Jennifer and Ray Smithberger created seedership to help small businesses that are doing good become more visible, build community, and strengthen their connections with a social-impact dashboard and storytelling platform. They spoke with MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price about their startup journey—and their passion for doing good.
NAN PRICE: How did you develop this business concept?
RAY SMITHBERGER: Within our combined family, there are more than a dozen businesses that consistently give back to the community—and they care a lot about their customers. We realized we didn’t necessarily have to create a new story. Instead, we could amplify their stories and help them figure out how to get more visibility from the good they do.
JENNIFER SMITHBERGER: We wanted to help them recognize that the investment they make in the community can also help drive their businesses.
When I was working in corporate settings, I held roles in executive and business communications where I helped promote the company’s corporate social responsibility and communicate our strategy. For example, it was important to highlight and celebrate our community engagement and employees’ volunteerism. We always tried to track the impact we were making and leverage that to engage stakeholders.
Ray and I didn’t see small businesses doing that. So, we created a platform to help them integrate giving year-round and share about their efforts as a means of achieving their business goals.
NAN: Do either of you have startup experience?
JENNIFER: Yes. In 2000, I worked for a telecommunications startup in Silicon Valley. It was already in its third round of financing and had about 300 employees. I came on as PR Director and was part of the sales team. It was exciting because we were creating a new disruptive technology. I learned a lot about how to connect a newly created market to the existing market. I also learned how to onboard customers, get them to realize the value of what you’re are doing, and make them ambassadors for your program.
RAY: My startup experience was under the security of a corporate umbrella that was focused on growing businesses. For example, I worked on developing and implementing the strategy and market approach for the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) at one of the national health insurers.
NAN: As you were starting out, how did you become involved with local resources?
JENNIFER: One of the biggest learnings for me was attending the reSET Impact Accelerator final pitch event in June 2019 at the Connecticut Science Center. I’m a communications person, so I’ve done storytelling for corporations. I was so impressed with the efficiency and clarity in which the pitch finalists told their stories that I connected with reSET to become more involved.
We worked with Impact Strategist Emily Reisner, who provided guidance about what to include in a five-minute pitch. It changed our mindset about how to tell our story, which was something we were struggling with. Initially, we were going too deep telling our story. We needed to learn how to tell it more concisely, from an outside-in perspective versus inside-out. We like how reSET prepares entrepreneurs to capture attention and articulate very complex issues that quickly grab attention and tell what’s needed about your story.
In September, we participated in reSET’s Flight Night pitch event. We’re excited to be part of the 2020 reSET accelerator program, which kicks off January 15.
That first pitch event opened our eyes and helped us accept that, as a startup, you need to ask for help. You need to learn from others—and even learn to know what you don’t know yet. In corporate, I was so used to being the expert and presenting a finished product. I was used to knowing what work needed to be done and how to get it done—and it had to be perfect.
Ray and I have both been involved with Leadership Greater Hartford over the last decade. Last spring, we connected with them to sponsor one of their events, which was a catalyst to getting us out in the community. Back then, we had corporate connections, but President and CEO Ted Carroll Ted helped us understand the community and the entrepreneurial resources. It was amazing how all these connections started snowballing. Ted connected us to one person who then gave us three people, who then gave us three more. It created a movement for us.
RAY: The most interesting thing I found is, through all those connections, people really care about the Hartford community and they want to help other people succeed.
NAN: What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned in your entrepreneurial journey? Any advice for others?
RAY: I left corporate in April 2019 after more than 20 years, so I’m a little bit newer in this than Jennifer. I struggled with the first few months of entrepreneurship. It was hard coming from that structured environment where you walk into any meeting and you have instant credibility because you’ve been there a while.
Now, we’re talking about a new concept. You go from having instant credibility to having zero credibility and attempting to figure out how to tell your story in a way that will get other people as excited about it as you are.
Corporate is very different than entrepreneurship. Now, some days I’m sweeping the floor, using QuickBooks, doing Facebook ads, or preparing pitch presentations. The wide variety of things you experience help expand your perspective.
Another lesson we learned was, from interviewing potential customers, we noticed there were plenty of problems to solve and we were anxious to help solve more than we should have. Initially, we built multiple products on our platform. We spent a lot of time trying to develop solution sets for many problems versus focusing on one specific problem.
JENNIFER: From all those learnings, we’ve pivoted the business twice. I’ve learned not to view those pivots as failures. In fact, it’s more that you’re refining and evolving your business. At first, we were hard on ourselves, thinking: How could we have gotten it wrong? And why didn’t we see that? The second time, we recognized: Okay, now we have more clarity and we can accelerate.
After meeting other entrepreneurs, they assured us those pivots would happen—and they’re a good thing. But, starting out, we didn’t know that.
RAY: Once we pivoted and created a niche with the small business community, we gained more focus and better understood how we should move forward. The biggest learning there was: Even though there may be many problems to solve, choose one to get started and become successful at that. Because it’s easy to feel failure in entrepreneurship and it’s important to find focus and grow from there.
JENNIFER: I would also say, as an entrepreneur, I’ve entered so much new territory about things I’d never been exposed to or had a clue about where to start (product development, marketing, sales, systems management, patents and trademarks, etc.). I used to go online or read books to try and self-teach and become an expert all by myself. I had developed a habit of knowing how to do something completely before moving forward, making decisions, or getting others involved.
Now, I realize it’s okay not to know things. And, there are lots of resources available to help me learn new things, pass on those lessons learned, and even give guidance and make connections. It’s a lot faster and I stumble a lot less on the way.