Any good business needs to solve a problem for its customers, but it can take a while for entrepreneurs to identify a big enough problem that they want to solve. For Michele Heyward, founder and CEO of PositiveHire, this was certainly the case.
Michele started her business focusing on one problem, and gradually discovered a whole set of different, but related problems, that she ended up focusing on. Now, she helps employers recruit and retain Black, Latina and Indigenous women in STEM for management roles.
As I’ve been on my own entrepreneurial journey, Michele has provided fantastic wisdom and advice, and I thought it would be natural to have her share more about her story and learnings with you:
I’ve done a lot of things. I have a civil engineering degree, and then I took some time off between and after grad school. When I took time off, I worked in tech transfer for NASA, which was interesting but not a geographical fit for me - the job was in Massachusetts, and I’m a South Carolina girl, so the weather was a bit of a culture shock for me.
After I went back and finished grad school, I ended up doing technical sales for less than two years. I hated it, and guess what? Now as a founder, guess what I do all day? I sell. I’ve learned that selling is really more about solutions for people’s problems or questions. It’s not so much like, “Hey, you want a new car? You got a car?”, it’s actually, “do they need a new car? Okay, what do they need?” So, I actually love technical sales.
Then I ended up going into construction, and I never thought I would like it as much as I did. The fortunate part for me was that I landed in construction as a cost engineer. So, I tracked all of the metrics for contracts. I looked at the dollars, the man hours burned, employee rates and how much they were getting paid. It was really interesting because early on, I gained a skill set that a lot of people don’t have. I was on the other side of reviewing proposals, understanding contracts, metrics and dollars - and then I went to the project management side, where I was looking at driving a schedule, meeting and making budgets, and being more of a relationship builder and problem solver. I really loved that part because I was always solving problems.
The best days I had were when I told people things weren't going to plan, because that's really what the client hired me for: when things didn't go to plan. That was when I was in my genius, and when I was at my best because I was trying to figure out: what are the options and how do we get back on schedule?
My first project in construction had a budget of $355 million, and that was the smallest project I worked on. Everything I worked on after that was over a billion dollars. And I realized, it was always white men contractors getting these contracts for hundreds of millions of dollars. I thought, even if you got a $100 million contract and made $1 million dollars in revenue, what would that do for your life? What would that do for your business?
So my first thought was, “How do I get more women and people of color to create businesses?” At the time, I didn’t know I was doing this, but I was doing customer discovery. And in that process, what I found were more Black women and Latina women saying, “I don't feel as though I'm doing technical work, I'm getting pushed out.” They were being given what we call housekeeping tasks.
I thought, “Okay, these women need to want to become entrepreneurs, right?” Then, someone I was in a mastermind with said to me, “Michele, they need career coaching, you need to coach them.” Then, I started testing it to see and did career coaching for a while. That model was one-to-few, but I knew if I was really going to solve this problem, which had evolved to, “I can let this go of convincing them to become entrepreneurs, but how do I keep more of us in the industry?”
By that time I was leaving my corporate job, and that’s where PositiveHire came from. It was really going from the idea of us becoming entrepreneurs, then talking to women in my network and realizing they were saying, “I want to stay, but it doesn’t feel as though if I stay, I will be included and move up.”
It’s interesting because as I went through accelerators, they all tell you to do customer discovery. It turns out I did all of this, and I didn't know what any of it was: identifying a problem, and seeing if people are willing to pay for it.
I would have taken the experience of my first sales job in general, and made it a different experience. I would probably not stick it out longer, because I would’ve missed the boat for everything I learned in construction. But what I mean is that I was in inside sales, but I had various outside sales managers, and I would’ve spent more time really understanding what they did. How did they go about doing sales, cold calls and things like that?
I was lucky. In inside sales, I got inbound calls and I hated inbound calls. Any startup now will tell you when you get an inbound lead, they're ready to buy. It's the easiest thing, but I hated it. So it's really interesting how I now value that and understand the difference between inbound and outbound. When somebody reaches out to me directly, that's pretty much a closed deal, as opposed to you doing outbound knowing you’re going to fail more often than not. The other part of that is really being okay with people not responding or telling you no, because it saves you time and effort on trying to sell something that person is not interested in.
Out of everything you're going to do, figure out what's the one thing you can sell.
Everybody’s like, “No, I want to sell everything.” Guess what? When you talk to people, like your lawn person, they will tell you, “No, I started out only doing lawns in this neighborhood.” From that one thing you can sell, you learn what people want.
For example, people might want their hedges done. If you’re the lawn person, you can ask “Well how much have you paid for that service?” and go from there. Let’s say you have 12 customers, and half of them want additional hedge services. You can test how long it takes to do that service or check equipment prices before you go out and buy the equipment. If you’ve sold them on your new hedge service, you can now go buy the equipment confidently because you understand what their other needs are. You don’t have to add additional services until there’s a need for it. It’s easy to get one customer to keep getting them to pay you for additional services you can do and are willing to do.
I just had a client come onboard a month ago and he emailed us back yesterday, and I missed the email for whatever reason and saw it late. The email said, “Hey, we want to talk about doing XYZ.” I never told him I offered this service, they asked if we could do it. So, I said sure I’m available to meet at these times.
It's really interesting, sometimes people see you in a certain space and they want to know if you have something else available. If you can get on the phone, even if you don't sell that service, you can see what they're looking for. You can Google or Youtube it and figure out if there's something you want to offer on the call, you don't even have to give them a price. Just say, “Hey, let me think about it and come back to you with a proposal.”
I had somebody reach out from the UK, from some PR I did. I don't know which piece of PR, but somebody emailed me saying they’d seen me in an article. PR works, and it’s good.
That also goes back to tracking metrics. Remember, I started out in numbers. So you always want to ask your leads where they found you from. I get referrals, leads on LinkedIn, or just connections via social posts or speaking engagements, and I tag all of them.
I'm in so many different communities and have people on fast texts right now. It depends what it is.
I have some friends from college that I definitely reach out to, and I have some biz besties. These are other entrepreneurs, who are not necessarily tech startup founders, but they understand the power of entrepreneurship. Those are the people that I go to who are either living it with me or have been through so much, they have direction and feedback to give me. I also turn to people that are much better than me in areas like sales and marketing.
Wherever I'm weakest, I try to build community with people where we can share each other's expertise. It doesn't feel as though you're taking for one another, you're really empowering each other to grow and become better founders and business owners.
Document your processes. A lot of the time, we have a lot of stuff in our head, but if you document your processes, it can become training when you bring on a virtual assistant or a new employee. It doesn’t have to be very sophisticated. You can take a recording of a Zoom and have it transcribed. You can do screen grabs from your video and then type it all up.
You want to document your processes before you’re ready to hire, too. It doesn’t mean you need to go out and hire immediately, but it means that you can find people to help do things that save you time, too. I had a discussion with somebody on Clubhouse this week, where they said, “By the time I put everything together for a social media post, I could do it myself.” And my response was, “So if I’m sitting here putting together a multi-six-figure proposal I’m supposed to stop and go do a job that’s worth less than 1% of that?” As a business owner, your number one task is to generate revenue, not to post to social media.
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