaS machine.

— Published on June 27, 2018