Interview with ML Mackey
An Interview with ML Mackey CEO and Co-founder, Beacon Interactive Systems
Date: May 10, 2010
Entrepreneurial Heroes Interview with ML Mackey [music]
Lucy Sanders: Hi, this is Lucy Sanders. I'm the CEO of the National Center for Women and Information Technology, or NCWIT. With me is Larry Nelson from w3w3.com. Hi, Larry.
Larry Nelson: Hi, I'm happy to be here.
Lucy: Absolutely. We have this great interview series with women who have started IT companies, many of them multiple companies, across all different sectors. Today, I'm really excited because our interview is going to be with a woman who has worked in both the private and the public sector. I don't really think we've talked to anybody who has worked with the government in the same way that our guest has worked with. So, today, we're talking to ML Mackey who is the CEO and Co-founder of Beacon Interactive Systems. I was really interested in Beacon because it does the workflow kind of things. If you look at their history with private industry, things around customer service and email management and great companies that they've worked with like IBM and MetLife and others. ML, then, that company into working in the government sector working on the performance of its workforce. So, the DOD. And, I'm thinking, oh, that's something taxpayers should really dig, you know? [laughs]
Lucy: Performance management of the federal sector. So, welcome ML. We're glad you could join us.
ML Mackey: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
Lucy: So, first of all, why don't you just give us a little bit of an update on what Beacon's up to.
ML: Well, we're a 16-year-old company. We provide software to our customers that helps them get their work done easier and easier, regardless of what that work is. Like you said, we did private sector. And, now, we're doing the public sector. It's a fascinating place to be right now in the federal sector, and specifically in the DOD, where we work. It is kind of a bold statement, but we say to some of our friends we're trying to help the federal government perform more efficiently. [laughs]
Lucy: [laughs] Well, I shouldn't laugh, I mean...
ML: How's that for a book?
Lucy: [laughs] I was going to say, please!
Larry: It has to work.
Lucy: Yeah, please do. [laughs] Please do.
ML: Let's hope we're successful. And, a very small piece of that, I must say. But, it's kind of fun. Right now we are mainly selling to the Department of Defense. We sell primarily to the U.S. Navy. We have two products that we sell to them. One is in the equipment maintenance space, and it's called TURBOWORK. It's all about helping the maintainers perform equipment maintenance more efficiently and effectively. The second product we have stemmed out of that work. It's a collaborative program management software called T3, the Technology Transition Tool. It's used by the Navy to better manage their portfolio of R&D investments.
Lucy: Well, you're absolutely right. There's so much going on in the public sector these days, especially with technology. I was just reading about it. There's an 80-billion-dollar-a-year budget...
Lucy: ...in the federal government for technology spent, which is just an amazing amount of money. So, I'm glad you're working to make sure it's spent more efficiently.
Larry: We want you to succeed.
Lucy: Yeah, absolutely. So, ML, why don't you tell our listeners a bit about how you first got into technology and where you see some of the hot technologies today.
ML: You know, I thought about this question a little bit beforehand. And, I thought what would I tell them? I wanted to say something very philosophical and profound and deep. And, I'll tell you what, I got into technology because I really wanted to make money. [laughs]
Lucy: That's a good reason.
Larry: Yeah. Yeah.
ML: I was pretty sure that teaching ballet, which I loved doing, wasn't going to be the lifestyle that I wanted to live. So, I said I think I'd like to be able to be independent. So, I applied for a scholarship in electrical engineering because they gave the most electrical engineering scholarships out. I'm already convinced I knew what electrical engineering was when I applied for it. Turned out I got the scholarship. It also turned out quite luckily for me that I really enjoyed what I was learning about. Engineering is a fascinating profession. Understanding what makes things work and how to understand science and figure out how to apply it to real-world needs is a fun and exciting place to be. So, I stumbled upon the place that I needed to be and was happy to be there.
Larry: That's great.
ML: I got into technology.
Larry: I like that. I like that.
ML: I like to think it was more purposeful. It was just someone watching out for me, you know? So, that worked out really well. Did a lot of hardware design, some software design. Got into running a business, very much an engineering kind of approach to how we run a business and how we started it. The technologies that I think are cool right now. I think software is a fascinating area to be in. And, I think the convergence of information from both physical resources as well as people is fascinating. I think there's a lot of work to being done with sensors that we've only tapped the beginning usefulness and productivity from that I just think is fascinating. And, I think understanding that in terms of how it integrates with the real world and how people work and interface with that information is really what drives our company.
