CEDAR FALLS | Kate Washut and Therese Kuster are showing a woman’s touch can be golden to a startup business.
Both have tried and succeeded in helping to build successful businesses in the Cedar Valley in the last few years.
Washut was a comparative pioneer, having founded information technology firm Far Reach in Cedar Falls in 2007 with partners Chad Feldmann, Jason Nissen, Chris Rouw and Lana Wrage.
The five colleagues, who had worked together at CUNA Mutual, slowly formulated their plan before making the jump into their own venture in the Business and Community Services Building at the University of Northern Iowa.
Far Reach helped launch Hired Hand Software, a joint venture between Far Reach and Traer-based Moco Creative. The company offers a management system for Texas longhorn breeders.
Another startup Far Reach helped to get going was Nu Squared, a management system for vision therapists.
Far Reach was the first startup to “graduate” from the UNI Business Incubator, moving into its own home on Main Street in Cedar Falls.
“We felt really fortunate to have been the first tenant in and out of that new incubator, and we really felt like that experience allowed us to get a really solid start in a way that I think better prepared us for what was to come,” said Washut, CEO of Far Reach. “We had access to resources that would have been more difficult to find and afford. We got some good advice and felt we were growing in a way that was sustainable. ... We felt it gave us a nice foundation for standing on our own and moving the company forward.”
In June 2011, Kuster, an incoming senior at UNI, and Greg Jass, a recent UNI graduate, merged their startup, SEO Solutions, with Doug Drees’ TargetClick Marketing to form TargetClick Marketing Solutions, operating out of UNI’s Innovation Incubator.
One year later, Mudd Advertising, a Cedar Falls-based agency, acquired TargetClick Marketing Solutions and brought the three principals onboard.
“The experience was incredibly important,” Kuster, now 25, said.
Mudd has added nearly 40 employees to its digital marketing efforts since the TargetClick acquisition.
“TargetClick grew steadily with new clients through networking and past relationships,” Kuster said. “We worked with clients in the Cedar Valley as well as other metros across the country. I’m not sure there was ever a moment where we said, ‘Oh, now we’re successful’ or ‘because of this, I know we’ll succeed.’"
Kuster also said her business incubator experience was invaluable.
“TargetClick benefited from both the R.J. McElroy Student Business Incubator, as well as the Innovation Incubator -- directed more toward community members than students,” Kuster said.
“Each business goes through similar challenges of figuring out how to become an LLC, how to handle their own accounting, how to market the business, etc.,” Kuster said. “It’s great to have a community of other startups all around you to help navigate those challenges.”
Each company had to adjust its business model as it matured.
“Our business model has changed most significantly over the last two or three years as we’ve added the marketing and creative services to our portfolios,” Washut said. “That came about very organically. As we thought about how we wanted to grow our business, we knew ourselves we’d need marketing help, so we brought it on internally first. It was such a good move for us we felt it was something we should offer to our clients. We quickly realized it’s something a lot of smaller businesses in our shoes could benefit from.”
Far Reach evolved from a technology-focused company to “more of an end-to-end solutions provider,” Washut said.
“That wasn’t necessarily something we anticipated when we started but ended up being a very good move for us,” she said.
TargetClick’s business model has evolved, too.
“Before we were acquired by Mudd, we had to evolve based on what services we had sold, changes in the industry and our own ability to fulfill the work,” she said. “We started selling websites to clients because many didn’t have a strong web presence and didn’t want to send traffic to a website that didn’t represent their businesses.”
Originally, Kuster considered her company more of a “boutique” online marketing agency, she said.
“We did very custom work based on what the client wanted and needed,” she said. “Some of that was because we worked with clients in many, many different industries. Some of it was because of how rapidly the industry was changing, particularly best practices for search engine optimization and social media.”
Since TargetClick joined Mudd, it has narrowed its focus primarily to the automotive and agricultural industries and found more consistency in the products and services its clients need, Kuster said.
“While we still provide custom campaigns and solutions to clients, we’re able to replicate certain aspects in order to make it more scalable,” she said. “It has allowed us to become more efficient and provide better results to our clients. Even today we continue to evolve as we balance clients’ traditional and digital marketing needs.”
Both TargetClick and Far Reach had multiple partners – and perspectives – to help guide their progress. That was beneficial in the formative stages.
“Learning experience is kind of an understatement,” Washut said. “We’ve learned something different with each one. The nice part of about having five partners is you’re certainly not on your own, making decisions blindly or unsure of yourself.”
“As for working with partners, I think that’s crucial,” she said. “Greg, Doug and I complemented each other so well. We were a balance of vision and detail, big picture and small.”
Washut and Kuster noted more women are becoming entrepreneurs.
“The numbers don’t bode too well historically, but I don’t feel like there are any overt reasons why those numbers of women entrepreneurs couldn’t increase,” Washut said. "In fact, there’s a statewide effort to do that very thing.”
Kuster said more women are going into business and technology in general.
“UNI has a great student entrepreneurship program that I think introduces more students, male and female, to entrepreneurial opportunities and ideas that they’ve maybe never been exposed to before,” she said.