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My Founder Story, circa 1999

Karin-RioTel 17 yrsThis week we celebrated another milestone in the life of RioTel, the company I founded in 1999. 17 years of being in business is even hard for me to believe. During a small conference room celebration to mark this milestone, employees shared their first impressions and funny interview stories. But since I have been around the longest, and am feeling a little nostalgic, I thought I’d do some reminiscing about how it all began back then. This is my founder story.

17 years ago this week, I walked into the Montgomery County Texas courthouse to file for a DBA for the business I wanted to start. My plans were to be an Engineering Consultant in the telecommunications industry, where I had been working for the past 13 years. I had a layoff coming in a few months, after being part of the launch team that built Sprint’s initial wireless network in Houston—an amazing feat that took almost 2 years. My job was moving to Kansas City post-launch, and I chose not to go with it, so this was my Plan B. Back then, the wireless industry was exploding with growth, and I was encouraged by many of my coworkers to “go it on my own.” My newlywed husband even bought me motivational “Start Your Own Business” CDs to listen to on the way to work to encourage me. So at the age of 34, I decided “why not?” and RioTel was born.

My next stop that day was to open RioTel’s commercial checking account, and that was where I first noticed a change in the way people would view me and treat me, from that day forward. Instantly I had transformed into a “business owner,” and people were overly impressed, or so it seemed. They would always make such a big deal over it, as if they were pleasantly surprised. I was a little embarrassed, but amused, not really owning this new identity just yet. This still happens occasionally, and I now realize that it has more to do with me being a woman business owner, than just a business owner. I had no idea at the time, that those 3 words put together were so rare, but had never given it much thought. Apparently I had entered a new arena in 1999, and thought to myself, “This is going to be interesting.”

Over the next few weeks, I rounded out my business start-up to-do list:

  • Used executive desk from the oil industry bust, moved into the master bedroom. From Exxon I was told. Check.
  • Desktop computer built by a friend, with Microsoft and Quickbooks loaded. (Remember this was still the 90s.) Check.
  • Business cards with a new logo, designed by a college student for dirt cheap. Check. Check.

So I was all set to begin my new adventure. All I needed was a customer…

Fortunately for me, the timing was perfect to start a business in the wireless industry in 1999. As the old adage goes, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” I quickly picked up a big industry contract doing what I knew how to do, and the man who hired me famously said, “Karin—you’re going to need some help.” Silly me, thinking I would just do some independent consulting work out of my house. What was I thinking? So that arrangement didn’t last long and within a few weeks, I moved to a single-person office, rented from my insurance agent, when I went in to purchase business insurance for that new contract. She too, was a woman business owner—my first mentor in that area, and she answered a lot of questions for me that first year as I rented office space in her building. Things like “What do I do with all these receipts?!” She was more than happy to give me tips and advice, as have so many other business owners in my path these past 17 years.

So 1999 turned out to be an awesome first year in business. I hired my first employee, an Admin, to help me with those receipts and answering the phone. Plus a few more engineers, and I picked up a few more clients through my network of industry colleagues and friends. Funny, I ended up taking over ALL of my agent’s space, so she let me have the whole place and moved her company elsewhere. I incorporated the business in early 2000, and things were going so well, I thought (foolishly) that an early retirement for me might be possible. But the economy, the industry, and life had other things in mind, and we have skinned our knees many times along the way. I think everyone recalls what happened to tech after 9/11, the dotcom bust, the recession, etc… In hindsight, we call them “bad years” vs. “good years” after we recovered. But as a financial advisor once told me: ”Tough times never last, but tough people do. Karin, you have grit, and will do just fine. Mark my words.” So I did, and I learned that I am more stubborn and determined than I thought, and we have not only survived, but thrived in an industry and economy that has taken many good companies down. I even got a wild hair in 2011-2012 and went back to the University of Texas for a master’s degree in Technology Commercialization, which ended up being the catalyst for our developing and launching a much needed software application for our industry in 2013.

I absolutely love owning a business, and wouldn’t trade the past 17 years for the “security” of being on someone else’s payroll. I’ve seen too many of my own clients get laid off. And stepping back to take a more global view of life, as we tend to do with age and wisdom, what brings me the most joy and pride is twofold. Professionally, the names on our client roster whose networks we have helped build and support are impressive. RioTel’s ‘digital fingerprints’ are everywhere around the country in the wireless networks everyone is using. But personally, knowing all the jobs this company has created, that have allowed many families to be supported over the past 17 years makes me even prouder. We’ve had babies born (including one of my own!), marriages, new houses, promotions, and graduations, and several of our employees have relocated to the Houston area to work for us over the years. That speaks volumes. And as goes with life, we have also weathered some personal storms…family deaths, divorces, illnesses, and downsizings of our own in the tough years. But all of these shared experiences are quite humbling to me and have helped fuel my commitment to be successful, so we can continue to provide for everyone’s families in a very uncertain world. I realize that employees get to make decisions about where they want to work, but I always tell applicants who interview with me that I will work harder to keep your job for you, than any publicly traded company ever will.

For the past 5 years, we’ve been able to extend our financial support to our communities through a charity program we created called ARK, Acts of RioTel Kindness. Through ARK, we provide our RioTel Front-17 yr anniversaryemployees with a cash bonus during the holiday season, earmarked for them to “Pay It Forward” to someone in need. The stories they return with are amazing and touching. 2016 will bring even more expansion of ARK as we partner with community agencies to help connect job creators like RioTel and other small businesses, with specific people who are in desperate need of a job for their survival. We will call this ARK Hire, and if I may borrow my alma mater’s slogan, “What Starts Here Changes the World.”

This is my founder story. Hook ‘Em –