About Michele Colucci
Michele Colucci, CEO and Founder of MyLawsuit.com, is a lawyer and serial entrepreneur. She was featured in Women 2.0's Female Founder Successes of 2009; was a Winner of the Girls in Tech's Catalyst Competition honoring top women-led startups in February of 2010 and her Company Advisory Board is viewed by many as one of the most impressive in the Valley.
She is also a new Huffington Post blogger with her blog entitled "Confessions of a Female Entrepreneur." She has practiced law, owned & operated a chain of 12 retail stores on the East Coast and ran a media company in LA producing content for film, tv and reality projects before moving to Silicon Valley to launch MyLawsuit.com, a competitive marketplace for contingency fee litigation and communities of information, support and sharing.
Latest Posts by Michele Colucci
A good indication that a thought provoking conversation has taken place is the “legs” it has in your mind and in the minds of others who share the experience.
Such is the case with the Washington Ideas Forum – sponsored by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute. And with the recent news of Chuck Hagel stepping down as Secretary of Defense, one of the most compelling speakers at the Conference, capturing a taste of it seemed even more appropriate. So, at the invitation of Steve Clemons, DC Editor at Large for The Atlantic, I spent two incredible days listening to all things innovative and important.
Now, my sister (Marlene Colucci, Executive Director, US Business Council) and I have known Steve for about 30+ years.
When he ran the Japan America society in Los Angeles, I always enjoyed tagging along and engaging in compelling discussions surrounding the East-West debate of the 90’s. Steve has a penchant for creating thought provoking conversations and visibility into issues and verticals that lack transparency. So we both knew this was going to be one great show.
It appears he’s matched in that passion by his co-producer, Margaret Low Smith, and the reporters and staff from The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times Magazine, BuzzFeed, The Cook Political Report, NPR, The Financial Times, Bloomberg News, ABC News, and lest I miss anyone else, the most senior journalists of our time, all of whom moderated truly exceptional panels.
The showing from the White House was impressive. Sure, there was the usual dosage of party line coming from several administration officials, but even they let go at certain points to lay in to some of the more complex and contentious issues of their tenure and our time.
Whether they were challenging Penny Pritzker about the anti-business policies of President Obama, Eric Holder, drilling down with Attorney General of the US Department of Justice about his intentions surrounding the prosecution of journalists or pontificating with US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on the challenges of the “new world order”and ISIS, the twenty minute interstitials dove deep enough to leave one feeling satisfied and, in some cases, truly inspired as in conversations with Dean Kamen on philanthropy or Craig Venter on advances in the study of the brain.
Speaking of Dean Kamen, Founder DEKA Research & Development Corp., no one made me want to abandon all my work more and follow him in his epic quest to make the world a better place. Talk about the Pied Piper. Whether he was inspiring children to invent by gamifying technology projects through a massive competition or creating prosthetic arms for disabled vets that had all the movement and responsiveness to mental signals of a real arm…he was amongst a small elite group of individuals who will leave the world a better place. Without doubt.
The topic of the day was, understandably with the conference taking place in Washington DC, political gridlock. But even that topic was addressed by John Barrasso, Senator from Wyoming, Joseph Manchin III, Senator from West Virginia, Jack Markell, Governor of Delaware and Chris Van Hollen, Representative from Maryland’s 8th Congressional District, with a serious desire to find ways to rise above the filibusters in the Senate and let them do their job of voting.
When most everyone can agree that Harry Reid’s obstructionism has caused a lack of productivity in the Senate, it is understandable how even the politicians want to move beyond that. Hallelujah!
In spite of the gridlock, they were all proud of the things they were able to accomplish such as improvements in the delivery of healthcare. No one can really argue with that and happily no one tried.
Penny Pritzker gave some informative insight into all the things that the Commerce Department actually oversees: the Census, the Weather Service, the economy of the coastline, international trade, foreign investment, the economic statistics and the Patent & Trademark system. She talked of the creation of manufacturing hubs, 5 out of 8 thus far completed, and of her absolute conviction that the President did care about corporate America…a great effort for those disposed to listen.
