Sales skills: There is a certain X factor that good salespeople have and it is generally something that can’t be learned. You can have the best product or service in the market, but if you can’t convey that value to your target demographic, you have nothing. Story: I do not use canned pitch decks when I meet with prospects. I think it’s a waste of time to tell them every single thing I can do. I’d rather really offer them what amounts to a free consultation (that often goes on for hours) where I listen to their pain points and give them advice, including how I’d address their needs. In one pitch though, I was basically yelled out of a conference room for not having and using a boring old pitch deck. I doubted myself after that, but this has proven to be a huge anomaly (that was the only time this has ever happened to me in eight years). All information gained is valuable, however, and so I do have a standard pitch deck available now for prospect calls and meetings just in case.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of speaking with Stacey Burke.
Stacey Burke is a 20-year attorney who provides marketing and business development consulting services to law firms. She has worked with over 300 law firms in a wide range of practice areas across the United States. Her work has been featured in the Texas Bar Journal, Trial magazine, Forbes, and Legal Business World, among other publications.
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 began working in the legal industry during college in the mid 1990s and continued throughout law school. I had positions ranging from file clerk to extern to student attorney and everything in between. I tried my hand at various areas of the law to see what I enjoyed and felt I was adept at, as well as what was not for me. I began my formal career, once licensed, working in an established Houston, Texas maritime firm, and stayed there for many years. I was hired away by a larger personal injury and products liability litigation firm with eight offices in six cities. I was made a partner, and I continued my legal career at that firm until I unexpectedly transitioned into consulting by choice. While my second employer provided unparalleled opportunities for advancement and financial success, the work life balance became untenable for me as a single working mother raising two young daughters largely on my own. My employer was upset but supportive, telling me, “I will be your first and best client” for my new business, and he — as always — held true to his word. I left the firm with no intention of using a previously established entity as a full-time business, but quickly became aware of a huge deficit in the legal industry in the gulf of knowledge between marketing vendors and the lawyers who have to use them to obtain new clients. My role (and compensation) at both of my former law firms was largely focused on my efforts to generate business from other lawyers and from marketing endeavors; this skill was in high demand once I became a free agent and thus, a consulting business was born during what was supposed to be my down time.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Several of the most interesting things that have happened to me since I began running my consulting business full-time are covered by detailed non-disclosure agreements, so I cannot share them, although I wish I could. Of what I can share, some of the most interesting stories have been watching the firms I work with evolve both personally and professionally — watching lawyers leave client firms for better opportunities where they feel more valued, watching partners’ marriages self-destruct as they engage in inappropriate behavior, and entity names shift and change as named partners come and go.
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?
The funniest mistakes I have made have luckily been internal and with regard to my own hiring process. My company thankfully has grown very quickly and thus often our need for additional employees is urgent; however, after several hiring missteps, we have since adjusted our interview process to include a skills test and interviews with multiple team members instead of just me. One worker came with a highly pedigreed resume and legal industry connections; she interviewed exceptionally and had fantastic references. Once she became a part of our team, however, we realized she was much better on paper than as an actual employee. As a public relations professional, she proceeded to refuse to do certain work because she didn’t agree with a client’s side of a legal matter, loudly disrupted the internal work environment daily by trying to gossip with and talk to my hardworking employees, and presumed she could take hours off of work in her first week to get her aging dog acupuncture. She quit via email without so much as a conversation with me or my operations manager and has since shifted jobs numerous times. Hiring and wasting time with someone like this taught me that interviews and resumes only matter fractionally. Instead, a hard-working applicant with less experience and fewer references who wants to dig in and learn is generally a better hire than a diva who thinks she is above internal guidelines because of her previous accomplishments.
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?
