Here we have another entry to add to the summer blog series on women in the technology sector. We chose women and companies that we find interesting and we asked them what they have learned along the way. Sarah Kirk is the owner of The Saddlery Inc. as well as btr, Inc. which are both small businesses that fall into very different sectors. This provides for a very interesting perspective and a wide breadth of knowledge. She shared with us some details about her STEM background, her experiences as an entrepreneur, along with the differences she encountered between sectors.
What we asked: What is your STEM background?
What Sarah said: I have a B.S. degree in Biology from Virginia Tech. I worked in Developmental and Molecular Biology laboratories as a technician/lab manager for 10 years. In 1988, I joined a small biotech firm that developed chemiluminescent markers for experimental and clinical tests, as Marketing and Communications Manager, working on a client database, literature development, and collaborations with NIH scientists. After 4 years, I joined Life Technologies’ biomedical sales team, working at the NIH in Bethesda, as well as University of Maryland, College Park. After another 4 years I started my own company, btr, Inc., managing laboratories at NIH, using an inventory database that I developed.
What we asked: What does btr, inc. do, and was there a specific problem you were trying to solve when you started btr, inc. in 1991? What was your inspiration for this business?
What Sarah said: btr, inc. was conceived in 1991 to support a belief that working for yourself was better than working for others. In 1994, I had the idea that made the company viable. Most research laboratories have challenges taking care of the administrative and procurement side of their work – they prefer to do science. The management tasks are often delegated to a lab manager, post doc, or the most recent addition to the lab. These people also have experiments to do, so managing the labs often takes a back seat to their science. In the early ’90s, there were “Freezer Programs” that companies like Life Technologies, placed in the labs. As a sales rep, I developed a list of items that the lab wanted on hand. I stocked the items in the freezer, and came by once a week to inventory and replenish the items. The scientists could go to the freezer and simply remove items they needed, without the usual hassles of placing an order, following up, tracking the order, unpacking and putting the items away. In 1994, the NIH decided that these “Freezer Programs” were allowing special access to the vendors who could afford to run these programs, and banned them. Six agreed to give it a try. I expanded the concept to include all of the chemicals, media, disposables, etc. that a biomedical research lab might need to keep on hand. I developed a database to track all of the items, locations, and stocking levels of each lab. The concept resonated with the community, and our business took off.
What we asked: What are the main problems that you faced when first starting btr, inc. and taking over The Saddlery Inc.?
What Sarah said: The biggest issue with starting btr, inc. was getting the first contracts in place. In order to become a vendor at the NIH, you have to prove that there is demand for your service/product. Since this was a new concept, the labs had to write up why they wanted the service, and justify why their lab staff could not perform the tasks themselves. This was in the 1990’s, so everything was done by paper, snail mail, and in person. It took 6 months to get the first payment for work we performed. It was a challenging time for our family, and I am grateful for their support and patience.
The challenge in taking over The Saddlery was in implementing a Point of Sale, and accounting programs to bring the shop into the computer age. The previous owner had all of the information on products, vendors, and customers on paper, and in her amazing mind. We worked hard the first 6 months to capture that information digitally an computerize the processes to keep inventory flowing, track sales, and measure performance.
What we asked: Are there differences in the way you are treated as a small business owner vs. at a large organization like NIH?
What Sarah said: NIH has been a wonderful home with many friendships and good working relationships. It can also be unforgiving – our long standing contacts with the genome institute came to an end when they took over managing the labs themselves. As a result, my contractor status was no longer justified. I was working on another project, so I received privileges under that contract for another year. After that, and with the budget cuts all around, my contractor status went away, and the usual access to the NIH campus, email account, phone, office, were all gone within a day. I do have limited access now, but that was surely a wake up call, and made me feel the impersonal nature of a large organization.
The Saddlery is a community center, and I love the many friendships and lively discussions with our staff and customers. As an independent small business, we can decide who to buy from, and what to sell in the shop. We also bear the responsibility to offer what our customers want at reasonable prices, in order to stay in business. That challenge is fun, and difficult, depending on how we are doing, the economy, weather, and many more factors. Our vendors are a good group of organizations, from small entrepreneurs, to large nationwide companies. Some of the larger ones are not responsive to small shops, but we, independent tack shops, have joined forces, and are working on getting better deals, and protection from discount dealers, mostly online. The smaller companies are usually grateful that we are trying their products, and treat us well.
What we asked: Do you find that being a woman leader in the workplace presents any additional challenges?
What Sarah said: I grew up with my mom holding Women’s lib meetings in the basement, where the ladies practices yelling curse words, learning to stand up for themselves. As a teenager, I worked on a construction site, where the all male workforce was determined to get my friend and I to quit (didn’t work, so they gave up). Starting a woman-owned business in 1994 was relatively easy, the idea was a good one, and unique, so I didn’t have to play the woman card. That said, I have mostly worked in male dominated areas, and have been careful to be professional, prepared and competent in all of my endeavors.
What we asked: How do you balance all of your business obligations with your family life?
What Sarah said: Family/work balance has always been a challenge. When I worked in the lab, and in marketing, I worked 8 hour days, so with travel time, that was often 10 hours away from home. The kids were in daycare and after school care. That made after school activities difficult, and as the kids grew older, it became untenable. When I started in sales, my performance was based on sales numbers, not hours worked. That meant that I could structure my time and be there for my family when needed. I could work at night on reports and email, take time off to come to school activities, and drive the kids to sports, music, dance, and church activities. That flexibility continued as a business owner. I did not take on more projects than I could handle, placing family first. That definitely slowed the growth of btr, inc., but it was a choice I do not regret.
Another important practice that keeps life in balance, is delegation. I firmly believe in hiring intelligent and competent people, and giving them as much responsibility as they can take on. That is the only way that I can be involved in so many projects and run multiple businesses. Finding good people, training them, and keeping them engaged is a worthwhile strategy, one that has provided successful operations and empowered employees.
If this post was of interest to you, then check out some of the other posts in this series.