From the Garage Up
Colleen Fitzpatrick discovers resourcefulness, perseverance, and intuition are all cornerstones to running a small high-tech business.
01 April 2006
Sixteen years ago when I was laid off from my job at a small high-tech laser company, I decided to go it on my own. I reasoned that I would at least learn something. Little did I realize how right I was. Because women in laser physics are a vast minority, and women high-tech business owners are an even smaller group, if I have learned nothing else I have learned what it is to persevere.
I started my company, Rice Systems Inc., in 1989 in my garage -- or more accurately, in half of my garage. (I still needed a place to park my car). Although I grew up around businessmen -- my father was a successful entrepreneur -- I had very little practical business experience. But I was willing to take the risk because I did not want to work for someone like the boss at the company I had just left.
I also wanted to disconnect from the fast track that had so blindly swept me away, and reorient my life to go in the direction I wanted to go.
Many entrepreneurs will tell you that they started their companies with a great idea that they were planning to sell, or a product or a customer they inherited from someone else. Not so in my case. I started my company with the necessity of making a living. All I had was some basic knowledge of my profession and a small optical laboratory that I had built in my garage. I was not unknown, but I can't say I was a recognized name in the field either. What I did have was a bit of resourcefulness, a natural ability to meet people, and very good communication skills.
I actually owe my successful start to a colleague who visited my tiny garage lab one afternoon. I told him I was considering bidding a small business contract. By coincidence, he had decided to bid the same one, and we discussed our various approaches. To be honest, I thought his was ridiculous and believed mine had to be at least as good. So I wrote my proposal, drawing together the skills of the ex-secretary, the ex-accounts manager, and the ex-contracts negotiator of my former company. Importantly, I also obtained a proposal from an ex-program manager who had worked at my former company sometime in the past, a man who had won a high percentage of the contracts he bid.
I read that proposal over and over for six weeks and milked it for every tiny shred of psychology -- how many equations to include, how complex the figures could be, the flow of logic, the level of technical explanation, and how all of these elements fit together as a whole. Since I did not have a computer of my own, I carried all my reference materials to the media division of the local library and rented one, first come first served, for $3/hour.
I realized that writing and submitting proposals was an essential skill, whether I worked for my own company or for someone else's. I had nothing to lose and a lot to gain, whether I was awarded the contract or not. Six months later when I received the results in the mail, I opened the letter expecting to experience my first rejection. If you heard a scream coming from Fountain Valley in 1990 or so, it came from me when I found out that I had been chosen for award on that contract. I was so excited that I couldn't even remember what I had proposed to do!
This first contract gave me a chance to learn some valuable skills on my own, without the umbrella of more senior managers and scientists. I learned to talk to customers. I learned to have the courage to call people I didn't know and talk to them about my technology. I learned where to find ideas. It wasn't easy. I continued winning one or two small business contracts per year, and continued to work in my garage. My friends used to kid me that defense contracting had become a cottage industry.
As the sophistication of my work grew, so did my need for lab space and equipment. I was soon renting a lab in my old company, which had since downsized and had extra space available. I also rented a lab at a nearby university with a pulsed laser. Finally, in 1995, six years after I started out, I rented my own commercial space with a seven-figure company and eight employees.
Over the years, I have developed three rules of thumb I use in my business, which could just as well be applied to life in general. The first is: staying in business is surviving your mistakes. This implies that there is no way to avoid making them, it's just surviving them that is the important element. If I thought my last boss was difficult, the one I have now (myself) is even worse at pointing out everything I do wrong. Yet giving myself the benefit of recognizing the mistakes in the first place, and a chance to think my way through them, gives me the opportunity to learn from them and go on.
My second rule of thumb I use in my business is: if you don't feel peace about it, don't do it. I am often surrounded by circumstances that demand an immediate decision. If I find I am uneasy as I decide what to do, I have learned to trust my intuition that something is wrong, and I stop a moment to consider the situation in more detail. I might not be able to pinpoint the reason for my hesitation, but if I wait, it usually becomes obvious.