I am most grateful to my father for my business acumen, drive, and success. When I divorced at a very young age with two small children, my father told me that I was smart and capable and could do it all myself. My dad helped me believe in myself professionally even while I felt like a failure personally. He also encouraged me to go out on my own and choose a healthier lifestyle that made me more available to my children, even while risking significant financial compensation. As an experienced business owner of a much larger enterprise, my dad took the time to sit down with me once a month to review my books and learn about my services offerings and clients during my first year or two of business. His advice and support have been invaluable to me throughout my life, but in particular in my professional career.
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?
Most commonly tasked with being the primary caregivers to children and other dependent relatives, women are afraid to leave the comfort of working for others and the benefits that come therewith — job security, health insurance, retirement plans, business development stipends, and other perks. As caregivers, we have to strike a balance where we earn enough to pay for childcare and still turn a profit on which to live.
Women also often do not have the same resources of a single male with no dependents with which to start a business. Women who have operated outside of the traditional workforce may not qualify for bank loans due to a lack of credit or bad credit and not know how to obtain funding elsewhere, if it’s even possible. I was fortunate to have earnings saved that enabled me to invest in myself and my own company without ever requiring loans or outside funding.
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?
I have seen some traction in the movement to encourage and fund women founders, but not enough. Society as a whole continues to fail to recognize the unique benefits women offer in leadership and ownership roles, and this devaluation of female leadership is costly. Looking to other countries with female leaders, you can see on a broad level much of what can be accomplished with a woman at the helm. Unfortunately, the United States sadly lags behind in addressing the pain points that inhibit women from becoming entrepreneurs, as well as in empowering women into executive and leadership roles within existing corporate structures. I would like to see the government fully fund childcare costs, as the majority of my first paychecks upon returning to work went directly to childcare, leaving me with little to live on. If we can eradicate the childcare gap, all parents and caregivers will be able to bolster the American economy in a more equitable manner.
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?
One significant reason more women should become founders is so they can in turn empower more women to take on leadership roles and become founders, thus ultimately removing the gender disparity in business ownership and leadership. In addition, women founders inspire younger women by showing them that regardless of gender identity, one can not only succeed professionally, but lead and own a business. Furthermore, women founders qualify for designated government funding and can obtain special women-owned business designations that are helpful for financial reasons; and, by increasing the number of applicants and designees for these funds and certifications, we show the government and society in general that women are a meaningful component of the capitalist structure who need to be financed and considered as equal to male-owned or dominated businesses.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
I wrongly believed that I needed a large sum of capital in order to start a business. This could not have been further from the truth. While it does vary by industry and service/product offerings, most small businesses do not require significant financial seed money in order to commence operations. I invested 30,000 dollars of my own money into my business and have never invested any freestanding funds since that time. So many functions that are thought to be extremely expensive like logo design, website design, invoicing software, accounting, payroll, and the like are truly not that significant of an overhead component if set up correctly.
Another myth is that women won’t be taken as seriously as men, especially in male-dominated professions. Despite progress, the legal industry remains male-dominated and hetero cis male-centric. I have not once felt that my skills or my offerings were taken less seriously because I identify and present as female. I do not focus on my gender identity as part of my selling points, but rather focus on my 20 years of experience in my field, significant and pervasive thought leadership pieces, and previous successes on behalf of my clients. Even the most successful billionaire trial lawyers defer to me and other members of my team as experts when we work together.
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?
No, not everyone can be a business founder. I have watched many peers try and fail to start law firms, consulting firms, and other businesses. Some people are natural leaders and also the type of people who will not accept failure as an option — I am one of those types of people. I never considered failure a possibility when I started consulting. Those who enjoy being part of a team and even managing others but not being fully in charge of and responsible for the success of an entire business can make great employees, as can those who need daily or weekly reassurance and direction; but, neither of these types of people should establish and lead their own company.
Having the skills needed to perform tasks is just not the same as having the drive, acumen, contacts, and commitment needed to establish a new brand and drive marketplace success.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
Five Things You Need to Thrive and Succeed as a Women Founder:
- Funding: I was able to fund my own startup with money I made in my legal career. Most others will not have this advantage. Story: As a single mom, I did throw up in the parking lot outside of Frost Bank downtown the day I took my own 30,000 dollars and put it into an account I created for the business. While founding your own business can be exciting, there are moments — especially when it comes to money — that can cause a physical reaction like this.