What struck me most was, in the years since Bush I, when I lived and worked in DC, Washington had managed to move beyond a one-issue town of politics, to one of ideas and entrepreneurship. In the past, most would have looked right past an entrepreneur to see if any important politician was within striking distance unless of course they were donating to your campaign. This was encouraging. People were interested to hear from Steve Crocker, the guy who created the RFC (“Request for Comments”) and who was part of the team that authored the protocols for the ARPANET, the foundation of today’s internet, joined by Steve Case. Invented as a collaborative medium for institutions in different locations, and mandated by the authority who was funding those entities lest they may never have accepted this radical change, it was stunning to listen to this pair talk about how true it has stayed to its original roots.
The web as a collaborative medium was reinforced by Flipboard’s CEO Mike McCue who shared a stunning metric of 250k new users per day, and Etsy’s Founder Chad Dickerson who noted that there are more Etsy craft entrepreneur sellers than yellow cabs in New York collaborating and exchanging their creations. In addition to metrics, they both offered insights into how that collaboration might evolve as we scale in mobile devices and operate in a world economy.
Germane to DC was a stellar line-up from the government. I mentioned Penny Pritzker. Then there was US Treasury Under Secretary David Cohen,whose success with the addition of an intel analytical operation to map elicit activities at Treasury has put them at the forefront of the discussion on terrorism.
No stone was left unturned and no subject matter given short shrift. US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who has sadly since resigned from his post, oozed credibility and strength. He gave articulate and compelling answers to many of the same state security questions asked of David Cohen and others – albeit from different angles. And by the end of the conference, one felt as if they had truly seen issues from every angle. But what’s unique about Chuck Hagel is that he gives you a feeling of being able to hand over every bit of personal information and you know know it will be safe. He’s one tough act to follow, especially in that role.
One of my favorite talks by far was T Boone Pickens. How can you not love a man that says “all men want to please their wives.” The audience ate it up as he boasted he was very happily married at 86 years of age (and still doing push-ups when directed). I immediately started thinking to myself, why–did-I-not-move-to-Texas!
The audience, however, wasn’t quite as receptive to his views that global warming doesn’t exist – a view largely outnumbered by most including Shane Smith, CEO VICE. But the great part about this conference is that everyone was talking about it. Not shouting, with the exception of one protestor, who it turns out did not even have to shout as his question was the next in line for the interviewee Eric Holder, but discussing confrontational issues in an intelligent manner. How refreshing.
As I say to my children, I care less about what side of the political fence you’re on; I care more about your having a reason for holding that belief. True to that philosophy was probably the most compelling, and of course most humorous speaker of the day, Cole Bolton, Editor-In-Chief of The Onion, as he shared some of his favorite headlines over the years.
The relevant one in this case read: “Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be.” As he got to the last of about 10 slides, I sat there wishing he had 100 more but realized I’d have cried off every stitch of make-up I had almost no time to apply in the taxi on my way over. Who would have known that a lawyer, his profession prior to starting The Onion, could have ever grown into such a likeable fellow.
Then there were the women. Yes, you had the new CTO of the White House Megan Smith, on the job just a few short months but already taking hold of her mission, Penny Pritzker – smart and articulate with an unshakable conviction that the Administration is making a positive change in people’s lives, and Susan Rice, White House National Security Advisor, who handled hard and probing questions about the state of our defense with dignity and ease. But then – all of a sudden – you were listening to these unexpectedly great speakers like CEO and NASCAR Vice Chairperson Lesa Kennedy and Pelicans Vice Chairman and New Orleans Saints Owner Rita Benson – a wonderful departure from the traditional roster of women paraded on stage to create gender equality.
Both working in almost completely male-dominated verticals, (and I thought law was bad), these two women rocked the room. Not only were they thoughtful enough to bring a parting gift for their interviewer of a signed football and a cool NASCAR helmet, but what they’ve accomplished using their sports franchises as vehicles to rebuild depressed economies and to rally for the comeback from Hurricane Katrina took the concept of a sports franchise to an entirely different level. (NB: Yes, girls, even working on the business side of sports can get you a Superbowl ring :-)
One can’t overlook Carlyle Group Co-Founder and Co-CEO David Rubenstein’s talk about his charitable efforts: anyone who pledges to give back most of his wealth to the country that made him has to be inspirational. What we didn’t realize was that he was also a comedian. We laughed, cried and cringed as he described his refusal of the offer to watch semen extraction or insertion into the giant pandas he had just funded. A man with heart and humor thankfully on stage to give pause to everyone in this very powerful room if only for a short moment in time but hopefully longer in the minds of those who experienced this talk.
