Golden Seeds is focused on investing in the vibrant opportunities of women-led companies. As such, we work with many talented, passionate women entrepreneurs who are doing truly remarkable things. Our “How did she do it?” series shares the stories, challenges and successes of the women behind the companies of Golden Seeds.
Today, Jo Ann Corkran, managing partner of Golden Seeds and board member of Work Truck Solutions, interviews Kathryn Schifferle, CEO and founder of Work Truck Solutions, about how she launched her company and progressed through two investment rounds.
JC: Tell us about the origins of your company.
KS: I got started in the commercial vehicle industry when I was introduced to a mutual contact, who wanted help starting a professional organization and magazine for commercial vehicle sellers. After two years, we launched the National Ford Truck Club and FordPros magazine. I fell in love with the industry and the people in it — they truly are the backbone of the U.S. It was quite a shift from the 19 years I spent in the cable TV industry.
During this time, my colleague was telling me about a plumber who came to buy a plumbing truck from his dealership. He couldn’t help him because he didn’t keep any plumbing trucks on the lot. It would be expensive to stock, and he had no guarantee when it would sell. He needed to call around to other dealers and see if anyone had it on their lots. Hearing this, I told him, ‘Let me go to the Internet, and I’ll find one for you with less headache.’
I quickly found that in a $130 billion industry, it wasn’t possible to search for trucks online.
I wasn’t thinking about building another company. (I had seven companies prior to this.) I was working with the National Ford Truck Club and teaching marketing and entrepreneurship at Chico State. I was content. But at this stage of my life, my kids were grown — the time felt right. My passion for this opportunity was also different than previous companies. It was more about solving the industry problem, and less about my personal motivations. I liked that.
I founded Work Truck Solutions soon after.
JC: That’s a clear market need. How have you addressed it?
KS: I spent a lot of time researching this part of the industry. It turns out only the front end or chassis is built by original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) for commercial vehicles, and a vehicle identification number (VIN) is put on it at that stage. The truck isn’t finished, though, and can go through three to eight more aftermarket companies before it is. Every truck has a different pathway to completion and no one keeps track of what that vehicle has become, which is why no one can search for a plumbing truck. I realized the scope and the potential market and became very interested in solving that problem.
We built an inventory management service to help commercial salespeople save time and sell more trucks. By offering a simple and intuitive search experience for online commercial truck buyers, we help dealerships turn their web visitors into customers.
JC: What advice do you have for early-stage founders?
KS: Before starting a company, understand your motivations and your non-negotiables. I came up with three rules that I wanted to stick to if I were going to commit to building Work Truck Solutions:
1. No jerks.
2. Don’t force everything.
In the past, I was your typical arrogant entrepreneur and thought that I knew everything. So, I decided to flip that: instead, I would let things happen and manage the subsequent flow. It was amazing and it threw a switch in my life. I wish I learned it earlier. Things started happening more easily, in the right way. When we really, really needed our next opportunity, it seemed to magically happen. I’ve coined — and trademarked — this: “truckma.”
3. Control the culture of company.
Everyone is passionate about solving problems and working hard in startups. There’s no reason to work so hard and not have fun — so I wanted to ensure we had a fun environment and a defined culture — and that we would maintain both through growth.
I thought long and hard about what would make for a good culture, and we’ve worked proactively to build it. At the top of the list was transparency. Everyone knows what’s going on — of course maybe not every detail and not HR details — but everyone knows how our company is running, our finances and what’s coming up. We share during our all-hands meetings every Monday.
Second, we make it clear that everyone is important and appreciated. We’re about 65 people now and have kept a mostly flat organizational structure. While we have leadership and managers, we prioritize individual contributions over hierarchy.
As a company grows, you have to work harder to help people communicate. We implemented Compini, a tool to help upward and sideways communication throughout the company. Though many other companies use this to source anonymous feedback from employees, we built our culture on an open environment for everyone to talk and share. We use the tool to keep our culture focused and fresh, the way we want it. If people want to use it anonymously, that’s fine, but we want to focus more on open, easy communication rather than making people feel there’s a need to share things anonymously.
JC: What challenges have you encountered along the way? How have you overcome them?
KS: Since I’m based in northern California, I naturally went to Silicon Valley first when I was ready to raise money. I like to joke that I had two things against me: I’m a woman and I’m pitching work trucks — which are not sexy. In April 2014, I was introduced to Golden Seeds. All of a sudden, I had those same two things working for me.
This is a demographically challenged industry — most customers are older males. We launched in 2013 and tech was not the favorite thing of these older guys. Many didn’t even know how to send an email at that time. They were resistant, and we had to make our product really, really simple, which turned out to be great for us in the long run. It made for a fantastic product.
Being in this industry as a female was not always negative, but it has been a slow process of building trust and consensus in a fragmented industry. Starting as a publisher was definitely an advantage for me. I was viewed as neutral, and of course, everyone wants their name in print. Being female also makes me appear less confrontational, which is the only time in my life that my gender has felt like an advantage.
JC: What’s coming up next for your company? Any big milestones on the horizon?
KS: So many great things. One to share is that we have our first enterprise-level relationship with a manufacturer. We’re providing the data they need to help improve their business.
JC: Tell us about your experience with Golden Seeds. How has the Golden Seeds network been helpful to you?
KS: It’s a fantastic group of smart businesspeople and investors, who are focused on the goal to help build success. That has been incredible — and something I’d never had before. In addition to the financial support, there’s a sense of cheerleading: constant support along with ideas to grow the business. I came from an “I’ll do it myself” lone wolf experience, and Golden Seeds was a welcome change.
Golden Seeds was incredibly thorough in their due diligence. This worked to our advantage because other investors were comfortable using it. Since our close, we’ve gotten such great support working with the Golden Seeds team and network. I’ve been attending Golden Seeds’ annual Summit each year. It’s great to be around other entrepreneurs and investors, and tap them for advice.
Here’s one example: when we raised our A round, I didn’t plan to raise another. And we were successful — we reached break-even by our projected date. At that point, however, I realized the trade-off of not raising more capital was slower growth. If we had resources to work on five things rather than just one, what would that do for our growth? I started talking to Golden Seeds and got a lot of support for my plan to raise a B round. I was meeting with investors, but couldn’t find the right fit. We needed a strategic lead investor with deep experience in our industry that would support us with more than just money. It was difficult to find the right partner with experience in not only transportation, but commercial transportation. Again, I turned to the Golden Seeds network at the Summit to source their opinions on doing a smaller raise or an internal convertible note. And again, I got positive feedback and support. Coincidentally at that time, I met Autotech Ventures. They invest in commercial, B2B transportation companies. It was a perfect match, and we quickly closed our Series B.
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