VolunteerLocal's Kaylee Williams Stops by Square One DSM
The Allure of a Startup
"I love where this road is taking me and I don't know where it will go. For me, that is part of the allure of working for a startup company. I love the mystery and not knowing how this thing will pop, when it will pop, and what that will look like," Kaylee Williams said, while artfully dodging the question of her future career ambitions with her boss in the room. Still, one could not question the sincerity of this youthful entrepreneurial success story as she reflected on what has become a career path. Williams joined a local startup right out of college as an intern and worked her way to managing its day-to-day operations while leading it through an impressive growth-cycle.
Williams, Director of Business Development for VolunteerLocal, was making a return appearance before a large and supportive audience as guest of Mike Colwell, Director of Entrepreneurial Initiatives for the Greater Des Moines Partnership, at the May iteration of Square One DSM Startup Stories event.
The year since her last appearance saw both considerable growth for VolunteerLocal and a change of venue for Williams. "I've been MIA for the last year, living in Raleigh North Carolina," Williams explained before beginning to answer questions from both Colwell and the audience on a range of subjects.
Being an online software-as-a-service company, one could argue that VolunteerLocal was wherever Kaylee Williams opened her laptop. Nevertheless, Founder and chief developer, Brian Hemesath, remains integral to the business, and remains a fixture in Des Moines as Director of the Global Insurance Accelerator (and June guest at Startup Stories). This physical separation required several changes for Williams's routine.
"Find a space where you can get work done," Williams advised first and foremost for anyone considering such a change. Initially utilizing co-working space in Google's American Underground in Raleigh, she soon realized her constant phone conversations were as much of an annoyance to those around her as was the sound of their racer scooters moving through the work-space was to her.
"You need a place where you can go and close the door," she said. And behind that door you must utilize phone and email to maintain communication with your business partner. While it will not always be as beneficial as those face-to-face, spur of the moment discussions, maintaining regular communication is critical. Adding a healthy dose of self-discipline to the mix, Williams and Hemesath identified key metrics that would track Williams and the company's progress, which Williams then used to form the basis of a weekly update, providing a touch point for conversations.
The past year has seen an accelerated growth curve for this startup, which provides tiered online solutions for the volunteer management challenges faced by events and organizations of all sizes. Providing three insights into the strategy that has led to that growth, Williams shared that they reviewed who was using the top tier iteration of the software, the version most replete with functionality and the one which generates revenue for VolunteerLocal.
With that, they identified four primary markets; music festivals, athletic organizations, colleges, and not-for-profits. Additionally they began to target national "umbrella" organizations within those markets which would then supply the product to their local affiliates either at a discount or for no charge, thereby serving essentially as a marketer and distributor for Volunteer Local. Finally, targeting some really high profile clients in their respective vertical markets, such as the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, has led to their most successful marketing scheme to date; referral by word of mouth.
The Art of the Sale
Admitting that she once viewed sales as a nasty word she couldn't ever see herself in that role, Williams acknowledged that her success in that arena came as a surprise. "I came to realize that you are not really selling, you are solving their problem, and I really like to solve our customer's problems," she explained of her revelation that sales could be fun.
When asked why VolunteerLocal had not sought outside investment funding, Williams was to the point, "We didn't need it, we bootstrapped the company." Not ruling out the possibility at some future point, Williams and Colwell enumerated the advantages of self-funding when possible, not the least of which was to grow the company in the direction and on the timeline of choosing by the principals, rather than the investors.
With deep ties to Iowa, Williams remains a frequent visitor while finding unique value in both her abodes. "The research triangle is obviously larger and there is a lot more going on," she said of Raleigh, recalling her first experience with an entire room filled exclusively with women entrepreneurs. The sheer size leads to cliques within the community with developers, business development types and marketers associating mostly with themselves. "I took a lot from Des Moines to Raleigh. I was that annoying girl always talking about Iowa," she said of her willingness to share stories of the Silicon Prairie with her Research Triangle associates.
"The Raleigh community at large is very supportive of the startup community in many ways," she said of the things she might hope to bring from Raleigh to Des Moines. What seemed most important to the Greater Des Moines (DSM) entrepreneurial community present this day was that she continue to bring herself from Raleigh to Des Moines.