Then came Peter Thiel – seriously intense and articulate. The interviewer, David Frum, could not have felt more honored and respected than by the way Peter listened intently and answered purposefully. If you’re looking for substance in the Valley, there you have it…serious insights from the Co-Founder of Paypal and Chairman of Palantir Capital. It’s no surprise why entrepreneurs love to work with him.
We heard from NRG CEO David Crane, learned about education from EdEx CEO Anant Agarwal and from Jim McKelvey, Co-Founder, Square and Co-Founder, Launch Code, and that the world for novelists was shrinking even more and doomed to eventual obliteration in an incredibly humorous exchange between Joseph O’Neill, Author of Netherland and Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure. Interviewed by Scott Stossel, these two novelists provided the final comic relief as we rolled around “ in their head” and listened to them explain the thought process of their writing. Their books are now on my list.
In the end, the program was topped off with cocktails and a decadent candy table from Comcast/NBC/Universal (am I forgetting any other company they’ve appended to their masthead lately?) The day was truly inspirational. As I sat there throughout the day, I could not help to think I wished more people could have benefited from this thoughtful day. If not to be able to share these special experiences in life, what good are they? So, albeit after a few weeks wherein all that rich content and data soaked in, this is my grateful recitation of the highlights of the day. Hopefully there will be many more, for only in dialogue can we truly bring about revolutionary change.
Top photo Ideas-shared. All other photo credits: Michele Colucci.
Amy Levin-Epstein recently wrote an article entitled 8 Ways Parenthood Can Make You Better At Your Job. I gave her my answer in this article — but as I pondered this concept, I thought about how all of our experiences really count as predictors of future success.
Whether you’re starting a company as a first-time CEO, changing careers entirely or getting back into the job market after raising your children, it’s not just previous positions that reflect your suitability for the challenge.
Here are some critical resume building skill sets you have acquired but may have overlooked!
1. Parenting: Amy’s article is excellent for this category. How many lessons have you learned as a parent that you can apply in business? Or vice versa? It’s all experience and it all counts.
2. Physical Challenges: Many of us have traversed through medical nightmares of our own or of those closest to us. There is nothing scarier than navigating your way through a life-threatening illness or caring for a dying parent. These situations require extreme proficiency in crisis management and serve as completely valid examples of how you handle adversity. As such, they are relevant to reflect how you can and will deal with business challenges.
3. Fiscal Responsibility: Have you eked through some very trying financial times? Have you had to balance this, trade off that, save on this or find a way to get that for half? Resourcefulness is a key metric to business success. And being able to make a dollar go a long way in business is a talent that most investors value when entrusting you with their hard-earned cash.
4. Passion: There is no substitute for passion and focus. Have you ever done something you felt was absolutely necessary? Did you achieve it? Were you an advocate for your child? Did you fight for a friend who was wronged? Help an aging parent deal with an adversarial bank or insurance company? Ways in which you turned a passion or outrage into an actionable plan to prevent abuse or change the system is absolutely relevant as an indicator for success in a business that solves an important socio-economic problem or provides a solution for those in need.
We women spend a lot of time working for our family, for our friends and for our passions. We need to take ownership of our successes, experiences, and accomplishments in our “other” jobs. I often hear women tell me I don’t know how to run a business or I don’t have any experience being a CEO. OK, well, neither did any other CEO’s in their first role as CEO. So don’t be afraid to use all of your past experience when convincing others, or yourself, that you really do have what it takes to build a business.
Inspire, Illuminate, Innovate…
Fund-raising is an awkward and often uncomfortable effort for those raising funds. But when the person asking is a women entrepreneur, the dance takes on many more nuances. First, a woman — asking for money from the usual funding decision maker — a man — can bring out the age old male/female dynamic and take the focus off track.
