Leaders & Influencers: Barbara Gulten & Eliana Stein

We’re kicking off our 2018 Leaders & Influencers series with Barbara Gulten and Eliana Stein, co-founders of newly launched Functionaire, a boutique UX design and strategy firm.

 Functionaire

Tell us about Functionaire.

Barbara:  Functionaire is a boutique product strategy and user experience design firm. We work with clients who operate in the digital landscape, be it through a website, mobile app, medical device, wearable, or internet-connected appliance.

Eliana:  We want to create a holistic, useful, and useable experience for our clients and their customers. We’re niche—we don’t write the code or build the software. We’re experts at UX.

Tell us about your clients—is there anyone who is too big or small to work with Functionaire?

­­­Barbara:  We don’t think there’s anyone too big or too small; we cover a lot of different verticals. Our current roster includes everything from established startups and ecommerce to Fortune 500 companies. We’re energized and excited about all our clients and projects. Regardless of size, we’re happy to form a partnership.

Eliana:  We’re happy to work with clients and their teams regardless of size. With smaller companies, we might be the only UX resource. At larger companies, often we collaborate with marketing, technology, and their internal UXers.

How did the two of you meet, and why was now the right time to launch your business?
Eliana Stein

Eliana Stein

Eliana:  We met at Shopbop, when I began working there in 2011. I came on board and saw the work Barbara was doing as challenging, interesting, and impactful, and it became very clear to me where my work with her could have a measureable impact on the business. Working there together for several years, we went through sprints and marathons.

Barbara:  Fast forward to 2017, I decided to forge my own path after a long career with Shopbop and Amazon. I took some time to travel, which I’m also passionate about. Eliana and I had always been in touch and appreciated one another’s work. We share working styles and a common philosophy on the customer experience. I knew she also had envisioned starting her own business. We met up one day and it was just evident that we should start this business together.

Barbara Gulten

Barbara Gulten

Eliana:  The timing for the business has been great. We’re lucky that, right now, UX is becoming more and more well understood. For example, you can’t open an issue of Fast Company without reading something about UX.

Barbara:  Yes, as companies mature, they start understanding there are only so many differentiators they can rely on. UX is a major one.

What sets Functionaire apart?

Eliana:  We’re data-driven, both in terms of quantitative and qualitative research. Looking at big data or metrics alone doesn’t tell you why your customers are behaving the way they are. Both the quantitative and qualitative are needed. We believe we can deliver something great and collaborate with clients to make their own customers happy. We don’t just throw things over the wall; we partner for the long run because we know things change in the life of a project.

Barbara:  We really believe in problem-solving. But that begins by working from the customer, not just working from the problem you think you have. We discover for our clients and their customers the pertinent questions they likely haven’t been asking. We offer an outside perspective, clarity, and sanity because we can look at the problem from a different angle. We have well-seasoned experience working in UX, and we’re not afraid to ask the tough questions. Our approach is to pick apart the problem and what is really being asked of us. We try to deliver as much innovation and foresight as possible. We can absolutely deliver just the expected, but we strive to deliver the unexpected.

What recent UX developments are most exciting to you?

Barbara:   We’re really energized and interested in some of the new digital topics. For the last 20 years or so, digital interactions have been fairly flat—via desktops, tablets, and phones. In the last 2-3 years, we’ve been talking more about AI, voice, image, and other modes of interaction, which are part of the bigger holistic UX that all of us as humans are beginning to use with devices, in our homes and cars.

Why is Madison a great place for Functionaire? 

Eliana:  Given how totally feasible remote work is today, there’s a real opportunity for someone like me to take advantage of Madison. As someone who lived in the Bay Area, I still get to work with clients in Silicon Valley, but enjoy the quality of life in Madsion.

Barbara:  I love Madison as a home base. There’s a small but exciting tech scene in Madison—and we’re happy to be part of it and excited to see it grow.

 

Visit Fine Point Consulting to learn more about how our outsourced accounting and CFO services can help your business succeed.

Fine Point Meet & Greet: Gail Pawlak

Meet the Fine Point Consulting staff and learn a little bit about what makes them tick. This week: Accounting Manager Gail Pawlak.

Tell us a little bit about when you started at Fine Point and what you do there.

Gail PawlakI was the first full-time employee hired at Fine Point, in 2011. Before this position, I was an accountant for a hotel management company.

I’m an Accounting Manager with Fine Point, which means I take care of the day-to-day operations with different clients. I also manage month-end reviews and reconciliation of accounts, and do payroll. For the companies I work with, I’m usually working with a team of 2-3 coworkers, typically a controller and a staff accountant.

What changes have you seen in the last six years at Fine Point?

