Interview with Beth Krodel
Beth Krodel (Beth Crow-del) is the co-founder of Insight Designs Web Solutions, a Boulder based company that specializes in creating and developing websites and interactive online products - "I think being a successful entrepreneur takes a lot of structure. I think that's one thing that has helped our company along the way." she goes on to say, "There are a lot of people who have great ideas, and I think you have to also be able to execute those ideas. One piece of advice would be to make sure that when you're building your team that you have the operations piece, the execution piece, handled. Whether it's something that you're doing yourself or whether you find a partner who can tackle that side of things."
Beth Krodel is a founding partner at Insight Designs Web Solutions, an interactive agency that has been creating world-class websites, apps and more since 1999. As head of business development and project management, Beth provides strategic consulting to hundreds of companies and non-profits, helping them find the most effective ways to engage and communicate with their audiences. She prides herself on creating sites, applications and interfaces that are sophisticated and elegant, yet intuitive and easy-to-use. She’s a problem solver and an idea person. Her clients have included global brands (Pepsi, Crocs and Spyder), national non-profits (the Outdoor Industry Association and Sigma Xi), esteemed academic institutions (Duke University and Johns Hopkins University), and high-tech firms (Level 3 and Dot Hill). Before becoming a web entrepreneur, Beth was an award-winning journalist for the Detroit Free Press and USA Today. A Duke University graduate, she’s been named to the BCBR Forty Under 40. Her firm has been on the Mercury 100 fastest growing companies list for 10 of the past 12 years and been named Best Place to Work in Boulder County.
Interview with Beth Krodel
Lucy Sanders: Hi, this is Lucy Sanders the CEO of NCWIT, the National Center for Women in Information Technology. With me today is Larry Nelson from W3W3. Hi, Larry.
Larry Nelson: W3W3.com is happy to be here. This is a fantastic series and I must say I'm extremely impressed so thank you.
Lucy: What's shaking at W3W3? What are you guys up to?
Larry: We interview all kinds of really neat people. We have a business focus. We really love entrepreneurs and venture capital so we just get into that thoroughly.
Lucy: Today, we're interviewing one of my personal favorite entrepreneurs. She is also an award‑winning newspaper reporter from the "Detroit Free Press," I have to say.
Larry: I was born in Detroit so I like this.
Lucy: You were born in Detroit. Maybe she covered your birth.
Larry: That's right.
Lucy: You never know.
Larry: Maybe not.
Lucy: No, maybe not, but she is an expert at building companies and building websites and helping companies with all kinds of media needs. Beth Krodel, a co‑founder of Insight Designs Web Solutions. They're a Boulder‑based company, happy to say, right here in our backyard. They specialize in creating and developing websites and interactive online products. They've been a great partner with NCWIT over the years, and I can speak highly of their work, all the way from 3D modeling to websites to programming. They do it all.
Wonderful for all you listeners, take advantage of Insight Designs. They've been a mainstay here in Boulder County and have made the "Boulder County Business Report's" Mercury 100 list of fastest growing companies for the past decade.
Beth Krodel: Thank you.
Lucy: Really happy to have you here. What's going on with Insight?
Beth: The company continues to evolve, just like the technologies that we work with. We have, since 1999...We started by making websites, and now, obviously, that goes in a lot of other directions, because there's mobile and there's responsive design and there's applications, both desktop apps and mobile apps, native apps, all of that. We try to stay on top of a lot of different things. Some of the things that we're working on right now, that are exciting...One is a new desktop app that'll then have mobile versions to go along with it, that'll help people keep healthy. It helps them measure their fitness and their nutrition and how much fresh air they get and how much sunlight they get each day.
We also are doing work with social media, doing social media strategy for lot of our clients now. Obviously, working on lots of websites. I think we're in process on about 25 different sites for for‑profit companies, for startups, for non‑profits, for universities, list goes on.
Lucy: Sounds very exciting. I really think that application sounds like a keeper.