Another hurdle can come from a woman’s own feeling of vulnerability when asking for assistance (something we prefer to give, instead of take). Still, a third challenge is trying to convince the funder that you (a woman) are every bit as capable of leading and scaling a business as your male counterpart.
I don’t care what people say about this — the perception that a man as a leader will take the business more seriously is always there. (Perception can take a long time to catch up to reality!) So, the “ask” is now a “dance” with layers of complexity and nuance. Navigating this minefield can be tricky, but if you follow a few tips I’m paying forward from very credible sources, it will go a long way to making you far more effective in fund-raising.
Skill #1: Practice The Ask This advice came from a doctor friend in New York who runs a very successful medical publishing company (Castle Connolly Medical Publishing) His advice: Look in the mirror. Practice your pitch. Then practice asking for money. “Would you like to invest?” (pregnant pause) Then don’t say another word until you get an answer. I would wager that 9 times out of 10, people talk their investors out of investing by what they say after they ask. No matter how uncomfortable it may be, don’t say another word until the person responds to your ask. It’s painful! And the interesting part of this is that people to whom you are pitching really want to tell you their thoughts. They want to tell you if they can or will invest. Cut to the chase! You’ve done your part — now let them do theirs.
Skill #2: Understand the Ask In my ASTIA training, the coaches emphasized we figure out how much money we needed, how it would be spent and what we’d achieve. Of course this can be an exercise in futility given different amounts often translate into different scaling opportunities for businesses. However, there’s a point at which too much money is a negative. It takes a lot more time and thought to intelligently invest larger amounts of capital than smaller amounts. More important, more money does not equate with a higher degree of success. So know how much you want, why you want it and what your investors will get for it. If you can’t do that, how can you expect an investor, whose job rests on making good investments and thus profits for his/her investors (limited partners, or “LP’s”), to trust in you to grow that investment for the benefit of all?
Skill #3: Ask for the Team! This nugget came a few nights ago from Gina Bianchini, Founder of Ning. She clearly sympathized with my difficulty in asking for something for myself. However, I am extremely effective when I asked for things for others. So she suggests asking not for you but for your team. Ask for the people who rely on you to move the solution forward and who believe in the solution so much that they devote their time for nothing or next to nothing but an expectation that their shares will be worth something one day. I found that to be brilliant. It has truly helped me to see the “ask” in a totally different light. Thanks, Gina!
Skill #4: Stay Focused on the Ask If you’re talking with an investor for funding who’s interested, be attentive and consistent. Set a schedule and expectations. Don’t be afraid to ask what the next steps are. If there are deliverables (venture speak = if they expect you to provide further documentation or do something), then set a time when you will deliver on that request. And not next week or month, but in one, two or three days. If they need time to review your documents, ask them “Should I check back with you on Friday?” We all get very busy and the old adage “The squeaky wheel gets oiled first” is an enduring adage for a reason.
Skill #5: Believe in Yourself If you don’t, how can you expect others to? And if you really do believe that what you are offering has value, and that you are the one to realize that value, then there will be many buyers. Not just one. After all, you are “offering an opportunity.” People don’t make money by hourly wages. They make money by putting the money they’ve made to work. And as we all know, the opportunities out there to make a lot of money from a small amount are limited and risky. You are the one holding the cards here. So don’t push. Set objective, realistic time-lines for further discussion. But if the person is not being responsive, and it’s not simply because of their busy work life/travel schedule, then take the hint. You don’t want an investor who is investing in you because they made a promise or feel bad. You want investors who believe that what you have created is important or exciting. You want investors who bolster your own zeal. Don’t sell yourself short by settling for any investor short of a really great advocate.
So, to sum it up, though more complex challenges may exist for a female entrepreneur in the fund-raising game, acknowledging that they do exist and facing them head on is a far better strategy than pretending they don’t. Fund-raising is a skill and like any skill, there are those to whom it comes natural, and others of us that have a learning curve. Hopefully these tips provide the fodder for that curve.
I believe there is no better time to be raising funds as a female entrepreneur. Female entrepreneurship is a topic on a lot of people’s minds and tongues, and groups are sprouting up all over to support and fund women lead businesses. Perhaps it’s because the metrics from recent studies show how successful women run businesses have been. Perhaps it’s because firms want to show they’ve evolved. Whatever the reason — embrace it! And make the most of that perception!
