Last week was another phenomenal Ellevate Network San Diego event, a Fireside Chat: Spotlight on Women Entrepreneurs featuring two typically male-dominated professions: accounting and law. Hera Hub Sorrento Valley hosted the talk, given by Jennifer Barnes, CEO and Founder of Optima Office; Noam Cohen, Founding Partner of CGL (a virtual law firm); and moderated by Jessica Hornbeck, Founder of Big Picture Bookkeeping. Perseverance was a big topic of the evening, and these ladies were very real about the struggles they faced in building their businesses and careers.
Jennifer’s Entrepreneur Journey
The evening began with each woman giving us some background on her life. Jennifer grew up in the Southwest desert, got an MBA, and started her career as an accountant at Petco (which is why I thought she seemed familiar, but our times there did not overlap). During her career, she remembers meetings where men asked if she was the assistant or secretary when she was actually the manager, director, or other high-level positions. At one company she stood up for her non-profit clients and was promptly fired, but most of those loyal clients appreciated her hard work advocating for them, so they came with her when she started her own business. She bravely started this new business with no business experience, just weeks before her wedding. She found a business partner and built that company into a $7M, 90 employee business. Five weeks ago, despite owning 45% equity and personally bringing in 75% of the revenue, there was a hostile takeover and she was forced out of her own company. Five days later, she started a new business, Optima Office, which now has 15 employees and 30 clients. Jennifer obviously thrives under high pressure! Her big lesson in all of this is not to give up full control of your business unless it is for A LOT of money (if you’re motivated by money).
Noam’s Entrepreneur Journey
Noam is from LA, went to college in Israel (where her mom grew up), came back for Berkely Law School, and started her career at a big law firm which only had one female partner. She said she “saw the light” quickly, that this environment was not for her, and she left to run social partnerships and business development for a tech company. She then became a mother and reevaluated how she spent her time. She quit the tech job, traveled to France with her husband and baby, and spent nine months deciding her next move searching for more meaningful work. She founded a virtual law firm, CGL, last year with her close friend from Berkely who is also a mother. CGL now has four female attorneys specializing in corporate and commercial law, with a new attorney specializing in cannabis business compliance (Noam said there are currently more women in business in the cannabis industry than any other industry). The virtual business model allows the attorneys to work from anywhere around the world; during her first year in business, Noam spent five months traveling abroad with her family.
Gratitude, Warning Signs, Contracts
Jessica said she tries to think of gratitude as not only being thankful for good things but also for the challenges, reframing struggles as a learning lesson. When asked about recent struggles, obviously Jennifer described being forced out of her company, but she also referenced a story she heard at a speaking event recently. It was about how to boil a frog, saying if you put it in boiling water, it will immediately jump out to save itself, but if you put it in lukewarm water and slowly turn up the heat, it will sit in it, fester, and die. This is a metaphor for staying in an unhealthy situation unless you’re forced out, similar to her recent events. Some of the “festering” or warning signs Jennifer sees now are her former (older, male) business partner telling the marketing department to stop applying for “Jennifer” awards, that all awards had to be for both CEOs together. Jennifer’s company won 26 awards in four years and she is under 40 years old, so the numerous 40 under 40 awards are a no-brainer for PR, as her marketing team pointed out. Another warning sign she sees, looking back, was watching the Steve Jobs movie and thinking how awful it would be to be kicked out of your own company by security … but she thought she was irreplaceable so didn’t really dwell on that at the time. Until the same thing happened to her, but worse: the day she was forced out they took her company car, so she walked home. While walking and talking to her husband, her phone stopped working and she realized her company shut it off because she had recently upgraded it to a business line and the IT department requested her PIN a few weeks ago (another warning sign). She didn’t have a landline at home, or a cell phone, or a car, or A/C on an 85-degree day … bad things were piling up! She went to her neighbor’s house and used their phone to call her old company to get her phone number of 20 years back, but the company said that wasn’t possible. Again, as someone good at problem-solving under pressure, she immediately paid the 16-year-old neighbor kid to drive her to a T-mobile store and was able to buy a new phone and get her number back. Jennifer instructed the audience to watch their back and be careful in business even with people you trust, to cover yourself as much as you can with email/paper trails.