Beth: Hopefully, that's what a lot of people will think.
Lucy: Let us know when it's able to be purchased. [laughs]
Beth: Will do.
Lucy: How did you first get into technology, Beth? We have your background as a reporter. What caused the leap into the technology space?
Beth: Like everybody, when they are a child, they have a first experience and mine was in sixth grade. Back about 1982, my elementary school got its first computer. It was in the library and there was just one and it was an Apple II. At the same time, our English teacher had us reading books. I think she assigned us 40 different books to read. She said, when you finish these 40 books, you can go spend the reading hour in the library, each day.
I finished my 40 books by January and then I had, from January until June, an hour each day to spend in the library. I didn't spend that time reading, I spent that time on Apple II and exploring it and I was just mesmerized.
Fast forward to high school, I went to the North Carolina School of Science and Math and that's where I had my next big aha moment with technology. It was 1987 and one of the first things, I came in contact with, was one of the computers, that was just outside my dorm rooms.
I found that you could actually message students, on another side of the campus, in a fishbowl room, lots of windows, lots of computers. I realized that technology would really change communication. That fascinated me.
Since then, I went to college and actually studied physics, math and public policy. I went to Duke's and went into journalism from there. In journalism, I kept seeing all of these changes in technology, from the way we publish newspapers, to the way we communicated with our colleagues and all of that.
A co‑worker, a photographer that I worked with, Nico Toutenhoofd, he and I had talked a lot about what would be the next big thing. This was 1998. We decided that...We weren't sure how long newspapers were going to be around, in the way that they were around while we worked there.
We wanted to try something else. We decided creating a web design or development company would be a great way to go. It would carry on our commitment to communication, which is what you do as journalists, but it would allow us to share stories of companies and organizations specifically on the Internet. That's what we did.
Lucy: I think that's really interesting, too, because a journalism background, you can easily see it being so relevant especially to social media, right?
Beth: Yeah. There's a lot of story‑telling that happens online...
Beth: ...in social media, blogging, even in the content upon people's websites.
Larry: Yeah, that's for sure. Now, here you've been through these different things, that is, working for a newspaper. What is it that makes you an entrepreneur, and what is it that makes entrepreneurship tick for you?
Beth: , I worked for "Night Raider" newspapers, and I did that for seven years. They're a very large company, and while I learned a lot and had a lot of great experience there, I also saw that sometimes when you work for a very large company change is difficult. It takes a long time. I was interested in starting my own business and having it be a small business, something that would be nimble, and where we could decide to take a new path and try new things on a regular basis. I like problem‑solving, I like sharing ideas and I like leading a team.
Being an entrepreneur allows me to do all of those things. My husband would probably say it's because I like being in charge and...
Beth: ...my own boss.
Beth: I'm type A and all those things, but ultimately, I still have a lot of bosses. They're just called clients. I'm not the ultimate decision‑maker in a lot of cases. It's ultimately the client. But I do like to help guide them and help them solve their problems.
Lucy: Along this path from journalism into technology, entrepreneurship, and I would also argue building and leading a company in this space, who influenced you? What types of role models or mentors or sponsors? Who kind of supported you along the way?
Beth: I would say early on, and a couple people I go back to throughout my life, were my high school math teachers actually, Joanne Watts and Helen Compton. Helen Compton actually also taught me my first computer science class which was the BASIC. I wrote a little program that wrote out the Chinese characters "Ni Hao", and then made the audio sound. I thought that was quite amazing that you could get a computer to do that.
Anyway, Helen and Joanne really taught me to be concerned about the application of whatever it is that you're learning. Not just to memorize formulas but to really apply these formulas, and figure out why it's important to learn them. That I've carried into all of the jobs I've had, whether it was journalism or Internet work.
I think that that carries on big‑time in terms of interface design and creating websites and applications that are very easy for people to use, whether that's someone trying to navigate or search for something in particular on a website, or whether it's for the company or the organization that needs to update the contents on the back end to create content management systems that are logical.