- Contacts: If you are someone who is afraid to ask for meetings, take people to lunch or coffee, or reach out over email to a good chunk of everyone you’ve ever known before, entrepreneurship may not be for you. Mining your own personal database of connections is essential to being a successful woman founder. You never know who needs your help or who knows someone who needs your help. Never be afraid to tell people what you do. If you don’t self-promote, no one else will do it for you — certainly not your competitors! Story: My first clients were all current or former members of my immediately preceding employer, showing that just because you leave a job doesn’t mean that you have to sever the relationship.
- Sales skills: There is a certain X factor that good salespeople have and it is generally something that can’t be learned. You can have the best product or service in the market, but if you can’t convey that value to your target demographic, you have nothing. Story: I do not use canned pitch decks when I meet with prospects. I think it’s a waste of time to tell them every single thing I can do. I’d rather really offer them what amounts to a free consultation (that often goes on for hours) where I listen to their pain points and give them advice, including how I’d address their needs. In one pitch though, I was basically yelled out of a conference room for not having and using a boring old pitch deck. I doubted myself after that, but this has proven to be a huge anomaly (that was the only time this has ever happened to me in eight years). All information gained is valuable, however, and so I do have a standard pitch deck available now for prospect calls and meetings just in case.
- Systems and processes: If you try to cram everything you need to know how to do to run your business into your own head, you’ll fail. Even things that are intuitive need to be immortalized in writing or in a CRM or some form of tangible medium to bolster knowledge management, largely because if you do a good job, you’ll grow, and more people will need to know all of the steps involved with everything you do. Story: I tried for years to create all of my own forms and systems without anyone’s input. Only once I involved my employees at every level in defining, mapping out, and systematizing the tasks associated with their own jobs did things coalesce. Never forget to utilize everyone when creating the systems and processes they will work under, partly because they know exactly what they do every day but also because it increases employee buy-in when they are part of the decision-making process.
- Accountability metrics: Just as any good consulting business or marketing agency needs to account for the value it provides to its customers, as business owners we need to hold ourselves, our employees, and our efforts accountable in order to continue to optimize our own work product. Don’t just review your client monthly reporting in a vacuum. Look at the tough parts and decide on new strategic moves you can make to do better. Story: We have gone through many iterations of internal and external reporting before realizing that we could use external reporting for internal review before we send it out to the clients. We were doing double the work for no real reason and once we realized it, things got a lot more efficient!
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I use my skills as both a lawyer and a marketer to drive those in need of legal services to lawyers and law firms who will care, help them, and who have the experience needed to do a solid job. I actively choose not to work with lawyers I don’t think will benefit the leads I would drive to them as clients because ethically, as a licensed attorney, I don’t agree with this practice. This sets me apart from other vendors who are only trying to acquire clients in volume to meet their overhead costs and turn a profit. I believe I am ethically obligated to send potential clients to good lawyers, and that is how I use my marketing skills to make the world a better place — increasing access to legal services by removing the barriers between good law firms and those in need of their services.
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.
Seeing as I spend hours daily on social media in order to accomplish my clients’ work, I would like to see vastly different monitoring programs, highly improved reviews conducted, and transparent data from social networks like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram concerning bullying, hate speech, antisemitic content, and the like. Every single one of these social networks (and many more) enable desktop jockeys to lie and reach potentially millions of others around the world with damaging and misleading information. As the modern purveyors of the majority of the world’s real-time news, I do not think they are held to a sufficient standard of care with regard to their own internal obligations to assess and deal with online prejudicial speech, misinformation, and incitement of violence.
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 be honored to meet the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a lifetime role model for me and for lawyers across the country and around the world.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.