Noam said that she’s had times where she was worried a client was going to sue just because he was looking for someone to blame, not because her company did anything wrong. Jennifer said that’s why it’s a good idea to time and date stamp everything like this, the red flags, so you can look back at them more objectively to draw conclusions (and also CYA). Document, document, document it. She learned this from a CEO coach, who said that when you’re busy in everyday life, you don’t notice or remember times and dates.
This led to a discussion on contracts. Both women say you should have contracts on everything. Jennifer says to have a good operating agreement with any partners and pay special attention to the words “Force” vs. “Option” on the stock buyouts section. Don’t assume you’ll never leave. And for any important details, write it down, no matter if it is a contract or not. Put it in an email if you talk about it on the phone, spell it out for clients, such as, “I can do this for you but I don’t recommend it … I can’t do this but I will do that, as per our phone call.”
Ulterior Motives In Business
In a similar story of hard lessons learned, Jessica shared how she got into business with seasoned entrepreneurs in Brooklyn who “blew smoke up her a&*” when she opened her restaurant. She had cashed out her 401K so she was all in on this business. The entrepreneurs forced her to use their contractor, their architect, their interior designer, and insisted on approving all plans. Unbeknownst to her at the time, they were basically outfitting the space on Jessica’s dime so they could flip it to developers and make an easy $5M profit. Two months after Jessica opened her restaurant, these entrepreneurs owned the entire block and decided to allow a former chocolate retail shop to reopen as a cafe, which was a competing business on the same block instead of a complementary business. She confronted them and they dared her to sue, which she did, but they somehow got to her attorney, who got the case thrown out with prejudice so she couldn’t continue to pursue getting her investment back. This experience helped her learn to fight for what right. She said she was really “scrounging” at this time, after losing all her savings between the restaurant and lawyer, but she persevered and found a superstar New York lawyer who sued the previous lawyer and won. Jessica said people need to hear stories like this so it doesn’t happen to someone else. “All experiences we have make us who we are now,” she said. Jennifer mentioned a related note later in the talk, to surround yourself with people who don’t have ulterior motives.
On mentorship, Jennifer said to ask someone, “What are your thoughts on this, what would you do,” instead of “Can you help me,” because it sounds less vulnerable and more engaging. On being a mentee, she advises being willing to listen and don’t get your guns up on the defensive immediately after criticism. Say, “I appreciate that and will take that into consideration,” even if you think they are wrong. Jessica added that she has to choose to stop and think, “I’m feeling this way right now and I’m going to react later.”
On mentorship, Noam said she’s always looked up to her mom, who has been living her truth and creating her own reality her whole life. For example, her mom didn’t like what happened to Noam’s older sister when she went to daycare, so her mom opened a daycare when Noam was that age and promptly closed it once she entered school. She had a different reality at different points in her life. A lot of times, we think of a career as straight up in a short time, but life happens, you can’t get there in that amount of time. Her mom’s life looked different when she had four kids at home, compared to what her life looks like now. She’s always created her own reality in the present moment. Life looks different than you imagined. At 50 years old, her mom got her MA degree in mind body medicine and started her own business. She also moved back to Israel last year, after a long “trip” here to the U.S. where she met Noam’s dad and raised a family.
Jennifer said she doesn’t like to feel obligated so doesn’t want other people doing favors for her. “If you buy me a drink, I’ll buy you three,” to not feel obligated, she said. For example, a lawyer friend helped her with about eight hours of legal work and Jennifer sent her a fancy (Ellevate-approved) Away suitcase. Her friend was so grateful and excited to use it on their upcoming trip to Italy together. “It helps to help others even if it doesn’t come back to you, it feels good,” she said.
