The Fearless Founder
Starting a new company is never easy, but Bettina Hein knows better than most just how grueling the experience can be. She has weathered the trials of two tech startups, both during brutal economic downturns.
The first, Swiss-based software company SVOX AG, which hired her as chief financial officer in January 2001, opened mere weeks after the dot-com bubble burst. The second, video marketing company Pixability, arrived with the Great Recession in October 2008. “Put a Google Alert on my name,” Hein says. “If you see me founding another company, sell all your stocks!”
It’s a testament to her leadership neither effort failed. In fact, SVOX was acquired by the U.S. firm Nuance Communications two years ago for $125 million. Its text-to-voice technology can today be found in Android phones, Google’s translation service and some GPS systems.
Hein was 27 years old and fresh out of grad school in Germany when she joined the fledgling company. Despite her youth and the inhospitable investment climate, she managed to raise $8 million in capital with SVOX’s co-founders to jump-start the enterprise. Before long, though, she found herself staring at the withering margins in the company’s sales figures, wondering how to make payroll. At one point she had to dismiss half the 20-employee staff. It was heartbreaking, but Hein prides herself on her fortitude. She has been prepping for the rough-and-tumble world of entrepreneurship her whole life. “Nobody in my core family had a 9-to-5 job,” she says. “We were never really rich, but everybody sort of worked for themselves.”
Born in Germany, the future CEO spent parts of her formative years in South Carolina, Florida and Dallas. Her grandfather went to work in the mines at age 15 and later emerged with his own coal distribution company. Throughout her childhood, he quizzed her on math and tutored her on the fine art of negotiation.
Hein learned to code in the fourth grade, mastering Logo on a IIe series Apple. Her well-meaning dad pressed her into a variety of internships during her teens. “Every school vacation I would be shipped off somewhere,” she says. “I worked in the U.S. Congress [with the District of Columbia’s Eleanor Holmes Norton]; I worked in the German Parliament; I sold oil.”
Hein’s latest opportunity appeared in 2006, when she was pursuing a master’s in tech management at MIT and noticed the game-changing rise of the Flip camera, Final Cut Pro and YouTube. “I saw what was going on in online video and it just hit me—that’s where I have to be,” she says.
She launched Pixability as an editing service for home videos, but it gradually morphed into a service that helps major corporations market themselves on YouTube by using an array of analytic software to develop, optimize and promote their content.
YouTube draws a billion unique visitors a month. “That’s as many as Facebook,” Hein says. More to the point, millions of consumers use the site each day for help in researching their purchasing decisions. Roughly one-third of apparel sales are influenced by YouTube, for example.
That makes the platform a very cost-effective way to promote your business. According to a recent Pixability study, 99 of the world’s top 100 brands have a channel on the site. Hein also points to the remarkable success of Orabrush, inventor of a cheap, little-known breath-cleansing tongue brush. The company produced its first video for $500; 30 million views later, it has a nationwide distribution deal with Walmart.
Pixability hasn’t reached SVOX-like heights, but the business is growing. Hein’s client list includes Verizon, Nestlé, L’Oréal, Gillette, HP and Sovereign Bank. All use the company’s analytic software to lift their content.
Looking back, Hein sees certain advantages to opening in the midst of a major recession. The competition is less intense, she says, which means you have time to get your bearings. And you learn quickly if your idea has legs. “People buy it or they don’t,” she says. “They’re worried about survival. They’re not worried about being nice to you.…
“Entrepreneurship is not a feel-good exercise,” she concedes. “You need support from other entrepreneurs, from your family. Surround yourself with people you can lean on.”
These days, the CEO lives in Cambridge, Mass., with her husband, Andreas Goeldi. They have a 2½-year-old daughter, Louisa, and another child on the way. Hein relishes the diversity in her new neighborhood, where she’s not the only female tech entrepreneur. In 2009 she teamed up with Zipcar founder Robin Chase to start a local meet-up group for female executives. Members convene in Boston for breakfast, lunch or dinner on the last Wednesday of each month.
“When I got pregnant with Louisa, that was a terrifying time in my life,” Hein says. She found herself lying awake at night, questions racing through her head. “I had investors; I needed to raise more money. Were they going to support me? How was I going to do this with a baby? Having that group of people to support me was really awesome.” After all, where else can you find such a wealth of advice on both night nurses and strategic partnerships?
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