Danielle Tate: Savior of Brides Drowning in Marriage Red Tape

DanielleTate_0181-XLGetting married? Thinking of changing your name but not sure? Sure but overwhelmed by the name-change process? Unsure on how to get a marriage license? Wondering if your fiancé has ever been secretly married? Just kidding on the last one but online entrepreneur, Danielle Tate, has made almost anything possible with her trio of websites aiming to solve information and paperwork challenges facing soon-to-be newlyweds.

But Tate wasn’t always a wedding-red-tape buster. As a teenager in Bedford, Pennsylvania, she had planned to go into medicine after working summers at a local doctor’s office. She enrolled at McDaniel College in Maryland and studied biology and psychology. The decision to specialize in cardiology came her second year when she received a Howard Hughes grant to spend a summer working in Ohio State University Hospital’s cardiology department.

But a career in the medical field was not meant to be. She just missed the mark in the final interview round at Baylor College of Medical in Texas. “I was pretty disappointed but I refused to move back to small-town Pennsylvania so I took the first job opportunity that came my way, selling Canon copiers and fax machines,” Tate recalls. She did the job for about a year but applied in the meantime for more senior sales positions as well as a place at Johns Hopkins’ nursing program. (more…)

Tiina Zilliacus: From the Security of Tech Giants to the Competitive World of Gaming

Tiina ZilliacusTiina Zilliacus’ last name brings to mind the long-gone days of gladiators and Greek warriors. And in many ways, the Finnish tech entrepreneur has launched herself into a battle of sorts. Leaving the security of the corporate world, with three years of hard work and preparation behind her, Zilliacus has suited up to enter the male-dominated fray of gaming. “What I have initiated is not currently in the scope of most game developers. Within the next five years, instead of Coke and pizza, I hope more of them will become genuinely interested in health. When this happens, we’ll be there with cool employee opportunities,” she adds with a smile.

Following the career path her parents valued, Zilliacus knew she would go work for the big brands. After receiving a business degree from the Helsinki School of Economics, Finland, the dutiful and driven daughter did just that and spent 11 years at the Finnish tech giants, Nokia and Sonera, focusing purely on business-to-consumer (B2C) services such as management of online shops. A consistent thread of supporting consumers in mobile, online and digital environments has run through all her positions.

And yet, despite a clear future of fulfilling and secure corporate opportunities, Zilliacus knew her personality type was meant more for the smaller start-up environment. “I’ve always had something of a fearless adventurer attitude and love a certain amount of risk, so by my early-to-mid 30s I started seeking out CEO roles in the start-up world.”

For the next five years, she moved seamlessly among three start-ups, one mobile phone photo and video service (Futurice) and two gaming firms (Apaja Online Entertainment and Ironstar Helsinki), where she was Managing Director and CEO, respectively.

During her corporate life and especially the stressful years of start-up management, Zilliacus turned to yoga as a form of release. “First it was just a hobby, but quickly became a way of life. I’ve always made time for yoga and been on a lot of retreats. I’m even certified as an instructor.”

The gaming sector in Finland, as in most places around the globe, is male-developer driven. While this bothered Zilliacus, who herself is not a developer, she saw a clear opportunity: “They make games that they would like to play although 55% of casual and mobile game customers are female. I realized that I actually could use my professional competence and understanding of what women like in terms of entertainment to fulfill the needs of a major target audience that the market was not addressing.”

Zilliacus decided to start a business driven by her own values and her devotion to yoga provided the spark of inspiration. “Not many people have the digital and management experience that I have and understand yoga and the well-being world as much as I do. I decide to merge my professional knowledge with my passion to create a gaming business targeting women 25 years and older.”

And so as the next iterative step in her career, she set out once again but this time to found her own gaming studio focusedTiina Zillacius on fun mobile “free2play” games aimed at women with the unique underlying theme of wellness.

The last three years have not been easy. They were spent building a strategy, laying the groundwork, seeking angel and seed investment, and recruiting former colleagues to the team. As the 40-year old Zilliacus explains: “I’ve been married to this company. It wakes up with me on Saturday morning, my weekends, my nights…when you are so invested in bringing something like this to life, you give up not only your time but your mind space. As a yogini and wellbeing enthusiast, it took me two years to accept that there is a time that I just need to let all of this happen to me even though it’s work. But because it relates so much to my personal experiences, I can never describe it as work. It will simply take as long as it takes as long as I am where I want to be. That’s the attitude and mental model I needed to adopt and once I did that, everything fell into place.”

But the hard work has paid off. Gajatri Studios’s first simulation or management game, Yoga Retreat, is just recently available from the Apple App Store. Along the lines of Animal Farm, the mechanics of the game are familiar. Zilliacus has intentionally aimed to keep it accessible and not so difficult that it becomes hostile for the user. Players can access yoga poses, unlock small daily meditations, and challenge friends as they manage, expand, and customize their very own yoga retreat on a paradise island.

Zilliacus’ company has attracted the support of two Finnish female angel investors and a family-owned investment office that are drawn in by the health features within games. Her two co-founders are from Rovio, the makers of Angry Birds: “Games guys are open minded. They like to do stuff that reaches out to people so the first motivation is that they like the plan that there is a different type of business strategy and therefore also leadership style in what you do”.

Gajatri Studios’ business model is sustainable and incorporates a wide theme of health and wellness that can molded into different content. Future games will look at food for instance and there is an opportunity for synergies with the forthcoming IOS8 platform and its Health Kit. “As the Apple platform evolves, we plan to utilize different opportunities in our games. For example, we could offer yoga challenges that we can verify have been completed because the user is wearing an iWatch or something like that. Essentially integrating some real life activity into a game, that’s the wider idea,” Zilliacus explains.

The female gaming entrepreneur, one of few in Finland, is optimistic of what lies ahead but acknowledges with these types of companies, funding must be sought out all the time. “It’s a continuous process and depending on which stage you are in, you know the sums are dependent on that. That’s part of the entrepreneurial life, until you are successful, you are every once in a while almost out of funding and when you are successful, you don’t need it any longer. You just need to go on until you reach that certain critical point.”

Zilliacus will know in a few weeks if she has hit that critical point as sales stats from Apple App Store are reported. But regardless the journey is what counts and of that she can surely be proud.

Tips from the Finnish gladiator of gaming:

  • Really be clear that the core of what you interested in is what you strive towards. It’s so much hard work to launch a business, make sure you like what you do and that you are good at it. Understand your strengths and weakness. If those elements are present, then it will be easier. Be grateful of what you get to do, not many people have the same opportunity.
  • Be persistent. Don’t get easily discouraged. There are so many people who are not going to help you, you need “sisu” (uniquely Finnish expression for grit) to get past the non-believers and be able to do things on your own. You won’t always get approval, but you must sustain.
  • Surround yourself with people with integrity.
  • Find a way to relax every day, clear your head in an efficient way. This enables you to focus on what is essential the next day.

Denise DeSimone, Founder, C-Leveled

denisePhotoDenise 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.