“Let’s start a movement to drag every entrepreneur out of their space and connect them with someone with a totally different perspective” With Beth Kuchar
“Alone I think we are all capable of making a difference. But I think that there’s more strength in numbers, and when you connect with the right person or people, that’s when real change happens. That’s why I really love connecting people. If I could drag every entrepreneur out of their space and connect them with someone with a totally different perspective, I think great things would happen. The other day I was talking with a medical device startup — they had this product that replaces an immobile $25,000 piece of equipment, and it’s so efficient that it can fit in your pocket, run on any mobile phone, and costs in the hundreds of dollars, not thousands. What was impressive about this company, however, was that they came up with this idea when a doctor, a mathematician, and a designer got together and started talking about the issues of getting health care to people in remote areas and third-world countries. Imagine if we all had a conversation like that which led to solving a major problem.”
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve always been artistically inclined. In fact, I first started taking programming courses when I was nine-years-old. However, it wasn’t until I started working at McKinsey & Company, a worldwide management consulting firm, that the idea of transforming businesses through a digital experience really planted itself in my head. I got assigned to the Digital and Multimedia group and immediately thought, “I can do this on my own!”
I had never run my own business, but I shared some of my ideas with a co-worker (who later became my husband!) and we both decided to leave McKinsey and start our own company centered around digital services. This was 17 years ago, when e-commerce was still in its infancy and most companies didn’t really see the potential to capture business value from digital. We first had to educate our clients about “web software” and the Internet before we even could sell them on our own services! Still, I knew I had found my true passion when I was able to combine my creativity and my technical skills.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Not long after we opened our doors, we landed this big project for the Italian Cultural Institute, which is run by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — basically the Italian government! We had just launched the final phase, when the software got hacked and totally taken down. None of our employees were able to fix it and I started having this crazy fear that the Italian government was going to come after us. I’m not even sure how he found him, but my husband connected with a random programmer three time zones away who fixed the issue with a calm and confident demeanor. We decided right then that telecommuters could be a worthwhile addition to the business — and the programmer in question helped us launch some pretty cutting-edge technology for years after. We found one of the best additions to our team from an utterly frustrating situation. Oh, and in the end, the portal was probably only down for a few hours, but my panic at the time made it seem like much longer!
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?
Before I made the decision to leave McKinsey, a good friend asked me if I could help build a digital tool that the Southern California Lawyers Association could use to track members. I said “sure, I can do that!” even though I had no idea how to do it … I figured I could learn. The downside, though, was that I’d have a whole team of angry lawyers ready to sue me if I couldn’t figure it out! It worked out though, so anytime I had a client with some obscure need, I’d say “yeah, we can find a solution!” I’m always learning, and I’m always coming up with new solutions to crazy problems, but now it’s invigorating instead of scary.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Everyone on our team takes a much more hands-on approach to each project than you’d see at the average firm. “Hands-on” doesn’t really even describe how we dig in to the industry, get to know all about the unique business problems, and form a solid partnership with all our clients. We were working with a chemical company who had a pretty complex line of products. From back-end developers to creatives to researchers, our entire team decided to brush up on organic chemistry by breaking out some old school textbooks! Clients will call and want to ask our advice about a new product or venture because they know that every single person here has really taken the time to understand their business.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’ve had the honor of working with a really brilliant group up in Silicon Valley that I think is going to change how businesses connect to everything from data centers to WiFi to telecommunications. The founder is actually a co-creator of the cable modem, and the company has a technology stack that will make transmitting data safer and faster than anyone has seen. It’s been stimulating to unwind how people think about and interact with connectivity services.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Be flexible! I’ve talked with CEOs that absolutely refuse to let an employee take work time to learn a new skill or give someone a day off if it hasn’t been accrued. Being too rigid is going to make everyone unhappy, but when you provide flexibility for your employees to take some impromptu time for family or attend a short class on a trending topic or visit the dentist without having to submit a request form, it will come back to benefit your company. Making sure that everyone feels supported results in employees who are happier and want to grow and contribute to the future of the company. Everyone wins!
What advice would you give to other CEOs about the best way to manage a large team?
You’ve got to hone your communication skills. I’m constantly working to be the best communicator I can be. I know that everyone understands requirements, I am up to date with my team, and if there’s any confusion, we can resolve those issues right away.
Communicating also means listening — when you take the time to listen to input or solicit feedback from your team, each member feels valued.
