Do You Believe In (Imaginary) Friends?
Christine is a Senior Program Manager at Microsoft with several years experience in the .com industry.
She recently started social venture labs, an idea incubator for those leading small mission-driven businesses or organizations looking to create relationships, share ideas and get feedback on common business practices. She is new to StartupNation, and looking to profile mission driven companies and discusses related themes.
When talking to Jody DeVere about her company Ask Patty, it’s hard to know where DeVere ends and Patty begins. Both are smart, accomplished and energetic women, but only one has built several businesses, had children, and adapted through several industries. The other is a cartoon.
Like best friends though, they do most everything together: like get featured in the NYTimes five times (more on this later).
DeVere is one of those women that regardless of your age or gender, you admire the minute you connect with her. Her accomplishments and life experiences, and more importantly the way she manages both, are inspiring. Two things stood out for me: how the energy and support she gets from her family motivate her to accomplish great things, and her ability to create and focus on her vision.
Family As Motivation
Her son had been in a horrific car accident and previous to that, diagnosed with MS. She mentions her experience on her blog but before you get the hankies out, know that (amazingly) he’s back to driving, skiing and anything else he can put his wheels to—must run in the family!
Colleague Peter Martin, an expert in automotive, starting companies and founder of Cars Magazine, brought DeVere in to consult on a project, including a fledgling advice site for women. DeVere thought there was an interesting business model behind Ask Patty.
Looking to keep up with mounting medical bills but not interested in working with another start up—she of course committed herself hook, line, and sinker. As is often the case the company was born from necessity and circumstance addressing a core need in the market. It was part of the economic solution to a family challenge. Since Ask Patty was launched, her son has become healthier and again self-reliant. “He is the real hero.”
Promoting Talent Promotes the Brand
Her Advisory Panel is a very popular content feature on the web site. In an industry where there are few female voices or role models, this is a generous thing for DeVere to do. “Careers in automotive are exciting, lucrative and interesting; we will see the percentage of women working grow in the coming years and there will be more interest in attracting women to the automotive industry. We just partnered with Girl Scouts to better understand how to reach and attract girls to the automotive industry.
Top women, those who are known by their first names have incredibly talented teams working for them. However, First Name brands are often hard pressed to answer the question “what next?” or thoughts around succession. They focus on the here and now: “what can I get done in my lifetime?” When leaders involve and showcase the creativity, innovative thinking and talent of those they choose to surround themselves with, they create something bigger than themselves, something that can outlive them (and their name) and grow on its own.
“The brand of Ask Patty had heart and soul from the very beginning. Simply put, the site serves as an advice-platform for women to feel comfortable in making their car purchase.”
About DeVere (aka Patty)
Armed with an MBA from Hard Knocks U, and more than twenty-five years of achievement in sales and marketing leadership, including 10 years developing web-based business solutions across diverse industries, DeVere is now managing the problem most companies crave: too many invitations and planning for the next phase of development.
When reflecting on the obvious delta between big company and small business, DeVere says “I was at a big meeting to discuss a potential partnership and [the company] spent two years deciding what they wanted to do.” Two years is a long time, but not uncommon for big companies. The accountability in organizations is so diluted compared to smaller business where decisions are made to prolong immediate survival versus “invest in an idea.” In short, big companies are not able to stomach risk very well. “You know an entrepreneur because they are fearless.”
“For me it was need-based. The path of entrepreneurship was better for me and had me doing 5M a year in business. I could speak past my (perceived) education barrier and I’m so glad I took that route; I’ve had lots of adventures.”
About Ask Patty
Providing help to women making large purchases or negotiating the right terms have made DeVere the de facto spokesperson for women in auto industry – a role she takes tremendous pride in. She is also humbled by the responsibility. Patty has paved the way for DeVere to speak to groups like the National Organization of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) about blogging, among other topics.
Big company folks often fantasize about doing their own thing and think that means that it would be hard, of course, but that one could do it when one wanted. Small business affords its freedoms but it actually requires that you take of that business, like a baby. “You also have to take care of yourself, because if you get sick, there isn’t anyone else to fill in.”
Espresso Shot Insights (what’s this?)
- Find Your Soul
- Help Reduce Pain
- Incorporate Outside-In Thinking
Find Your Soul
“I’ve had other businesses, but none have had the heart and soul of Ask Patty – we were able to correctly nail a solution to a pain. Women are very unhappy in the retail car market; we are not advertised to, we have mistrust of the automotive industry. Even if we are at home taking care of kids, we control the income and decision power. The change from the 1950s or even the 1980s is: now we know it. The internet has given women a voice, and a powerful one.”