Another role model would be an executive editor at one of the newspapers I worked for. Her name's Vicki Gowler and she's still in journalism. She's a publisher of the "Idaho Statesman" now. She taught me a lot about business and about leading a team, about encouraging the people that you work with to do their best and to take ownership and to motivate those people to do great things. I've tried to emulate her in my leadership skills.
There are also my colleagues here in Boulder who run other web design and development in active firms. I actually get together for lunch three or four times a year with the CEO's of about eight other firms. We use each other as sounding boards, we share ideas, we share stories of things that happen with clients and happen with staff, and what would you do in this situation.
We all learn from each other. I get a lot of support from my colleagues.
Larry: Yeah, that's great.
Lucy: Interestingly enough, the person who taught me programming was my high school math teacher. We learned it was less than basic. [laughs]
Beth: Ours was pretty basic.
Lucy: It was less than basic. It was pretty basic or something. It was on a little Olivetti desktop in our classroom, so amazingly important these math teachers.
Beth: Oh yeah.
Lucy: Amazingly important.
Larry: Of course. One of the things that we learned about a great deal is the challenges that we faced. What is the toughest thing that you had to do in your career?
Beth: My first answer would be letting someone go from a job. As a business owner, as the person who runs the company, that job falls to me because we're a small business, there are 14 people here on my staff. That's the hardest thing. That has been the hardest thing. Luckily, I haven't had to do it very often in the 14 years that I've been running Insight Designs, but it's very difficult and it's very personal, even though you try not to make it personal.
I felt, in the couple of times that I had to do that, that it's a failure, and it's not necessarily just a failure on the part of the employee who doesn't make it, but also on my part because perhaps I didn't do enough to train the person or perhaps I wasn't a good enough judge of character or a judge of skill set when I hired the person.
That's something that I have struggled with. Then, in a broader sense, I'd say one of the biggest challenges for a company like mine, a 14‑person Web company, is the ever changing technology and trying to decide which types of technology we are going to invest in and really master, because there are so many paths you can take.
Just as an example, when we started in 1999, we decided ‑‑ Nico and I ‑‑ that we were going to use PHP and MySQL as our platform. PHP is open source and the equivalent of that in the non‑open source world is ASP. That choice was very important at the time and it's still been our choice 14 years later.
In the meantime, there's been ColdFusion and Ruby on Rails and a lot of other ways to do the same work that we do using PHP and MySQL. We have to take a look at those other options and decide which ones are worth pursuing. There are always new platforms and new content management systems. I'm sure you've heard of WordPress, and Magento, and probably Drupal and Joomla, which are all open source content management systems.
Those are the four that we've used the most, but there are also scores of others and you have to be selective. You can't try to master all of them or you spread yourself too thin. That's a challenge, just picking which thing that you want to focus on.
Lucy: That would be quite a challenge. Shifting gears just a bit, if you were sitting here talking to a young person and giving them advice about entrepreneurship, what one or two things would you tell them? What kind of advice would you give them?
Beth: I think being a successful entrepreneur takes a lot of structure. I think that's one thing that has helped our company along the way. There are a lot of people who have great ideas, and I think you have to also be able to execute those ideas. One piece of advice would be to make sure that when you're building your team that you have the operations piece, the execution piece, handled. Whether it's something that you're doing yourself or whether you find a partner who can tackle that side of things.
I would say another piece of advice would be to make sure that you are not taking on too much at once, not spreading yourself too thin, along the lines of what I've just said about the other issue of what's been challenging for me is to not try to do everything.
I know of some other firms that haven't made it in our space because a client has asked them to take on one project in this language, another project in this language, another project in this language, another project in this language, and then they lose a programmer and they don't have any way to maintain that particular project that's programmed in this language that they don't have anybody else on their staff that they know anything about.
I think that that often could be the beginning of the end for a small company. I think staying focused and making sure that you have both the ideas and the ability to execute them.