The biggest one is that the business has grown from one to around fifteen employees. Things are always changing here in terms of finding newer, faster ways to do things more efficiently to help our clients. We’re constantly reviewing new software and apps. We work with many startups, but also some more established businesses as well. Some of the businesses we worked with in the past grew so large that they hired their own in-house accountants, which is [Fine Point Owner] Luella’s goal—to get these startups to grow to the point where they don’t need us anymore.

In recent years, we’ve also become a Results-Only Work Environment, which means we have the flexibility to work where and when we want, provided we’re meeting client needs. I usually work in the office, but it’s nice to have that flexibility option, especially when the weather is bad or when I have appointments that I need to work around.

What do you like best about working at Fine Point?

Luella is very easy to work with. (When I first started, she was very patient training me!) The culture here is great and fun. I really love all the people I work with.

What have you noticed about how business has changed in Madison in recent years?

Business—and the range of businesses—seems to have grown tremendously here. All the different startups we have in the Madison area are just amazing.

When you’re not working, you…
I spend time with my grandkids. I also enjoy antiquing and cooking.

 

Visit Fine Point Consulting to learn how our knowledgeable staff can help your business succeed.

Leaders & Influencers: Brad James

In our continuing series on Wisconsin Leaders & Influencers, we chat with Brad James, President & CEO of Beepods, which promotes and implements sustainable beekeeping practices by providing education and resources to individuals, businesses, and organizations.

Tell us a little bit about what made you decide to join Beepods as President & CEO.

Brad JamesBeepods was founded in 2009 and has gone through a huge amount of change since then. I was brought on a few years ago; the company had a great concept and great products, but it wasn’t moving forward. At the time, I was working for a company that specialized in taking startups to the next level and Beepods was one of our clients. My goal since joining the company has been to build it the right way, not just in terms of making money, but to make a social and environmental impact from top to bottom. We source as many of our products and materials as possible from U.S. manufacturers (specifically, those from Wisconsin), and work with locally minded and eco-minded companies. We have employed local artisans and individuals with visual impairments. This is part of our strategy to build economic equity across all layers of the company and to promote sustainability in more than just the “green” sense of the word.

What successes have you seen? Any recent initiatives?

As a company, we’re cash positive, which is always fun. We’ve solidified some distributors in different niches, which is big. We have new inspection processes and have rounded out and added to our product offering. When I came on, Beepods was more or less a concept. Now it’s a feasible product with services and tools people are using.

Lately we’re going through an entire update of our software and back end systems. We’ll have a new look to our website soon, and we’re launching more digital products so people can dip their toes into beekeeping, in a way that’s easy and affordable to access. And we’re ramping up to open a round of fundraising, so lots going on.

What are some common misconceptions people have about beekeeping?

When most people think about beekeeping, they think of white boxes. That is one way of beekeeping, but it’s not the only way. We try to focus on that with our messaging. The usual way of beekeeping isn’t bad, but there are certainly other ways to do it, so Beepods is about educating and awareness as much as it is about selling products.

Talk about your clients and your work with schools.

Anywhere you can think of that you might be able to put a beehive, we’ve probably done it.  With schools, we’re particularly interested in educating the next generation. We can provide beekeeping curriculum for teachers ranging in subjects from math and science to art and engineering. We work with FabLabs and MakerSpaces on tech and computing and in outdoor classrooms to enable and empower teachers to use those spaces as a type of living lab. (Science experiments don’t always need to happen at a desk.) We have tools for kids at every level, and we support educators with tools, techniques, and bee viewers. We really want to make it possible for all people—even those who may be afraid—to interact with bees.

What is the overall health of bees and beekeeping, and where do you see opportunities to help?

Wisconsin is one of the top 10 honey-producing states, yet we sustain the highest colony collapses and die-offs. It’s a complicated problem—no one thing is causing these collapses and die-offs. Part of the problem is that due to the long tradition of “white box beekeeping,” there’s no central pool of data for us to use to measure the success of various beekeeping techniques. (As opposed to an agricultural industry like dairy farming, where we’ve been collecting data from dairy cows for decades.) We’ve only been collecting this type of data for honey bees in the last 10-15 years, so we’re relatively far behind in research for the most important domesticated animal. We’re working with beekeepers to collect and aggregate data around global geolocations so we can get a better picture of what’s happening. Beekeepers use the same training, techniques, and tools, but they’re not taking variables into consideration when collecting data.

 Why is Wisconsin important to beekeeping (and vice versa)?