I run across a lot of people who are rooting around for the next great business idea. I spend most of my time covering my ears, singing out loud and hopping on one foot — trying desperately to keep ideas from bombarding my every thought. Such is the personality type of the compulsive problem solver. Such is me. To successfully cut through the noise, I found Steve Bennett. Steve is my Advisor, Investor, CEO Coach and Friend. He also ran Intuit for 7 years, produced some killer products and hails from the Jack Welch School of GE, so he knows what he’s talking about. In reality all entrepreneurs, with their limitless ambition and big dreams, need a Steve …
This is how a “Steve” can help you get your product completed and business launched:
1. Focus: The single most important, and also most challenging, skill for entrepreneurs. Whenever I get carried away telling Steve what a great white label solution I will have and how I plan to expand to foreign markets, he sobers me. “It may be all those things. But let’s launch first.” And he’s right. Without proving the basic value, there’s no point in exploring what could be. Identify the core value you’re offering, and prove it out. If it really works, options will be the least of your concern. (“Of course, that second product iteration is actually really cool… let me tell you about it…” Ouch!)
2. Devil is in the Details: If you are crazy passionate about your idea, chances are you also have a tough time boiling it down to “the big idea.” Explaining your value proposition in a sentence thwarts many an entrepreneur with fund-raising and with launch success. And as Leonardo da Vinci says, “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” An informed mentor will challenge you to really think this through. It took Steve about three weeks to get me to own that level of clarity. And he still has to pull me back to center every so often. I was an early Google adopter — why? Because it had one, and only one goal, or “call to action,” for its’ users. SEARCH. And they executed on that one critical action with extreme alacrity and substantive results. (Love to know my search took 16 seconds! Superfast!) So take some time to identify THE big idea, focus on doing it better than anyone else, and don’t get caught up in the labyrinth of all those awesome functionalities. (Awwww, man, this is soooo hard!)
3. Run Before you Walk: It’s hard to see who I am when there’s so much I can become! Reality bites. Some like to visualize it to realize it. Others say build it and they will come. Whatever your metaphor, the key here is that the capacity of the business has to match the reality of resources, development and bodies. I made an early mistake by cutting a great deal with Dunn & Bradstreet for my search engine way before we had the capacity to integrate it. Both Steve and Allen Morgan have talked me out of some pretty exciting partnerships pre-launch. It’s easy to be flattered when you’ve been struggling for recognition. Don’t succumb! If your business is tech, finish the technology. If it’s green like Ian Wright’s super amazingly fast drive train that saves tons of money, then build the drive train. If it’s building the next perpetual motion machine, well, as my bud Jamis of Buck’s would say, “forgetaboutit!”
4. Prioritize: People in venture will always tell you — “Launch!” OK, so not all launches should be shoved out the door, but the idea is right. Get your product or business into the market and improve or expand it later. Prove one thing that puts you above the noise, and save the rest for later. Unfortunately this is an idea that may take awhile to seep in because all those little extra’s are such fun to create…
Getting a product out the door and successfully launched, for any entrepreneur, is directly related to one’s ability to honestly identify their own strengths and weaknesses, and to get the input they need to compensate for the weaknesses. That’s why I found my Steve Bennett. He keeps my overactive problem solving mind focused on one single execution. Motivation takes many forms: children, affirmation of your friends/family, personal passion, faith. Whatever your reason, if you want someone to put their money where your mouth is, you have to block everything else out, focus on one big idea, be realistic about your capacity and prioritize the things that are directly related to executing on that one big idea.
But more important, find your own Steve Bennett. Without the advice and counsel of someone who has done it before, whose skills are directly related to your business and who has skin in the game, it is very, very, very difficult to view your business with objectivity and recalibrate accordingly. Because success is collaborative, in this instance, at least, it does take a village. (More about how to build your village in my next blog…)
Inspire, Innovate, Illuminate.
The first time I attended a conference to learn about venture, I was greeted at the door by a man who said, simply, “VC or Entrepreneur?” I knew I wasn’t a “VC” or Venture Capitalist, but had never realized that I was an Entrepreneur — or that the word “Entrepreneur” could actually be a job title.
