Kim Michelson of Honest Game: “These skills are critical to founder success”

There are many reasons why women often make excellent founders. Due to existing gender gaps in many important domains of work and family life, women are accustomed to juggling priorities and making difficult decisions. In addition, women tend to be excellent communicators. These skills are critical to founder success. As a part of our series about […]

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There are many reasons why women often make excellent founders. Due to existing gender gaps in many important domains of work and family life, women are accustomed to juggling priorities and making difficult decisions. In addition, women tend to be excellent communicators. These skills are critical to founder success.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kim Michelson.

Kim Michelson is the Co-founder and CEO of Honest Game, a first to market SaaS platform that automates NCAA and NAIA academic eligibility to college sports.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I co-founded Honest Game because I wanted to solve a problem, not because I wanted to start a business. My co-founder Joyce Anderson and I knew that academic eligibility to college sports was a complex, multi-layered matrix that most people didn’t understand, nor how to navigate. Due to this confusion, almost 1 million students in the United States every year don’t meet minimum academic eligibility requirements and thus are unable to play college sports. In under-resourced communities, the picture is bleaker with nearly 50 percent of all students not meeting these academic eligibility requirements. As former student-athletes and with experience working with thousands of high school students, we had helped many youths dig themselves out of academic ineligibility. We knew what the problem was — students needed clear and periodic guidance starting freshman year in high school. We knew how to solve the problem — use technology to help each individual navigate the complexity and provide a trusted resource to everyone in the student’s village. We knew why we wanted to solve the problem — to change the world by radically blowing open doors of opportunity for all students that were previously closed.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

When we started Honest Game, Joyce and I were working around the clock. I was out selling and Joyce was running all of the academic eligibility. At that early stage, we heard about the Chicago Bulls Venture Pitch Competition and decided to enter. The event comprised 200+ Chicago startups all vying for the 50k dollars VC funding, not to mention the notoriety of being associated with an NBA team. After moving from the top 20 to the top five, we won! On March 10, 2020, in a packed United Center, they announced Honest Game as the winner. This was the last Bulls home game of 2020. COVID-19 had arrived. Looking back, this was a major watershed moment for Honest Game.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Joyce and I started Honest Game as acquaintances. In many ways, we got married to a complete stranger. Early on, we realized how polar opposite we are. I am more of the visionary, continually driving opportunity and possibility. Joyce is all about the details, using her legal background to ensure that mistakes and costly blunders are avoided. What we didn’t fully anticipate was how our different personalities would lead to vastly different communication styles. In order to improve our working relationship, we developed a safe word — “pineapple”. The safe word saved us, because it signaled when we needed to take a breath before the conversation escalated. Additionally, use of “pineapple” allowed us to evaluate our tone and body language. We would then revisit the conversation later, with open minds.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

We believe success never occurs in a vacuum. A big part of our success has been seeing the success of other female founders. The expression, “if you see it, you can believe it” definitely applies to Honest Game. One female founder in particular that inspired us is Lisa Fiore. Lisa founded LandscapeHub, a digital B2B marketplace for all landscaping needs. Lisa’s guidance, particularly around fundraising, has been instrumental in our approach to fundraising.

We also are super grateful to the WiSTEM program at 1871. We learned a ton about how to build our business the right way in the Pyros program. WiSTEM provided us additional supports on top of the Pyros program and we met some Incredible female founders in the process. Entrepreneurship can be a very lonely place, and having a built-in support group was incredibly valuable.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

Amy Schumer did a sketch recently about female thought leaders. The sketch was about women at a conference who were so busy apologizing on stage that they never got the opportunity to actually share their expertise.It was a humorous skit, but the point was clear — girlsare conditioned to be more attuned to — and responsible for — how our behavior affects others. This empathetic awareness complicates behaviors associated with success, such as winning, drive, and competition.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

Activities that bolster self-confidence and encourage competition would be a great place to start. Sport is one of these activities that promote those qualities. In fact, 94% of women in the C-Suite are former athletes and 52% played sports at the college level. Unfortunately, by age 14, many girls are dropping out of sports at two times the rate of boys. This needs to change.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

There are many reasons why women often make excellent founders. Due to existing gender gaps in many important domains of work and family life, women are accustomed to juggling priorities and making difficult decisions. In addition, women tend to be excellent communicators. These skills are critical to founder success.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder. Can you explain what you mean?

One of the key myths about being a founder is that success happens overnight. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The truth is that being a founder is hard work and companies take time to build, with many mistakes and necessary pivots along the way.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

The key to understanding whether being a founder is a good fit all comes down to self-awareness. Self-awareness means you know your deepest flaws, strongest attributes and guiding principles. For example, if you are someone who prefers structure and security over risk, then startup life may not be the best personal choice. We believe success comes when you know your strengths and align them with your passions. This combination is magical.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Pick your co-founder carefully. I was very lucky to choose a co-founder with strengths that complement my weaknesses and vice versa. It was a happy accident. Startup life is like a marriage, so getting this partnership right is critical. I have seen many startups fail because of co-founder conflict.
  2. Fun matters. Startup life is hard and requires long work weeks and tremendous mind share. Infusing some levity and a fun culture makes every day better.
  3. Things take time. All startups want to go fast. They want to define a moat to build and retain market penetration. At Honest Game we often say we want to go fast, but we don’t want to hurry. Hasty decisions occur when people hurry.
  4. Stay flexible. Startup life is all about being agile and questioning assumptions. We often reflect on the old Yiddish proverb, “We plan, God laughs.” This was so true with the onset of COVID-19. Honest Game launched our MVP right before the global pandemic. This timing was not ideal with Honest Game’s key customers — sports shut down and schools running remotely. However, our flexibility helped us manage this change better and to see the unintended positives.
  5. Get comfortable with numbers. Women continue to be under-represented In STEM fields. This “pipeline” problem explains how systemically under-encouraged women are to embrace STEM. Getting comfortable with the numbers and asking for help from experts has allowed us to properly define Honest Game’s strategy for the next 2–5 years.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Honest Game’s mission is to change the world. Using data as a proactive vehicle to inform and educate students, we are leveling the playing field by driving equity to sport and college access for all.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Honest Game is a movement that brings good to millions of students and their families every day. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would love to have breakfast with Cami Anderson. Cami spent more than 20 years cutting through outdated systems and politics to push for change in education. She served as Superintendent of Schools for nearly 10 years, first in New York City and then in Newark, where she received national attention for improving student learning outcomes and pushing innovation. Cami is a lifelong advocate for gender equity, intersectional feminism and Title IX, spearheading successful legal action against the University of California for gender discrimination in sports.

Thank you so much for these excellent insights!

Thank you for taking the time to ask great questions and doing this with me.

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