For our second Entrepreneur Spotlight, we’re featuring one of the co-founders of Smartey’s, an online financial management software company. Read on for more details about the joys and pains of founding a tech start-up…
Entrepreneur: Charisse Conanan
Company Name: Smarteys
What does your company do/ produce?
Smarteys provides the only personalized and automated software for people to manage their money. Our cash and debt management tools primarily cater to individuals with student loan debt. Our holistic approach involves financial planning around the entire wallet – income, debt, bills, saving, and spending.
Describe your background/ experience before starting your company.
I co-founded Smarteys as a student at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Prior to earning my MBA, I was a Vice President at JPMorgan Asset Management, where I worked for 6 years. I controlled 18% of the $10 billion fund focusing on health care, insurance, and utility stocks. I earned my CFA (Certified Financial Analyst) charter to develop my portfolio management expertise.
Where did your business concept come from?
While at JPMorgan, I started the division’s first personal finance seminar, known as MyFi, which helped develop my passion for individual financial planning. I recognized a bigger problem – no one my age had good tools to help manage their money. My passion for all things personal finance grew out of frustration that there were no good tools for me (or my peers) to manage their money. Furthermore, I believed that my own personal experiences with student loan debt, credit card debt, saving, and retirement could be shared more broadly.
What were some of the steps you took to turn your idea into reality?
I decided to use business school as a transition into entrepreneurship, and to answer the question of “What’s the best way to help someone with their finances?” I also used business school to fill in some gaps in my network and skill set, specifically marketing, strategy, and entrepreneurial finance.
Prior to entering school, I prepared myself financially. While I didn’t know it at the time, the money that I saved from 2002-2008 provided a big cushion for my entrepreneurial pursuits. I earmarked some of my savings for my business. I also tried really hard to get a merit scholarship to school because I knew that I couldn’t afford to have much student debt if I needed cash to start my business after graduation.
While in business school, I found a business partner, conducted market research, and increased my personal finance expertise. I began to develop a very thorough understanding of the industry.
What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered along the way?
I’ve faced many challenges thus far.
First, finding a technology partner was extremely difficult. I am building a technology business and I underestimated the difficulty in finding someone who has all three characteristics: skill set, time, and affordability. Usually, the good techies were already too committed to work on my business. The ones who were available usually did not have the right skill set. And, if I was lucky enough to find someone with skill and time, I usually couldn’t afford him (there were no women). I ended up outsourcing my technology, but if you are lucky enough to find a co-founder who is a developer, snatch him/her up.
Second, letting go of control was tough for me. As founder, it’s in my nature to want to do everything because this business is my baby. It took me a while to learn how to trust others to take just as much care and consideration with certain tasks and responsibilities. While I am still working on overcoming this challenge, it has gotten a lot better with time and evidence that my team can handle the responsibility.
Lastly, my faith was challenged. I had to continue to have faith every time I hit a road block. Starting a business is hard work – every day, you have to discipline yourself to keep going even when you’re disappointed or you face an unexpected outcome.
What is the best thing about owning your own business?
There are so many blessings from owning my own business. I get to start with a blank sheet of paper and attempt to create something wonderful. I get to inspire others along the way. I can offer someone a job and that makes me feel so good. Above all, I get to fulfill my dream.
What do you think is the biggest obstacle for women to overcome in starting their own businesses?
The biggest obstacle for women in staring their own business is not having a diverse array of models to emulate. I am a single, African-American female from Wall Street who wants to start a technology business in the MidWest. I can tell you that there are very few women with this background, and so I have to forge my own path. I still want to make time to spend time with family and friends, find a husband, and give back to my community. I do not have examples of women like me who’ve made this situation work and achieve all of these things. I’ve tried to do so by being extremely meticulous with my time and communicating with my loved ones and significant others about what I’ve been working on.
What advice would you give to another woman starting her own venture?
Just do it! The sacrifices are big but the payoffs are much bigger.
Create your own values for your business. Don’t feel as if you have conform to someone else’s definition of what your business should be and how it should operate.
Find out what other people are doing in your space, copy the good and leave the bad. Try and create less work for yourself. Find good mentors (male or female) who have done it before and leverage their experience.
Finally, learn some basic programming skills. I had to build the first version of www.smarteys.com after I couldn’t find someone else to do it. I wish I’d learned these skills earlier in my career so that I would have conquered my fear of programming very early on.