Early-stage entrepreneurs become accustomed to reacting to rapid changes as they work around the clock to get their business off the ground.
“It is very much a roller coaster,” says Kate Volzer, co-founder and CEO at Wisr. “In the same day, you could feel like you’re going to be the next big thing, that you’re going to crush it, and then two hours later, you feel like you’re never going to make it. Then you get right back to feeling you’re like you’re crushing it.”
Wisr is a Cleveland-based education technology company on a mission to improve outcomes at every step in the higher education student lifecycle. The company launched in 2016 with co-founders John Knific and Kris Ciccarello and now operates more than 30 networks at colleges and universities across the U.S. to support its mission.
We caught up with Volzer to talk about her entrepreneurial journey that began as a student at the University of Chicago.
Find people who can help
Lynn-Ann Gries has played a pivotal role in the growth of Wisr. As a co-founder at JumpStart, she led a group that invested $30 million into 80 Northeast Ohio-based startups. These days, she is part of the team at Early Stage Partners.
“I got to know her when I was thinking about moving back to Ohio in 2014 as I was finishing up business school,” Volzer says. “She was the one who connected me with Jon Knific, who is one of the Wisr co-founders. She made the first connection back to Cleveland, which got me home. That was pretty early on when I was thinking about starting the company. I talked to her about funding and she offered to be helpful in making connections to her contacts for investment.”
Gries helped Volzer connect to a group of Cleveland businesswomen, including private investors and influential business leaders.
“They put up a fair amount of money to get us across the first fundraising milestone,” Volzer says. “With that support and the North Coast Angel Fund’s original $250,000 investment, we could close on those funds and start bringing on people to work at the company full-time and be able to pay them.”
Volzer also got help from Thompson Hine’s Jonathan Vinocur.
“I've found that if you're sincere in your pursuit of help, people are ready and willing to help make sure you're successful,” Volzer says.“You may not have every single answer, but there are people out there who can help you get to an answer. Don’t be shy about leaning on them. It doesn’t make you less of a leader or less of an entrepreneur. Knowing how to get help from people is a skill.”
Sell your plan
Networking is a skill that takes some practice, in addition to time and energy. Volzer began to build her acumen at making contacts and building relationships in her college years. Her experience was a driving factor behind the creation of Wisr.
“I had to be very resourceful in my networking and connections from alumni to get the kinds of internships I was hoping to get,” Volzer says. “It was really hard, but I started to see that if I built relationships and got people to get to know me and become advocates, I was better off.”
Volzer wanted to build a company that would make this process easier for students, for colleges and for those seeking to help and ultimately hire graduates.
“It’s about getting people to buy into your vision and mission who want to help you as an individual,” Volzer says. “The earlier you can do that and find supporters and people you trust who care about you, the more successful you’ll be. The best thing you can do as a leader is be your authentic self. If you’re comfortable with who you are as your authentic self, it sure makes making deals a lot easier. You feel better about it because you did it as you.”
Of course, no matter how authentic and noble you are in your work, everyone will face rejection at some point. As an early-stage entrepreneur, you need to be able to roll with the punches.
“It’s a numbers game,” Volzer says. “You’ll talk to many potential investors and just because they say no, it doesn’t mean you’re not a fundable company. Don’t take it personally. Just listen and take the feedback — ask for it — but know that you know your business better than anyone else. It’s your decision whether you think the feedback is good or not.”
You can’t know it all
Three years after the company was founded, Wisr continues to grow.
“The thing I’m most proud of is all the schools we worked with at the very beginning are still with us today,” she says. “We’ve never lost a client. It’s because we’re always improving the product, but also because we take time to get know the clients and pay attention to how can we make their personal lives better.”
It all comes back to the idea that you can’t build a business all by yourself. You’re going to need help.
“You're never going to have complete information when making business decisions, so get that notion out of your head,” she says. “Find smart people who can give you thoughtful evaluations of the situation around you and then use that to make the best decision you can. This was one of the things that held me back from going for it earlier. I had this expectation that I would know everything, but that's just not realistic.”