So, shortly thereafter, I joined the ASTIA program for female entrepreneurs (now firm in my conviction that I was an Entrepreneur). This is an incubator for female CEO’s with start-ups. I distinctly remember sitting in one of the first seminars struggling to follow the language one of the instructor/CEO’s was using to demonstrate how to assemble my company financials. It was then that I realized that almost every other woman in the room was struggling to keep up as well. Yes, there were a few MBA’s who had the lingo down, but not the rest of us. And what I also realized was, it wasn’t because we weren’t able to articulate what was being asked of us — in fact, most of us could rattle off the answers if asked in layman’s terms. But not so in venture speak.
Since that time, I’ve started to familiarize myself with the terminology necessary to operate in this world of start-ups, fundraising and building a business. It was not something that, as a woman, I had ever been exposed to, though I had started businesses before. And I realized that women in particular are very disadvantaged by not knowing this language.
So, for my first blog, I am sharing with my fellow female entrepreneurs what and how I learned the “language of venture.”
Here are a few suggestions that worked for me:
1. Attend pitch sessions. Most angel groups have showcases. (you can Google angel showcase in your area; or if you don’t find any, check out www.vator.com, the www.pitch.com or other online pitching opportunities. (Note: a “pitch” is exactly what it sounds like — you explain your idea in concise, clear language designed to let your potential investor see what you see in the idea with an end goal of getting them to give you money to do it.) I’d also suggest seeking the advice of others in the audience. If you’re lucky enough as I was to sit next to someone who will take the time to critique the pitches for you (my chance meeting was with Ted Driscoll, angel, VC and now friend extraordinaire…), then take advantage of the fact that most have probably seen hundreds of these pitch’s and can focus you on the most effective way to clearly and concisely present your business and connect with potential investors.
2. Earnings Calls: I got a great bit of advice from a friend at Goldman I met on a plane years ago. He said: Listen to earnings calls. Anyone can call in. So give it a try. Write down all the words you hear that you are not familiar with. Then look them up. Google them. See how they’re used. Then try to apply them to your business. If you pick up languages easily, great. If not, listen more. You’ll pick it up and soon start talking about your relationships in terms of scaling! (Or not… yikes… time to bail.)
3. PowerPoint: Do a tutorial for using the PowerPoint program. This is the common form of presentation when you pitch your idea to potential investors or venture folks. I have always liked Bill Reichert’s pitch guidelines. Aside from being a smart man (evidenced by the fact that he’s married to a very lovely and smart woman who’s also a lawyer and also a Michelle), his advice is solid. You can find his slideshow presentation here, which contains the ten things that should be in your presentation. And don’t be deterred when they ask you to make it “pretty.” I was so worried about insulting my audience that I had all very serious words and statistics on each page. I was told venture loves statistics that support your proposition that the market is huge and that they will make tons of money if they invest — so they don’t have to take your word for it. Wrong on the words. Right on the statistics. Venture folks don’t like to work too hard to get your point. If they do, you lose their interest. Think of it like dating: If you take one look at him and yell “check!” — it’s probably not going to be a match made in heaven.
4. Connect to Women Run Networks: There are several networks promoting women such as ASTIA, Girls in Tech, Catalyst. I started with ASTIA, which is an incubator. Sharon Vosmek, ASTIA CEO, throws out some pretty interesting statistics (i.e. only 4.3% of venture investments in 2006 had female CEO’s). Translation = opportunity! So find one in your area and connect. Aside from providing access to funding, these places teach you “investor speak.” This language includes crafting your pitch, assembling a team, identifying market statistics that prove people need/want what you’re offering, assembling credible financials to make profit projections (another blog on this another day… ), and possible exits (how will investors realize their profit). They also provide relationships with other CEO’s or with “coaches” who have experience in your field. Bottom line, it’s all about being able to effectively communicate in their language the need for what you’re selling in the market, that your particular solution is the answer, and explaining just how your opportunity will make your investors rich (… now that’s a language we can all understand).
Hopefully I’ve been able to shed a little light on the language barrier preventing many women from obtaining venture investment for their business. If you have more suggestions or funny venture speak stories, I’d love to hear them!
Inspire, Innovate, Illuminate.