As founder of a $30 million technical support startup, Heather Blease was on top of the world. But when one mega-client didn't deliver, her company came crashing down. After nearly a decade, Blease decided to launch the Brunswick, Maine-based SaviLinx, another technical support startup, with a new business model--and a new perspective.
--As told to Kate Rockwood
Being an entrepreneur wasn't something I set out to do. I told my father my favorite subjects were art and gym, and he suggested I go to college for electrical engineering. I wasn't really math oriented, so it was a huge struggle. When the manufacturing plant I worked at was sold, I couldn't get a straight answer about what was going to happen to me or my team. I was sick of waiting for a decision. Then it occurred to me that I could start my own business. My first contract was with my former employer.
In 1995, I launched EnvisioNet--an outsource support provider for the tech industry--and I can honestly say that when I started, I had no idea what I was doing. I got one client, then 10, and then suddenly, in just six years, we were at 2,500 employees and $30 million in revenue. Microsoft asked us to expand even more; it had a new product launch that was expected to generate big call volume. We invested millions in infrastructure, but we never got many calls. We were paid by call minute, so without calls there was no money. Investors got spooked, and we couldn't close the round. We had to file Chapter 11, and because I was the guarantor for a lot of financial leases, I had to file Chapter 7.
After my bankruptcy, I went through a lot: I had my fourth child. I got divorced. My mother passed away. I had a bout with melanoma. One day after working out, I drank two beers on an empty stomach and was pulled over and arrested for driving under the influence. Because it happened to be a holiday weekend and the bail-bond official was off, I stayed in jail for two nights. Talk about a loss of dignity. I remember shoveling snow one afternoon in my driveway, thinking through the past few years, and I essentially had a revelation: I'm done with all of this. For things to get better, I had to make some kind of shift to get myself on a more positive track. I was living from a place of fear instead of expecting greatness to be part of my life.
An old contact offered me a VP job at a tech company to see if I could win it some government contracts. After six months of learning everything I could about the government marketplace, I told the CEO that I didn't see it happening for his company. It can be hard for a large company to break into a government contract if it doesn't have past performance. But with all my research, it was almost as if a business were being placed at my feet: If I started a company, I'd gain the advantage of being small and woman-owned, but I'd also have the experience of my EnvisioNet years. I was really reluctant to try to put a company together again, but it was almost like: Gosh darn, it's meant to be.
The technology of call centers has changed so much. In the 1990s, we had to invest millions just to get started; now the infrastructure is cloud-based and turnkey and you can pay as you go. But we also have an entirely different business model. Instead of getting paid per minute of phone call, we're paid per employee hour. That's a tremendously safer model, because government contracts are five or seven years long. Don't get me wrong: The first few years of starting a business are stressful. It was pure survival mode. But I have a sense, now, that we're over the hump.