Larry: That's a very good advice. Now, I want to hear some more good advice, and I have a feeling you've got some here. On your personal side, what are the characteristics that have made you a great entrepreneur?
Beth: That's a hard one. You ask me about mentors before, and I didn't mention my father, but I do think that some of the traits that I got from him. One is a very strong work ethic, and another is perfectionism. I think both of those things have certainly helped in the success of my business. I also think that being a good communicator is crucial to success in any walk of life, but as an entrepreneur, as a business owner, a team leader, good communication is incredibly important to create an efficient operations, and, obviously, the more efficient you are, the better your business is.
Lucy: I can say that the perfection shows in the work that Insight creates. Super high quality.
Beth: Thank you.
Lucy: You're very welcome. I'll compliment you on that. It's very great. With all the things you've been doing in your work life and at the company, getting advice and talking to mentors and communicating with teammates, I also know that you've got a personal life and maybe listeners would be curious to know how you bring balance between your professional and your personal lives?
Beth: When Nico and I started our company in 1999, we created this list, a very simple list, of six guiding principles and one of them was to earn enough money to afford to buy houses in Boulder, and I'm proud to say that 12 of the 14 people on our staff own homes in Boulder now.
Lucy: No small feat.
Beth: Another one of the guiding principles was that we wanted to have a work life balance. A lot of people say they live to work, and then other people say they work to live, I think both of those are a little misleading. I like to think that life and work can go hand in hand and that you really can have a balance, and your personal life can accentuate your work life and vice versa. I do think that as a company, we've been very good about not having people work 50 or 60 hours a week, including myself and Nico.
Certainly, there have been times over the years where there's a big project and we've worked through a weekend, but we don't stay here all night and we prioritize so that we can all get home and be with our families, or go for our bike rides, or our hikes, cook our dinners, and read books, and do all those things that help us stay sane and keep us balanced people.
I'm very into math and I think that if you limit the amount of time that you spend in your office, that's going to help you have balance. That's not to say that when I'm at home I'd don't check email and I don't check in on projects and things like that, I do. I think in today's world, in some ways, that's a necessity, especially if you're a project manager or somebody who owns a business.
But I think it's important to try to limit those things. Certainly, I try not to check email in the hour before I go to sleep at night otherwise it might just keep me up all night.
Larry: That's good. You've already achieved a great deal. I know you started your business in 1999, and by the way, we launched w3w3 Talk Radio in January '99, so we can relate to you quite a bit that way. Now, you've already achieved a great deal. What's up for you in the next few years?
Beth: I think there's going to be some more fun in the application development world. I mentioned the one healthy habit app that we're working on, but there are others on the heels of that. I think a lot of the apps that we will do have to do with improving life, making life easier, making it more enjoyable. I can't say too much about some of them, but we'll help you organize your life and also keep track of all of your personal encounters. Let's just leave it at that. Beyond that, I think there are other things going on in technology that I think are exciting. I'm curious to see how soon certain things will come about.
One of the things that gets in the way sometimes when you're developing for the web, is obviously the speed with which users can experience what it is that you're developing. Processing power and Internet speeds are often the things that limit what we create. I'm sure you've seen that, Larry, with audio playbacks and obviously, video.
As people are using their mobile devices especially their iPhones and they're watching videos, and there's all this buffering and it's choppy, and all of that. I'm excited to see what happens with the companies out there that are working on new chips that are low power consumption chips, with outstanding graphics and processing power.
I think as that comes about, then the things that we can create that make use of that increased processing power, will be amazing.
Lucy: I'll bet Insight Design is going to be right there, right in front. [laughs]
Larry: I have a feeling.
Lucy: I guess, absolutely. Beth, thank you so much. Great answers. We loved talking to you, as always and I want to remind listeners they can find these podcasts at ncwit.org and also w3w3.com.
Larry: You bet.
Beth: Thank you so much.
Larry: We're proud of that, yes.
Lucy: Thank you, Beth.
Beth: Take care.
Larry: Take care. [music]