Wisconsin was built on farming and manufacturing, and we try to capitalize on those industries, along with technology. Everything we need to run a meaningful company, we can do here in Wisconsin. People in Wisconsin understand agriculture, where food comes from, and the role of bees in that process. There are still manufacturers in Wisconsin; they have survived outsourcing. Understanding things like how batch manufacturing is important to smaller businesses has helped me see how important the local economy can be.

Other industries and ideals here are also important to our business, in their own way. Tech, slow food, slow money, general Wisconsin friendliness. We’re not a one-trick pony so ours is a difficult business to build. I think we can be the Nike of beekeeping in the U.S., but it’s going to take time.

 

 

Visit Fine Point Consulting to learn more about how our outsourced accounting and CFO services can help your business succeed.

Farm Work: The Adventures of FPC’s Bailey Green

Green Journey Farm

Green Journey Farm

If you read our previous Meet & Greet post about Fine Point Staff Accountant Bailey Green (of tiny house fame), you might not be surprised to learn that our resident adventurer has left for greener pastures (literally!). But don’t worry, she’s still working for Fine Point Consulting. Read all about it our Q&A with Bailey.

 

Tell us about where you’re living now and what made you decide to make the move?

Bailey and Grant

My husband and I moved with our tiny house and our dog to Curlew, Washington, in late July of this year. We started Green Journey Farm on 40 acres here with the goal of becoming a completely sustainable farm.

When I was in college, I took a summer course on environmental leadership and sustainability. I met some activists who were big names in the sustainability field—they were very knowledgeable and inspiring! It made a big impression on me, and that was the start of me realizing I wanted to take the next steps in the journey to sustainable living.

We settled on Curlew because it met everything on our list of criteria: It’s close to a national forest, close to a town of less than 10,000 residents, there’s acreage, and a nearby forest service. The town of Curlew is well under 10,000 residents, and we’re less than 20 miles away from the Canadian border.

 

 

What does it mean to be a sustainable farm, and how is it going so far?

Solar setup

Solar setup

Well, our goal is to be totally self-sufficient on our 40 acres so that we never need to go to the grocery store again. We want to be a zero-waste operation. There’s no one right way to live, but we also want to share, via our website and blog, what the sustainable farm possibility can look like, and provide tips and lessons from our experience to possibly inspire others.

Right now, our farm consists of our tiny house, an all-purpose shed, a sheep shed (made from rocks and fallen timbers), a chicken coop, and our solar-power set-up. There’s a large ravine with a creek that runs through the middle of our property, and we have many hiking trails and just a stunning view. In addition to our dog, we have cats, rabbits, chickens, and sheep, and we’re working on getting fish set up both indoors and out.

 

You’re still working full-time for Fine Point. What has that transition been like and do you use any special tools to make it work?

Tulip the Sheep

Tulip, the East Friesien dairy sheep (does not use Slack)

Yep, when I told Luella about my plan to move to this farm in Washington, I think she thought I was a little nuts, but she was also completely supportive. She has always encouraged her staff to follow their dreams. Likewise, the team at Fine Point was also supportive. My work with clients isn’t really that different. I was working mostly from home when I was in Madison, but would go into the office a couple days a week. I do think it was important that I worked in the office in Madison for a couple of years before we moved. That helped me really get in the groove of the culture and communication, and just the way we worked with clients.

Fine Point uses several online tools to connect both internally and with clients, which is great as I obviously can’t just pop by a coworker’s desk or a client’s office. We use Slack internally and with some clients, Asana for project/task management, and Office 365 to create and share documents. And we use Skype for screen sharing and training.

 

Any surprises on the farm?

Temporary roommates

Temporary roommates

Well, I ordered day-old chicks to arrive soon after we arrived here. We didn’t have a coop or anything yet, so we warmed them with heat packs and kept them in our tiny house for awhile. I would hear them cheeping while I was on calls for work, which was pretty cute.

 

What do you love most about your new life? Is there anything you miss?

I love being able to look up when I’m in the middle of a difficult project and see the valley and realize how small we are. It helps put everything in perspective. And it’s so tranquil here. Things I miss? Seeing my coworkers in the office—[laughs] and going to Noodles & Company.

Leaders & Influencers: Matt Storms

This month in our Leaders & Influencers series, we talk with Matt Storms, President & Attorney of AlphaTech Counsel, S.C., a Madison-based law firm that represents emerging companies, primarily in technology-enabled industries.

Tell us a bit about your background and what made you decide to start AlphaTech.