Larry: Well, that's fantastic. ML, having the public sector background, I have to ask what is it about being an entrepreneur that drew you there? And, what makes you tick?
ML: I think the reason that I'm an entrepreneur, and I would say the same thing for my partner. The reason we started a business is we said we like to do things. We like to make things happen. We like to create things. We like to be around creative and smart people. And, we like to make an impact with what we're doing. I think we also wanted to make money, too. [laughter]
ML: So, it seemed like starting a company was a great combination for all of these things. I think what makes me tick now about being an entrepreneur is the adrenalin, is the challenge, is the opportunity, is the creativity. It's the great people I get to work with at my company. It's the interesting customers that we get to work with. It's never dull. It's always something interesting and new. And, the ability to help guide that and stay true to finding interesting things and doing meaningful work is a real driver.
Lucy: Along the way on your entrepreneurial journey, oftentimes we find people have been influenced by others. Sometimes we call them mentors. Or, sometimes we call them role models. Or, sometimes they're co-founders or what have you. What can you tell our listeners about the particular people that influenced you?
ML: Well, I can tell you I'm blessed and totally lucky to have found a brilliant mentor for me in the last, I'd say, eight or nine years who worked with me. A tremendously smart, intelligent woman who was interested in sharing what she knew and helping me grow into being a better businesswoman. That was a real benefit, and I hope that every young woman can find someone like I found in Ruth. So, that was a benefit. I found her just by working together and us clicking and finding our way to each other. It's turned into a very nice personal relationship as well. I have to say that I'm not sure that I had women role models until that point. There was occasionally someone that I saw here, occasionally someone that I saw there. I think what helped me specifically was that there wasn't a preconceived set of notions or ideas about how business works or what it takes to be a business person. I know my partner, he practiced his signature from the time he was five years old because he knew he was going to be a businessman like his dad. So, I think he had a role model that he would aspire to. I think I just naturally gravitated to this profession. But, anything that we the community can do to put role models out for our kids is a great thing. It's interesting to be able to see the kinds of experiences that you could have. The kinds of choices that you can make in defining what your career will be.
Lucy: I have two sons, and they've been practicing their signatures like their father. And, you can't read any of them anyway.
Larry: [laughs] Very good.
Lucy: Yeah, they look like little squiggly lines to me.
ML: My daughter said to me, "Mommy, I think Daddy" -- my husband is my business partner -- "I think Daddy only has one letter when he does his signature. The rest is just a line."
ML: I said oh, he practiced that, honey. [laughter]
Lucy: I know, it's true. And, just as an offhand remark, it seems like I've often wanted to do some research on this issue of signatures, but that's for another day.
Larry: Yeah, really.
ML: There's a whole science to that actually.
Lucy: Yeah, to be sure.
Larry: I have four daughters, and half of them are...
Lucy: Do they practice their signatures?
Larry: I don't know if they did. I think so because two of them it's very readable and looks really gorgeous. The other ones are messy like mine. So, oh well.
Lucy: Oh, well.
Larry: Now, with all the things you've been through, ML, and the successes and everything else, what is the toughest thing that you've ever had to do in your career?
ML: Some people might look at my career and say the toughest thing I had to do was quit my very interesting, well-payed job in order to start the company. Or, you may look at signing leases or some of the difficult things of stepping into a new space and finding a new market. But, I have to tell you, by far the most... All those things were fun, by the way, and interesting and exciting. The thing that stands out among all of our experiences as the most challenging was surviving the economic downturn in the software industry in the 2000 to 2001 time frame. That was just a terrible, traumatic and very difficult time to get through that, I have to say, I'm very pleased we are on the other side of. And, I'm going to find some wood quickly to knock on. That was difficult for a variety of reasons. I think primarily the reason that was so difficult for an entrepreneur like myself is that there was so much that was out of my control. It was so drastically bad, and there was such a long period where we weren't able to feel successful. In hindsight, there were many things that we were doing that were wildly successful and allowed us to maintain, and then to grow, the value of our company again and grow the IP and grow the team back up. But, that was a really difficult time. Having said that, I think every business is going to go through something difficult. So, now I know we've been through it and know some of the steps and some of the things I'd do again if we were in a difficult spot and some of the things that I wouldn't do again. [laughs] Net-net it's all positive. But, that was by far the most challenging experience we had.