When DeVere talks of her business (Ask Patty), it’s often as if she is talking about a real person. She meets frequently with automotive leaders and will offhandedly make a comment like “they give Patty a lot of respect.” To an outsider, like me, her reflections of meetings with dealers or big clients seem to be all about Patty, what Patty can do for them. However when she gets to the sale, the solution – the point of her story – there is little doubt the DeVere is the turbo-motor behind it all, and that the respect that Patty gets is definitely extended to her as well.
The fact that Patty (as a brand) has such currency after such a short time in the market is worth a lot. “When you make an impact, the money comes.” The importance of this and “your values change as you get older. I’ve never had more passion about something than I do about this.”
Small business affords people the ability to be passionate about something they care about. They get to choose that focus. “Patty is the culmination of many years of experience, and a platform for me to express my opinions, knowledge, and personality—and we are making money!”
Help Reduce Pain
How nice to work for a company that is continually thanked for being in existence. “Just last week, I got an email that a mother looking to help her daughter get out of a bad car deal. The dealer had ripped them off. We were able to provide her instructions on what to do and the dealer fixed the problem. Ask Patty was able to really make a difference and are passionate about what we do.” This isn’t to say that all dealers are bad, but in this case the resources were able to help these people about of a challenging situation.
Financing & Loving Your Competition
Securing funding is definitely one of the pitfalls of a small business. Taking money always reduces voting power – whether it is a teenager looking for a car loan from their parents or a small business asking for a loan.
“Rather than court investors, we wanted to sustain ourselves from the start and were able to be self financed. Now we are in a position where we are being by looked at by outside investors and can make the decision on when and how fast to grow. Most businesses have proven their concept after two years – we were the #1 resource for women when we started, we are still #1 and every resource site that pops up just reinforces we had the right model from the start. We love it, because it only serves to confirm the automotive industry needs to address the needs of women better.”
Incorporate Outside In Thinking
DeVere has had the benefit of several mentors. “There is one person who I met in my very early years and worked very closely with. Maury Freidman is a serial entrepreneur, just sold Academy 1-2-3 to AOL for 24M cash and is already on to another business. I was an instrumental person on his team at Need2Buy.com I’ve been his (friendly) competitor—I got to understand him from many angles. “He was very generous in developing me, including me in capitol meetings.” This gave her visibility, exposure and a much more mature perspective for seeing the big picture. “He’s realistic and genius-smart; he’s taken several companies public.”
“Every experience I’ve had in my career has had that sort of 0-40M ramp. You learn certain things, begin to know what to expect, what to look for. You protect your business like a new born and learn not sweat the small stuff.” Needless to say it was a very liberal education in how to manage change, grow quickly and scale with your audience.
Working with Maury taught her that it’s “important to stay focused. Trying to be a generalist, gives you too many competitors.” She continued, “I learned that the best kinds of businesses are niche businesses, if you can really nail the segment. It’s unrealistic to be a 100M company out of the gate; you can grow over time. Six figures for a few years are better than working for someone else.”
Another outside-in perspective can come from your customer. It’s important to stick with the ones that won’t lead you astray by diluting your brand or message. Ask Patty targets a very demanding industry and sells products directly to automotive retailers. “I had to fire a customer because they weren’t very female friendly. If the customer can’t represent that well, they aren’t a good fit.”
How Do They Give Back?
The company encourages giving through cultural commitments and through education programs for its clients. The business has monthly commitments which dedicate a percentage of revenue to scholarships and a virtual community project called Second Life—something DeVere would like to support fully as the company grows “but the health of Ask Patty has to come first.”
Ask Patty educates and influences dealers to give to the community year round and participate in local activities. Cause-related marketing resonates with women. Women like to participate in cycles that take the whole into account. “When it’s genuine, they want to do business with a heart and soul and it’s an important part of our business plan. Women are 28% more likely to do business with a company that is involved in its community.”
- My most rewarding business moment was being featured by the NYTimes, and having my picture in the small business section. It was October 26, entitled “What Women Want, Just Ask.”. I have it written in my will that I want the article cremated right on top of me.
- My scariest business moment was the first time we signed a very large dealer group, I had to go in front of 250 sales people and do an in person training for the first time. We were a smash hit!!!
- Every entrepreneur should be fearless.
- Success to me means when you make money, your values change. Initially success was making my first million because you feel like you’ve arrived. For a lot of people that is success. Now, for me, it is about making a difference in my business and the focus on doing meaningful work.
Read Jody’s article on marketing to women.