Matt StormsI was a partner in a large corporate law firm where I worked for 13 years. While I was there, I got an offer out of the blue to be CEO for a medical technology client, which initiated a midlife crisis of what I wanted to be when I grew up! I ultimately turned down the offer and decided that I wanted to continue practice law. But, I wanted to do it differently. I wanted to be more focused on what I liked doing—working exclusively with emerging tech companies. I also wanted to rely more on technology, which is why I spent the first six months after I left the corporate law firm doing some amateur coding and building automated tools to facilitate working with emerging technology companies. After I emerged from my programming cave, I started hiring for AlphaTech. That was seven years ago.

Why don’t law firms use technology like document automation more often?

Many professional service firms, such as accounting and law firms, have traditionally relied on an hourly payment model for services, which doesn’t give those professions a lot of incentive for developing technology, such as document automation. Under a time and materials model, the more efficient an accountant or lawyer is, the lower his or her revenue. Conversely, the more money spent to improve technology, the lower the margins become. What often happens is that professional service firms are not eager to adopt these systems unless they feel as if they need to do so to keep with market. So, many professional service firms have been slow to adopt new technologies, such as document automation in the legal field.

Why did you choose to invest in technology?

First, it is overdue in the legal industry. I want to be a part of the forces that cause law firms to evolve and use technology to become more efficient. While our use of technology is not the centerpiece of what we offer, it is symbolic of the common sense way we approach working with companies.

Second, use of automation can be a great knowledge management tool. For example, we built our system so that when producing routine documents, it provides prompts and information to enable the person creating the document to make informed decisions around common variables. If a company is setting up a stock option plan, for example, one variable or question is, “How many shares are available under the option plan?” The system will provide the range for what is most common and the instances of when to deviate from what is typical. In doing so, it takes information from those who are experienced on a matter to enable others the benefit of that information when preparing the documents.

And third, after developing and now using the technology, it actually frees up time for our team so that we can spend more time on things like assisting with strategy, negotiating, and structuring complex transactions rather than on routine matters. As a result, our attorneys and paralegals spend most of our time on matters that have higher value, which clients appreciate.

What trends have you seen in tech companies over the years, and what is the biggest barrier for Madison tech companies right now?

When I started working with tech companies in the mid-‘90s in Madison, there were some medical device, therapeutic, and scientific tool companies and some software and Internet companies. Not many of them made it far past the initial start gate. Most medical device and therapeutic companies relied primarily on SBIR funding.  Gradually, more investment capital started coming in, and we started to see more software companies popping up. Fast forward to 2010-2012 (post-recession), we had more people launching their second startup company.  These people originally came out of Epic, TomoTherapy, Third Wave, GE Medical, Promega, and the UW.  Some were successful with their first startup; some weren’t. What was good to see is that even though people may not have been successful with their first startup, they were sticking around and trying it again.

In the last 4 years, investment capital has not been the issue it was 10 or 20 years ago, at least not for early-stage startup companies. You find more folks here who are now on their third or fourth startup, and former CTOs, CFOs, and heads of sales who are now starting their own companies. We’re also seeing a lot more talent flow between Chicago and Madison and even a number of people commuting between the cities.

Currently, we have several companies that we are working with who are struggling to raise between $3-$10M in investment capital—that’s both here in Madison and in the upper Midwest generally. These companies frequently have experienced management and a validated product generating revenue, and are now trying to scale nationally or internationally. In many cases, they need both more capital and talent. There are limited sources of investment in the Midwest that can deploy several millions of dollars in capital in these types of companies.  Plus, we have a finite pool of people who have scaled a technology-enabled company to more than 100 people. So, raising $3-$10M will likely be a continuing challenge for Midwest companies in coming years.

What’s interesting to you about the legal sphere right now?

I’m curious about how law firms are changing. There’s been more consolidation in the last 8-10 years than ever. Law firms that have between 50 and 500 attorneys are facing a lot of pressure in terms of pricing, demographics, increasing client law department sizes, outside counsel policies, and outsourcing. With increasing specialization and use of technology, it will be very difficult in coming years for a general practice firm, such as one with 50 to 500 attorneys, to stay on top of the various legal practice areas while investing and paying for the infrastructure that will be required to keep with market.

In coming years, I’m anticipating a combination of more consolidation and breakups of these firms. So, we’ll end up seeing more huge firms with thousands of attorneys on one end of the size spectrum and then niche firms like ours that are specializing in a particular area that can compete with the megafirms in that area. The megafirms will have both depth and breadth of experience and knowledge, but will likely be very expensive because of high overhead and less competition. The niche firms, on the other hand, will focus on a particular industry or area of law—intellectual property, estate planning, insurance, healthcare, employment law, emerging tech companies—which enables them to deliver the depth in that area with a better product and service at a lower price. I look forward to seeing how this unfolds.

 

 

Visit Fine Point Consulting to learn more about how our outsourced accounting and CFO services can help your business succeed.