Lucy: In fact, those tough times, they give you sort of a second kind of intuition, and in terms of looking to the future, too. You might spot things sooner. That was a tough time...
Larry: Yeah, it was.
Lucy: ...early 2000. That was tough.
Larry: We felt the pain, too. ML: We bootstrapped our company. We started in a little rent-controlled apartment on Beacon Street in Coolidge Corner Brookline here in Massachusetts. So, we never lived large when we started. We knew how to bootstrap and we knew how to be lean. And, it still was just a really difficult time. But, you get through something like that, and you appreciate what you have moving forward. Every customer is good news. Every contract is good news. And, they're especially sweet now for us.
Lucy: Exactly. And, I think that's great advice for any entrepreneur to hear. ML, I know you mentioned you do work in STEM education. You're very interested in issues related to science, technology, engineering and math. So, as it relates to entrepreneurship, if you were sitting here with a young person and giving them advice about being an entrepreneur, what would you tell them?
ML: There are two things that I would say are the most important things to tell someone who's thinking about starting their own business. The first is be true to yourself. Be true to what you like to do. [laughs] I can remember, I was graduating from school and I thought oh, I'm an electrical engineer. This is great. I'm going to do electrical engineering. I don't have to figure something out. Then I got closer to graduating and I went, oh my God! What does an electrical engineer do? [laughter]
ML: [laughs] And, I talked to a friend of mine who was wildly successful, founded a few companies down in California and just really doing fantastic. I said hey, Andy, how do you get a job? Both my parents were public school teachers. He said, well, you find what you like to do and then you do that. And I was like, come on. Seriously, how do you get a job? [laughs] That's not really going to help me. In hindsight, it was one of the best pieces of advice that I've gotten in my career. And, one that I would highly recommend for anyone thinking of doing something in entrepreneurship. Or, even just as they're plotting their own individual career path. And, that is find what you like to do and what drives you. For example, I like technology. I really like knowing how things work and making new things. I also like people. I'm the kind of person that likes to go to a party full of new people and understand who's there, get to know them, see how they know each other. I like going into customers and understanding how they get their work done. So, we build collaborative software. It's technology about how people work together. My partner likes technology and he also likes business and clarity in business and really making the right value happen from your business. So, our collaborative software systems are not social networking systems. They're collaborative software systems that help you get your work done. So that, one, you can get it done more efficiently, and two, you know what's going on in your organization. So, we stayed true to what our core values are and what our expertise is while we shifted markets from private sector to the public sector. Which was precipitated by the 2002, 2001 downturn in the industry, as I talked about. We stayed true to what our core expertise was. And, we found a way to understand where the federal money would go to small businesses and how to do research and how to get connected into our Department of Defense customers. There were quite a few solicitations of them, but we stayed true to what our expertise was and what we'd be able to accomplish. And, it's become very successful in the process.
Lucy: I think that's great.
ML: Stay true to what you do.
Lucy: Exactly. And that's great advice. It kind of leads me to a follow-up question around just some words you might use to describe yourself. What characteristics do you believe make you a successful entrepreneur?
ML: So I'm going to give you the main word and then I'm going to track back to one other thing. Because I've done a disservice to anyone listening. The second and possibly most important that you have to learn as an entrepreneur that I would tell a young person is learn to sell. Learn how to sell. Learn how to sell. Learn how to sell. Don't say, I have a good quality, I have a good product, I can run a company. All of that doesn't matter if you can't sell your product to a customer. So I wanted to close off that last piece and make sure there are two things. One, stay true to yourself. And two, learn how to sell. And the word that I would give you to this question that you just asked me about what are the characteristics of a successful entrepreneur or what has been successful for me is tenacity. You've got to be persistent. You got to choose your path. You got to say this is what I want to accomplish and I'm going to just stay to it. I'm going to approach it from different vectors if I can't accomplish the direction I'm going in. But you've got to be tenacious.
Larry: Well you've got a couple of children. You're growing a business. You're doing all kinds of really neat things. How do you ML, bring balance to your personal and professional lives?
