Rolodex: Denver Entrepreneurs to Know
Stepping Away with Tatiana Finkelsteyn
By Jessica Fialkovich | @jfialkovich
Tatiana Finkelsteyn is an entrepreneur who “dreams big, gets things done and always gives back.” Since founding IQ Wired in 2003, she has grown the company into an award winning Denver enterprise worthy of a place on Colorado Biz’s Top 100 Women in Business list and recognition as the #1 Place to Work by the Denver Business Journal. But building a company that manages over $60 million in annual telecom spend was not enough. In 2016, after years of planning, she transitioned operations of IQ Wired to her leadership team and spent the whole year traveling to 27 countries, meeting 62 business owners around the world. When she came back, the business was running as smoothly--if not better--than when she left it. This month she shares some insights about growth and stepping away.
Why did you decide to start IQ Wired; what was the problem you were trying to solve?
All of us have struggled with telecom in our personal lives: think about getting your cable installed or telephone bill deciphered. Businesses have this problem too but on a much larger scale. We see our enterprise clients often having to deal with tens of providers, hundreds of bills and thousands of unique services. In 2003, I saw an opportunity to help businesses deal with large providers like CenturyLink or Comcast to buy and manage telecom more efficiently and that’s what prompted me to start IQ Wired. Initially it was just me bootstrapping it but over time the business model really resonated and we grew organically to having over a thousand customers and 200+ employees and partners.
What were the top strategies you implemented to grow IQ from startup to one of the Top 100 Women-Owned businesses in Denver?
When I was in grad school, my favorite business case was called Honda A and Honda B. It told the story of Soichiro Honda inventing compact motorcycles that became a springboard for Honda’s success. Facts in both cases were the same but one told the story of a strategic visionary who saw the opportunity and executed perfectly and the other one explained the same facts by the fact that Mr. Honda simply ran out of money and could not afford materials needed to build a motorcycle of more standard Harley-type size. I would say that when talking about bootstrapped startups, things typically work as in the B case. You do whatever it takes to keep your clients and employees happy, you work 24/7 and you survive on Ramen and passion and get the luxury of having strategies much later in the business life cycle when you can afford to hire a leadership team.
In 2016, you were able to take an entire year off work to travel the world and you came back and your business was still running. How did you do that?
It started in 2010. My husband and I were talking about BHAGs (big-hairy-audacious-goals) and decided ours would be to take a year off. We then took a big cardboard and wrote “take a year off on 4/26/15” (my husband’s birthday). For my husband, it was about travel. For me, it was a proxy for achieving entrepreneurial freedom because back then I was still very much in a start-up frenzy and the idea of taking a year off from my business seemed completely unattainable. But the cardboard was hanging on the wall and even though I wasn’t doing anything about it, I think after a few months I became more and more committed to it. And then I gradually converted it into an action plan with milestones: get a bank loan, hire a team, figure out an equity plan for leadership, set up processes, set up reporting. A big help was the book by Scott Fritz called 40 Hour Work Year that describes his journey to making his business self-sufficient. Even more help was the advisory board I recruited--Mark Hughes, Victoria Quintana, and Shawn Adamson. Each one of them is an amazing Denver business person and together they helped me craft and execute the action plan. We ended up missing our “cardboard target date” by 6 months but did leave the U.S. for 12 full months at end of December 2015 and were able to visit 27 countries.
During your travels, what was the most important or surprising lesson that you took away?
There were many. While I was traveling, IQ Wired had its best year … without me. So the first lesson was seeing in practice what we all hear in leadership trainings: hire great people, trust them to succeed and the amazing things will happen. Being a typical control-freak entrepreneur I think that if I stayed “local” it would have been impossible for me to let my team fully own their roles and success. Second, I had to separate my identity from that of the company that has been my ‘baby’ for 12 years prior. I don’t have kids but suspect that that’s what parents have to do as their kids grow up. That’s emotionally tough and took some processing. Lastly, we traveled a lot to third world countries and it was a good reality check and a reminder of how many big problems still exist in the world and how good we have it here in the U.S. I did come back with a resolve to make a dent in them via philanthropy or social enterprise.
Now that you are back, what is your plan, return to IQ, do something different, both?
I spent my first year back re-learning how to wear business clothes and helping with a couple of projects for IQ Wired and looking at several areas to start a new business. This year, I am starting a new company--it’s in technology and will be closely aligned with IQ Wired.
If you had one piece of advice to give budding women entrepreneurs what would that be?
Ask for help. I owe so much to mentors, colleagues and self-development organizations. First thing I did when I started IQ Wired was meet with several much larger competitors to get their advice and shorten my learning curve. Over the years, I have had several mentors whose help has been invaluable. Organizations like EO and Vistage connected me with peers for experience and support. Women entrepreneurs are a minority but that’s an advantage because it gives us a great community of other amazing women to rely on. Let me know if I can help with anything!