Tanya Van Court’s great idea, the one that would become not only her next business venture but her all-consuming passion, began simply enough. Her daughter, the older of her two children, was turning nine. When Van Court asked her what she would like for her birthday, her daughter replied that she wanted only two things: a bicycle and money to open an investment account. Van Court thought these were laudable goals, but she knew it wasn’t going to happen. She knew – we all know – that well-meaning relatives and party guests were likely to brings a few arts-and-craft kits, maybe a board game, and several versions of the fad-of-the-moment (rubber band bracelet, anyone?)
“Sometimes we walk down a path because it’s easy and comfortable. We may never meander, and consequently miss the new opportunity right in front of us. Change doesn’t have to be bad; change can be wonderful.”
Van Court saw a problem – a broken gift-giving system – and thought she could come up with a way to fix it. She had always taught her children the concept of Share/Save/Spend as a way to handle the money they earned. It occurred to her that she could set up an online system that would allow gift-givers – friends, grandparents, aunts, uncles, anyone – to contribute directly toward these goals. More personal that simply writing a check, the gift giver would view a child’s profile and see their specific saving, spending and donating goals, and then decide how much and to what fund they’d like to contribute. “My daughter very much appreciates the gifts people give her,” Van Court says, “but it doesn’t necessarily mean she actually uses them. I wanted to fix what I see as a broken economic exchange, and just as importantly, teach our kids the value of all this money that’s being spent.”
It happened that right around the time of her daughter’s birthday, Van Court had been trying to decide on her next career move. She received both her undergrad and master’s degree in industrial engineering from Stanford University in the early 90’s and after trying out various engineering jobs she began working her way up the corporate ladder, first at CableVision, then at ESPN and later Nickelodeon, which suited her well because of her passion for children and education. From Nickelodeon she moved on to her most recent position at Discovery Education, where she helped launch the first digital textbooks. But Discovery Education had just gone through a major restructuring and Van Court found herself out of a job and trying to figure out her next career move.
Van Court had been planning to look for another corporate position, but the more she thought about her online gift giving idea the more she started to think that maybe she didn’t want to continue on the corporate ladder, after all. “I’m not one of these perennial entrepreneurs who’s always seeing opportunity wherever I look. I wasn’t looking for a business venture.”
Still, she wanted to explore the possibilities. She read a book called The Lean Start-Up, by Eric Ries, and followed the book’s recommendation to talk to as many people as possible. And when Van Court did that, she was floored by the positive feedback she got. “People said, ’Do this. Not today, not tomorrow, but yesterday.’ I have friends from every socio-economic background, and it didn’t matter if the person was a working-class mom, or a person with millions of dollars in the bank. They all felt that their kids had too much stuff, and that kids weren’t learning lessons about healthy financial habits. They thought that this could fix the problems that they were experiencing with gift giving – both in terms of their own kids and as far as buying presents for other kids.”
So in early 2015 Van Court made the decision not to return to the corporate world but instead to turn her idea into a reality. Naming her company Sow, she put together a website using all the feedback she had received. Her company was officially launched on December 3, 2015, one day before her son’s 6th birthday. Naturally, he has his own Sow account. Van Courts says, “An amazing proof of concept came when my son got $250 for his birthday towards meaningful goals, instead of receiving meaningless goods.” The site has already signed up hundreds of young people and parents during its first month.
Financially, there have been and continue to be many sacrifices involved in not collecting a regular paycheck, but her family and friends have been extremely supportive, including her ex-husband (she refers to him as her Wasband) with whom she maintains a great relationship. Still, she cautions others to be careful. “You have to be realistic about your prospects. It’s likely you’re not going to go a couple of months without income, you could go a year or more.” Still, the financial sacrifices, which have not been insignificant, haven’t deterred her. “Sometimes we walk down a path because it’s easy and comfortable. We may never meander, and consequently miss the new opportunity right in front of us. Change doesn’t have to be bad; change can be wonderful.”
One big change for Van Court was learning to ask for help. “When you are working as an executive you have a lot of leverage and power to help other people, and you don’t need to ask for as much. When you are an entrepreneur that whole paradigm gets completely shifted upside down. You ask for help with everything.” One neighbor helped her get together a focus group of kids in the neighborhood. She reached out to another friend who had expertise in branding, another with marketing experience. A friend who is a graphic designer helped her develop a logo. “I literally reached out to almost every person I could think of in my network to help with something. I was so grateful, and continue to be so grateful, that people were so willing to help. I was almost in awe. I’d never asked for so much help in my life; it’s just not in my nature. It was a real growth and learning experience for me.”
Despite the hard work and financial sacrifices, Van Court, 43, has no regrets and remains passionate and upbeat about her mission. “I have not wavered from the belief that this is the right product and I am the right person to bring it to market. I believe that this has the potential to be a great business and have real social impact. It’s the opportunity to leave the world a little better. Where I sit today, there is nothing that I would rather be doing and nothing I could be more excited about.”
- Be realistic about your prospects and about how long you will go without a paycheck (hint: probably longer than you think). Be clear on what sacrifices you will need to make.
- Read the book, The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries. Then talk to people and get as much feedback as you can.
- Ask for help. You might be amazed at people’s willingness to help, but you have to ask.
- Don’t minimize the power of networks, and know that you’ll need to grow and expand yours to succeed.
- If you have the grit, the toughness, to endure the sacrifice, doing something you believe in is wonderful.