Noam likes the topic of referrals. She said her business doesn’t do everything so she wants to send you to someone you can trust, which gives you a good memory of her and her business. She even refers to lawyers who do the same things as her. Someone she referred a client to sent her a letter with a 20% referral check. She called him and said she didn’t want it, he said cash it, she decided he would be insulted if she didn’t cash it, but she doesn’t expect that from referrals. Jennifer said she puts a reminder on her calendar to look at the referrals that came in recently and thanks them by sending a note, gift, or giving them an update on how the relationship they referred was going. She was able to build her new company quickly because of referrals, so stay top of mind and people will refer you back. Noam said other attorneys send her a lot of business so she doesn’t need to do marketing or sales, it’s all word of mouth. Jessica said that word of mouth is the best way to get clients because happy clients are trustworthy.
On habits, Noam said she doesn’t do all the things she reads about superstars doing, like going to bed early. Noam said she is in “go go go” mode all day and wears so many hats, then mentioned that her good habits are guarding her TV time to decompress before bed and reading fiction before bed, ever since law school, even at 1 am.
Jessica said her coaching programs say to get up early for the morning routine, but it doesn’t work when you have a kid. She said that you can get the same benefits as long as you have some time to be calm and breathe, any time of the day, not just early morning. She also likes that things are less sugar-coated now, she appreciates it when people are not just saying, “how are you, things are great.” That limits relationships and opportunity because it is not authentic.
Jennifer’s habits include boxing, which she has blocked on her calendar for one night every week for 10 years. She also doesn’t agree to go to events before 9 am because she uses sleep cycling and lets her body decide when to wake up, saying that a lot of people don’t want to admit they don’t want to wake up before 8 am. Another habit she has is responding to people as quickly as possible. She puts a note it in her phone as a reminder to follow up right away, the second she says she’s going to do something. This helps people know they can rely on her and depend on her. She also said if you move something from your calendar or to-do list 3 times, ask is it really important? You should probably delete or delegate it.
Strength and Vulnerability as a Leader
Jennifer said employees need to see you as strong, as the company leader, even if you’re having a bad day or fighting with your partner. She could never let her team see that, she stayed uplifting and motivating because people looked up to her and needed her to be strong and resilient so they didn’t lose confidence in her or the company. She said it’s not being fake since she didn’t have a problem with the employees, her problems and stress were caused by something else.
Noam said there is a middle ground there, you can be transparent that you have things going on in your life, but don’t take it out on others. Always ask how they are doing and ask about them. This could be a difference between small and large organizations, she said.
Noam mentioned how a former boss of hers said they learned to be assertive from her, such as when she asked during salary negotiations if she had to give a number, and they gave a number, and then they had to play games, or if she could just say what salary she wanted. Jennifer said when women are assertive and direct, we’re called bitches. When men are the same way, they’re called strong. So it’s not 100% being tough and direct, it’s also being empathetic at times.
Hiring and Retention
When figuring out hiring and compensation (as well as a good rule in general), Jennifer said to make sure you know your numbers, sales, revenue, salaries, and what you’re making on every employee and every client. She calls herself a “People over profits” leader, and under her leadership, her former company of 90 employees had an impressive 90% retention rate. On recognizing superstar employees, Jennifer said, “You can’t hire someone and expect them to change for your culture, you have to hire for culture fits.” She does behavioral tests when hiring and said she treats her team very well to make sure they are taken care of. She started a Bonus-ly program where she gives 150% to employees and they can choose to give their bonus to others, which was only an extra $30K expense a year and it was a way to motivate people and get them to collaborate with each other. Noam said she pays employees a lower base than they will actually make, to allow them to create their own schedules. For example, she might guarantee $5K a month, but if you work a lot, you get $8K, and if you work the minimum, you get $6K. Jessica said this will help employees realize you’re a human boss who knows they are a real person with lives outside the workplace.