As part of a regular series powered by Dell, BetaKit asks prominent entrepreneurs to share how technology has evolved since they first launched their business, before predicting where it will take them.
Nancy Peterson has held many positions in her career, starting in insurance and moving her way up the corporate ladder in CPG and marketing firms. A home renovation changed her path completely, and now she is the founder and CEO of HomeStars.com, an online resource for Canadians to find the best home building and renovation contractors and services.
What was the state of technology when you started your career?
I did my undergrad at Western University in 1987 and started my career as an insurance supervisor at AllState Insurance. Our “technology” was a key punch card. My team would punch claims into key cards, which were sent to a large central mainframe.
A couple of years after that I got my first computer. I was working in sales, and I bought myself a large MS-DOS computer to type up my orders more quickly.
I went on to do my MBA in Europe and worked for a few years, taking my computer with me. It wasn’t until I came back to Canada, while working in marketing, that I did a home renovation and realized how few resources there were for people to do research on contractors.
So I started HomeStars in 2005. The only technology we had was a basic website with dial-up internet and some early-days project management software. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.
What were the biggest struggles you faced getting your business off the ground in the early days?
We wanted as much content on the site as possible, since that would encourage people to leave more reviews of contractors, but we had to work really hard for those first reviews.
“I’m so happy I stayed in Toronto and built a business here with limited outside money, because it gave me more control over my destiny.”
– Nancy Peterson
We went to a lot of home shows, but there was no WiFi at the time, so we encouraged users to write hand-written reviews at our booth, which student interns would type up. Had we been starting nowadays, technology would have empowered us to get so much more done, at a faster rate.
It was early 2006, and laptops were just coming out, but they were incredibly expensive – as a bootstrapped startup, we couldn’t afford to have multiple laptops out front at our booths.
We then decided to write a book, intended to be a small guide for how to hire a contractor. It offered us something tangible to bring to home shows (since asking people to read a blog was a very new thing) and gave us the chance to sell ads.
The ad revenue from our book helped validate our business model so we could afford more technology to continue building our business.
Are there tools or support systems available now that you wish you’d had back then?
A lot of it was about costs. Everything was so expensive back then — servers, laptops, collaboration software, etc. Today, technology is not only more powerful, but so much cheaper, so when you’re just starting out you have many more options.
We had “crude-imentary” data processing capabilities and QA software at the time, which got the job done but still required one person to wear many hats. Current technologies would have made that job a lot easier.
As well, virtual collaboration was a big thing for us since we worked remotely to save money. We were big users of business-focused online chat systems, but many came out a few years after founding HomeStars. I wish we had more of that technology when we were first starting out.
Is there any advice you’d give to your past self?
Yes – don’t waste time with VCs.
As both technology and office space was so expensive, we thought we needed a ton of VC money to make it work. Perhaps it might have been easier with that money in the bank, but be careful what you wish for.
When I was first starting out, I had one VC agree to a term sheet, but the terms required me to find a co-sign. I ended up spending eight months shopping around that term sheet to other VCs, which was a huge amount of wasted time that I should have spent on my business. When you’re just starting out, no matter what industry, you need to be focusing on your business and acquiring customers.
Realistically, if I wanted to build a big VC-backed business, I should have gone to the US. At the time, it was just a fact that Toronto didn’t have much VC capital. However, I’m so happy I stayed in Toronto and built a business here with limited outside money because it gave me more control over my destiny.
For myself, too, I didn’t want to be in debt to anyone. I hated owing people money, including my family and friends that invested in me in the early days. It can really take a toll on you to owe people money and I wanted more control over my company.
Where do you think the future of work is headed?
Based on the struggles I faced in building up HomeStars, there will be a shortage of high-quality trades given the demands we put on our living and working environments. For a long time, a career in the trades has been looked down upon, causing us to lose a lot of that skill in our economy.
I’d like to see a future of work where people can focus on the three principles of a great business – companies that know what they want to be the best in the world at, with employees passionate about the work, and with a valid economic engine – instead of what is considered a “good” career path. Technology can help with all three elements.
From “crude-imentary” data processing to new collaboration tools, technology allows entrepreneurs to stay competitive when growing their small business. Dell has the right tech to fit your work, for today and tomorrow.