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?
I remember the first programming class I ever attended. I was in the fourth grade and suddenly found myself in a room full of boys who were all older than me. I ran out of the room and right to my mom, begging to go home. She said, “You turn around, go right back in there and show them why you’re here. You can do just as much as those boys!” She’s the kind of person that will pick up a book and learn if she doesn’t understand something. She always encouraged me to challenge myself, and she didn’t let me chicken out!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Because I own a business in the city of Pasadena, I feel like if the city thrives, I win too. So a little over five years ago I got involved with a nonprofit group called Innovate Pasadena. Innovate Pasadena’s mission is to advance greater Pasadena as a center for technology and design innovation by supporting collaboration across and within business, academia and the broader community in order to attract and retain companies, entrepreneurs, innovators and capital. I’m currently serving as the president, a board-elected position. Our reach has increased exponentially over the years all due to the grassroots efforts of our volunteers, and we now have an extensive range of programs to help strengthen the innovation community through education and resource exchange. Now, we’re seeing more and more truly innovative businesses spring up, locals teaching free workshops and sharing the tech and science know-how, and after-school STEAM classes for kids of all ages. It makes me proud of my city!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Your employees will pick up your bad habits. If you consistently forget to eat lunch, your employees won’t leave their desks at lunch either! I had to learn the hard way that bad habits tend to permeate company culture, so you really have to set a good and healthy example.
2. Get used to delegating. Delegating is a challenge for anyone who loves to be in control — and I think most leaders are leaders because they like to be in control. It’s like a little leap of faith the very first time you have to cede control of a major project to someone else.
3. Don’t over-delegate. Once you get used to delegating, it can be tempting to leave things to someone else. But at the end of the day, everything that happens is your responsibility. If someone under you messes up, it is your fault. So, while delegating to capable people can feel freeing, you still need to be aware of, and have a bit of control over everything that’s going on in your company.
4. Be the best communicator. I can’t stress enough how important clear communication is when running any business. I used to write shy, timid emails and I always hesitated to pick up the phone. I’d get nervous about communicating the status of something or telling an employee exactly what needs to be done. I have worked hard over the years — and I still work hard — to be direct and clear, to jump on the phone when it’s obvious that email isn’t enough, to keep everyone informed so they can do their jobs. It’s hard work!
5. Empower your employees. Without the right tools and resources, you can’t do your job. But there’s more to it than that, and it took me some time to figure out the difference between providing the tools and actually empowering someone. Things like acknowledging hard work, providing flexibility to explore new avenues, putting aside your ego and considering new approaches — those things all help to empower your employees, and when they feel empowered they don’t just do their job, they work to excel.
You are a person of great 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. :-)
Alone I think we are all capable of making a difference. But I think that there’s more strength in numbers, and when you connect with the right person or people, that’s when real change happens. That’s why I really love connecting people. If I could drag every entrepreneur out of their space and connect them with someone with a totally different perspective, I think great things would happen. The other day I was talking with a medical device startup — they had this product that replaces an immobile $25,000 piece of equipment, and it’s so efficient that it can fit in your pocket, run on any mobile phone, and costs in the hundreds of dollars, not thousands. What was impressive about this company, however, was that they came up with this idea when a doctor, a mathematician, and a designer got together and started talking about the issues of getting health care to people in remote areas and third-world countries. Imagine if we all had a conversation like that which led to solving a major problem.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’m a huge Douglas Adams fan, and I remember reading The Salmon of Doubt around the time we launched our first business. There’s an excerpt from an interview that Adams did where he’s talking about his failed ventures, and that stuck with me: “A learning experience is one of those things that says, ‘You know that thing you just did? Don’t do that.’” We’re never going to achieve perfection, and we don’t always get it right the first time, but you try anyway and you don’t make the same mistake again. I’m not afraid of making mistakes, I just make sure to learn from each mistake — and try not to repeat the same mistake over and over!
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 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 would love to sit down with Bill Gates! He’s a programmer, an entrepreneur, and a philanthropist, he’s done it all. I love that he’s used his success to encourage others to learn the basics of computer science and that he supports scientific research and a variety of causes through his foundation.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
On Twitter: @booleanjedi
On LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/bethkuchar/
Innovate Pasadena on Twitter: @innovatpasadena (yes, we are missing an “e”!)
Innovate Pasadena on Instagram: @innovatepasadena
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.