ML: You know that's an interesting question. So I'll sort of answer it in two different ways. One, I was given an award by an organization up here and I was speaking to all of the entrepreneurial characteristics, and I said to the group, and I said of all these characteristics I've told you about being entrepreneurial, by far the most entrepreneurial venture that my partner, and I have done is parent our two small children. So family life pulls us...I want to use the word balance, but I don't know that balance is the word that really fits. So the second part of my answer to your question it's more about work-life integration. And balance implies cordoning off. And one place I do work and one place I do home and one place I do, oh, God forbid, a hobby. Someday maybe I'll get to that.
ML: Part of that, it's more about how you integrate all the facets of who you are so they flow and overlap well with each other. So, my children know the office space but they don't spend too much time here. My kids' friends know that we have a company and understand that sometimes when we've made a sale, oh, good, we just sold to the navy. We just sold software to every ship in the navy. And my kids driving home from school, and their friends went, oh, that's so cool. So that's about an integration without a line that's tough and hard between the two spaces. But it's a continuous balancing act, I should use the word of that integration.
Lucy: Well we hear that from a number of successful entrepreneurs. That in fact integration is a better word than balance. I personally believe it is as well. Having raised two kids and being a corporate executive is exactly the same thing. There's no hard line in the sand. I think that's important.
ML: You know what I think is fascinating around companies as well is they are starting to understand that in terms of flex time and hours, and commitments, and how you deliver upon your professional commitments as well. Which I just think is a fascinating new area and we'll see some changes in the next five to 10 years.
Lucy: I think so too, and we're seeing some data with our work here at NCWIT, around these issues being really important to men and women. That they have the ability to have this kind of work and personal life integration if you will. An certainly in the technology space, one would like to hope that it would be possible. For sure. Maybe using some ML software.
Larry: What an idea. What an idea.
Lucy: [laughs] What an idea. So ML, you've really achieve a lot. What's next for you? What can you tell our listeners? What do you see coming down the road?
ML: More of the same. The spinning out other companies. Going in different directions. It's just fun seeing the products you've created. They sort of take on a life of their own. So then its how do you leverage them that momentum and how do you grow that into something interesting. Growing our team is on our future. That's really quite interesting as well too. It's great to come to work everyday and have a group that's interested in what they're doing and engaged and energetic about what they're accomplishing. So I think just more of the same.
Lucy: I have sort of an off the cuff question just to end in.
ML: Oh, God.
Lucy: Of course. Just to kind of end the interview with. Like if you were giving advice since you are one of our very few interviews about working with the public sector to other entrepreneurs that might want to become involved with the public sector, what would that be?
ML: The best advice I could give anyone looking to get involved in the public sector that has not been in the public sector is to have a healthy respect for how different the business is. We completely revamped how we operate our business, how we mange our business, how you engage your customers. I would suggest that...what was the number you gave at the beginning of the interview on federal technologies?
Lucy: Eighty billion. Eighty billion dollars a year in IT spent.
ML: Yeah, and people look at that number and go oh wow, all I have to do is get a piece of that. There are stunning roadblocks to knowing how to work with the federal government. And just as simple as, which is not simple at all, of how do you get under contract? So, you have a solution, you have a perspective buyer, you have funds available. How do they even get that to you? So there are a lot of roadblocks there, none obvious. Having said that, there's a tremendous opportunity to be innovative and to leverage commercial sector expertise in innovative ways for what has been a very traditional business area. I'm speaking specifically in the software now. There's a lot of opportunity there to really drive value and do something important there. So I would say to anyone, the advice I would give is absolutely look into it. It's a tremendous capability. There's a lot of R&D as well as straight product sales that are possible with the federal government. But just have a real healthy respect for that it is not what you've known in the private sector. And to pay attention to characteristics and different business models.
Lucy: That's great advice.
Larry: It is.
Lucy: I think our listeners will appreciate that. I know we've seen it from the non profit side, working with the government is very different than our work with corporations for example. Very, very different.
ML: Find some of just non intuitive.
Lucy: Yep. Totally. Really, thank you for your time. We really do appreciate it. And I wanted to remind listeners where they can find this interview. At w3w3.com. And also ncwit.org.
Lucy: Alright. Thank you, ML.
Larry: ML, thank you so much.
ML: Thank you. [music]