Denise DeSimone’s career 2.0 has been helping women do successfully what she’s done her whole career – launch profitable businesses. The 52-year-old is the go-to for anyone who’s ever thought, “I have a great idea”, but no idea how to implement it. For DeSimone, seeing a business idea come to life, followed by success, is a dream come true. We spoke with DeSimone, Founder of c-leveled a business support consultancy, about why she’s the right one to help other women and to get her perspective on the unique challenges women face when launching midlife entrepreneurial ventures and how they can be overcome.
We’re hearing from a lot of women that they feel stuck — too old or afraid to leave the safety net and start over. Is age really a barrier in your opinion?
Younger is easier for sure. Once a person hits midlife, you start to see the runway – that’s not just true of women. So you can either take it easy or you can take a chance. It’s not a gray area. There is clearly a choice. Women that do take the risk, do it for the right reason. They say, my kids know I can make money, but I want them to know I can make a difference – not just in my life, but in theirs and that of their children.
How did you get started as an entrepreneur, did it run in your family?
No, not at all. I went to Washington & Jefferson College, and then I transferred to University of Pittsburgh as a journalism major. I actually thought I would write children’s books. After graduation, my uncle said “I want you to come to Memphis and start an architecture railing business with me.” I said ok without even knowing what architectural railing is. That’s the first lesson I tell people – always know what you’re getting into!
In DeSimone’s case, the move turned out to be a good thing…and she quickly learned what architectural railings were….
I moved to Memphis then for the next three years we built a successful business, and after that, I was hooked. In 1991, my brother and I started a computer-based medical records business. And, for the record, that’s the only business I could kick myself for selling. My brother was a computer programmer who graduated from Columbia, and at the time, databases were still pretty new. So, it was like every other new business idea– there was a need, we looked at the market and developed a product. We were fortunate to sell it eventually. But really I didn’t have any experience in the field – I had just learned how to start a business and applied those learnings in other areas.
What’s the key to being a successful entrepreneur?
I’m a firm believer that serial entrepreneurs are definitely born. A key trait is understanding that you’re going to fail a few times and not being afraid to do so. It helps when people aren’t very risk averse. I was young at the time of my initial ventures, and definitely youth is a cure for prudence, but you can start a business at any time.
You have to be prepared, meaning you must know the market, know the financials and know what you’re going to get out of it—have an exit strategy. That makes it easier.
You also have to be prepared to invest some money. There’s no way to start a business without investing some of your own money. The amount? I could debate that all day long. Are there economical ways? Absolutely. It depends on how well prepared you are before you launch.
Although you’re willing to help men or women launch, you originally launched the business focused exclusively on women, why were you so passionate about helping women launch?
Because there’s a new generation of women who want it all and I believe they can actually have it. Twenty years ago there weren’t the same opportunities. So for me, I don’t think you have to give up being a mom, or having a social life. You can do it all, at every generation – that’s infused all women’s attitudes.
Also, for me, I’ve noticed the questions are very different when I talk to a group of men versus women. In my opinion, women are still validating themselves, asking “Can I really do this?” With men, the questions are more around entitlement – “Someone SHOULD give me this money or should buy this business.”
So we have to close the gap. Women make the buying decisions, and we have to figure out how to change those conversations even among young girls today.
Did you experience this in your businesses?
Absolutely. In my IT businesses, I didn’t see another woman at the same level for three or four years. So yes, absolutely.
Are there unique problems that women face?
I focus on where I’ve seen women fail and help them in that respect. In my experience, men understand the value of being really prepared for investor meetings. Men will spend the money to make sure they have a really good investor deck and presentation and all those things. Women, on the whole, from what I’ve seen are not as prepared in that area.
What do you need to do when thinking about a new business?
The first thing you have to do is figure out what it’s going to look like. Until then, you can’t do anything. And it’s important to always know the competition. Today the Internet gives you more than what you need for research. Some things that used to take weeks or months can now take ten minutes. You also have to know the market as I said earlier, know the competition and what you want to do with the business. If you are building to sell, you have to build to the exit strategy. That means finding out who’s buying in that market.
After all your success, why launch c-leveled now?
In 2002, I sold a business and returned to Pittsburgh. Initially, I wanted to just help small businesses owned by women that were stuck financially or women who didn’t know how to market themselves.
The premise is simple – I’ve grown seven other businesses – four in IT, some fitness centers, architectural railing, and others and what I learned, and why c-leveled is important to me, is that at every step of the way, I found myself saying, “Boy, I wish I could have a CFO for a couple hours or a marketing expert for a couple of hours, or a strategist …” . That kind of expertise is critical but newly launching businesses can’t afford, nor do they need, all those experts fulltime. C-leveled is like having that level of expertise on loan when you need it, for as long as you need it.
When you launch a business, the beginning is critical, and so we’re there to help with whatever resource needs the business identifies. I use the analogy of cutting my grass – it might take me three hours to do it or I can get a guy who does it all the time and gets it done in ten minutes.
When you’re launching a business, saving time is just as critical as not wasting money.
How does c-leveled work?
Any business, from a startup to a mature company, that wants to have a conversation with us can – there’s no charge and we guarantee that anyone that walks through our doors leaves in a better spot. When we decide to engage, we do everything on a retainer basis so the entrepreneur doesn’t feel stuck in any area. We execute and simply help our clients to build better businesses – it’s not just about writing a business plan; we are an extension of their team, all working towards a goal.
To learn more about c-leveled visit www.c-leveled.com. Got a question for Denise? Ask it in the comments section, and we’ll be sure to get you a response.