My third rule of thumb is: to stay in business, you have all you need and you need all you have, and there is not one ounce extra in either direction. If I am working in the lab doing a complicated experiment late at night before a deadline, I will have just enough 1/4-20 screws to tie down all the optical components, I will have just enough change in my pocket to buy that last cup of coffee, and I will finish five minutes before I have to get the report to Federal Express the next day. It never fails, no matter how early I start, no matter how much money I took out of the ATM that afternoon, and no matter how late FedEx closes.
These are simple examples of the principle, but there are many more complex situations. Times when equipment I needed appeared on the doorstep an hour before I needed it, or when I was able to stretch my last dollar to cover the payroll for the following month. If I could write a novel instead of a short article, I would still not exhaust all the situations where this rule of thumb has held true.
Obviously, there are many other principles that are essential to running a successful company. Be a good listener. Have patience. Go with the flow. Roll with the punches. Learn to laugh at yourself. Notice you are being stabbed in the back, but don't let them know you know. Very importantly, remember where you came from. Remember that there were many people who truly believed that you could not make it. Remember that there were many people who always knew you would. Remember how valuable it was when someone finally listened to your idea. Remember what it was like to struggle with who you were and where you were going.
Remember all this, and be kind to those around you, since you really don't know what the future holds for anyone, nor whose idea will be the ultimate breakthrough. And always keep in mind that arrogance never made a success of anyone.
Of course, in addition to technology expertise, there is the added aspect of managing the personnel at your company. Running a high-tech company requires much more than technical expertise and knowledge of the mechanics of negotiation and finance. There is also the issue of managing intelligent, sometimes difficult personalities, both male and female. When I say male and female, I do not mean two categories of people with different physical characteristics. Rather, I am referring to two categories of emotional, intellectual, and mental traits that sometimes exist in the same person.
Is running my own company hard? Yes, it is. It is like raising a child. The only way you can learn how to do it is to do it. Many people give you advice from the outside, saying what they would do if it were their business (their child). But it is a lot easier to give advice from the outside than to actually do it yourself. You can't just read a book and be an expert on running a small business. You have to do it.
Is running my own company hard? Yes, it is. Would I do anything else in the world? No, in fact, I would not.
Standing Out in a Crowd
Along the way, I have come to realize that one of the key assets and liabilities of a woman in high tech is what I call "uni-directional visibility." One day when I walked into a meeting related to a large government program in which I was involved, I scanned the attendees to assess the tone of the talk I would give. I saw about 30 men in attendance.
Suddenly it occurred to me that from my point of view there were 30 men in the room. But anyone else in the room would see something different -- 29 men and one woman. There was no way I would not be noticed.
This can work to my advantage, for example, when I call a program manager who is associated with a proposal I'd like to submit. When I mention my name, he will typically respond, "Oh, I know you. Don't you remember I met you at the So-and-So meeting last January? We spoke in the hall for 20 minutes after the session was over." Of course, I will have at most only a vague recollection of meeting him. So I respond, "Oh, yes, I remember you. You were the fellow with the dark suit and the red tie, right?" In most cases, the joke is enough to get by and start a conversation.
Visibility can also be a disadvantage, the cause of great discomfort. It is common for me to attend meetings where I am one of only a few women. To overcome my nervousness at not only being a stranger in the crowd, but more importantly being so noticeable, I single out one or two women and introduce myself. This gives me an ally in an uncomfortable situation, helping me feel more at ease with the rest of the crowd.
Like most people, Colleen Fitzpatrick pursues interests beyond her "9 to 5" work. Fitzpatrick is the author of two books -- Forensic Genealogy and DNA & Genealogy-- that present unique ways to research family history. Forensic Genealogy, which was featured on National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation program, emphasizes the creative aspects of investigating one's ancestors versus the mechanics, while DNA & Genealogy details how DNA analysis can extend genealogists' search beyond conventional documentation to uncover new family relationships. To learn more about these fascinating topics, visit Fitzpatrick's website at www.forensicgenealogy.info.
Colleen Fitzpatrick, SPIE member, is a recognized expert in optical laser measurement techniques. As owner of Rice Systems Inc., she has developed innovative technologies for NASA, the U.S. National Science Foundation, and the Department of Defense. She received her BA in physics from Rice University, and her MS and PhD in nuclear physics from Duke University. In addition, she is the current SPIE Women in Optics chair.