If you spend much time in the entrepreneurial blogosphere, chances are good that you'll come across Maren Kate Donovan, or someone talking about her. Maren Kate, as she usually goes by, is a true entrepreneur to her core. Her entrepreneurial journey started just after high school, and she's persevered through a good number of challenges to get to where she is today.
We caught up with Maren Kate recently and asked her to answer some questions for an interview. We know our readers, and we know that Maren is representative of a good percentage of us. She's young, ambitious, determined, and driven to succeed. So you're bound to get a lot out of her insights and story. Enjoy the interview, and be sure to leave your thoughts in the comments.
Your company, Zirtual, provides a way for busy entrepreneurs to delegate tasks to virtual assistants. Can you sum up the company's mission for our readers?
Our mission is based around the idea that there are two types of people in the world: those who have more money than time and those who have more time than money. The former is our target customer – people whose time is worth more than say $20 an hour, so anything they delegate to a Zirtual Assistant is not only saved time, but it’s saved money. The latter is the perfect Zirtual Assistant candidate, generally college students and recent grads, these people are just getting started in the career world and are looking to sharpen their skills while earning some money – we call it “earning and learning”.
There is a fair amount of competition in your industry. How do you set your company apart, and how are you getting the word out?
It took a while for us to really understand the importance of differentiating when it comes to starting a business, but the day that we really embraced that idea was the day when our business started to take a turn for the better. The primary ways we stand out from our competition is the fact that our assistants are all U.S. based, college-educated and dedicated to each customer. This allows our customers to work with a particular assistant who gets to know their preferences and business and who they can develop a relationship with over time.
The other way we really try to stand out is through epic customer service. It’s something I drill into each employee and every Zirtual Assistant who wants to join our team. This is a customer service centric business, and if we can provide absolutely out-of-the-world value to our customers and make them feel good about the experience while we’re at it, we’ll always have a solid base.
You've been involved in entrepreneurship for a long time. Where did you get your entrepreneurial spirit? Are your parents entrepreneurial?
My parents aren’t entrepreneurs so to speak, but they’ve always instilled in me that “you can do whatever you set your mind to” drive. My mother is starting her first business selling high-end pet vitamins, and my father does commercial real estate. I always knew I wanted to be a “businessman” when I grew up, even when I was a little girl, so it’s been a natural course for me to lean towards working for myself versus working for others. The hardest part has just been cultivating that dogged determination and persistence that helps you through the good and bad times – if you don’t have ridiculous persistence as an entrepreneur, you’ll have a hell of a time reaching success.
As a young entrepreneur, have you ever felt like your age was a disadvantage? What have you learned about dealing with more seasoned entrepreneurs?
I can’t stand when people point to anything they’ve been born with as a handicap. There are far too many successful people in the world who have overcome HUGE physical, mental, and socio-economic obstacles for someone like me to complain about my age or the fact that I’m a chick in the 90% male-dominated tech startup world. Instead, I’ve looked at the fact that people are more willing to help young entrepreneurs (than someone who’s more experienced and more of a threat) as a great thing.
I ask advice from and listen to every successful person I meet, this way I can grow and learn without having to experience the years it took them to get there. The best thing to do with more seasoned entrepreneurs is to shut up and listen. They will impart so much knowledge if you just act respectful and are truly interested in their war stories – there are goldmines of business genius in each one.
What three pieces of advice do you have for young entrepreneurs interested in starting their
1) Absorb everything you can get your hands on about startups, business, and successful people. This can be in any form from books, to Mixergy.com to magazines, even to overhearing people’s business conversations in bars.
2) Start before you're ready. This means just start trying little things before you think you’ve hit upon your “perfect” idea. 99% of the stuff you try might fail but that 1% will skyrocket you to the next level.
3) Embrace change. After you absorb all there is to know, become a student of startups, and begin trying things to see what works, it’s time to be open to change – because nothing is consistent in a new business except constant change. Every time you hit an issue and have to change, embrace it and you’ll go far. I honestly don’t think a new business or entrepreneur can fail if they are willing to change everything over time until they hit upon the right product/market fit, and sometimes that takes 30 pivots before you’re there.
Thinking back to the first days starting up, please share one major struggle you went through and how you overcame that obstacle.
The biggest struggle I had was not learning how to sell early on. Anyone can come up with an idea and any smart person can build that idea into a reality; what separates the “men from the boys,” so to speak, is the ability to sell your idea, your team. and your vision to the rest of the world.
What’s your best advice for balancing work and life?
When you’re starting up early on, there won’t be much of one! Work hard, play hard – that’s my best advice.
How do you personally define success?
Doing what you set out to do, whether you set out to be a great mother and wife or whether you want to be the next Ray Dalio – don’t stop until you’ve reached your goals, no matter what the obstacles.