May 7th, 2013
Current and aspiring Deaf business owners alike flocked to the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley, CA for Deaf Business Symposium, hosted by DCARA. This weekend-long event included presentations, workshops, networking, and more. Convo was asked to send owner and former CEO Robin Horwitz and Vice President of Operations Jewel Jauregui for a panel presentation. DCARA Executive Director Jim Brune moderated the panel and asked Robin and Jewel some questions to gain insight in how, after four years, Convo became the fourth largest VRS provider in the industry. Audience members were able to ask questions at the end. Below is a summary of the highlights of the panel presentation.
Inspiration to start Convo
Robin: I was frustrated with the quality of service, so based on my experience and frustrations, I and other people decided to start Convo.
Jewel: It was as simple as seeing the quality of VRS and knowing that we could do better.
Robin: I have one story to share, which served as fuel for my drive to achieve the best relay service experience possible. I was calling a potential sponsorship opportunity through another VRS provider, and the interpreter was slouching in his seat and doing such a sloppy job of interpreting. I was thinking, “This is a professional call and this interpreter is not representing me in a professional manner!” I never forgot that experience, and it was one of the things that kept me reaching for a company like Convo.
Robin: I will tell you this: Convo’s start-up funds was zero. I’m not kidding, we had no money when we first began. Our priority was to get FCC certificate, so first, we needed someone familiar with FCC policies, and we got Ed Bosson. Next, we needed someone technology savvy, and that was Chad Taylor. We needed an expert in marketing, and that was Wayne Betts, Jr. We all became owners, but with no pay. Later, when we launched Convo, we only had 3-4K in funds.
Jewel: All of us had little to zero experience, but we removed any self-doubts that may have been instilled during our lives, like: “Oh, women can’t do it. Women aren’t good with math. Deaf people can’t do it.” Instead, we focused on finding the right people with the right skills. We had nerve. We had a “can-do” attitude. I think it’s really important to follow your instincts, too. When dealing with people you want to work with, listen to what your instincts tell you.
Robin: Here’s a tip: young lawyers that are just starting out tend to want to prove themselves. They are usually hungry for opportunity and experience, and will work hard. Our lawyer, who helped us become FCC-certified, was exactly that.
Convo’s best asset
Jewel: People who work at Convo actually use our own service. We look for interpreters with the right attitude. We care about our own services. Our best asset is our heart.
Robin: When we see a lazy interpreter, it’s actually the company’s fault. Interpreters may be at the front line, but it takes logistics that occur behind the scenes to make the experience at the front line smooth. We want to make sure our interpreters are happy.
Robin: It’s very simple: certification, integrity, and transparency. For example, it can be hard for our callers to get information on FCC and its policies, so we communicate what FCC says to them.
Jewel: Our core value will always be the caller’s experience. Like Robin said, we wanted to make sure our callers understood what was going on with FCC changes. You’re all smart people and we don’t need to dumb anything down, but we wanted to present this information in your own language. (See a video of Wayne explaining FCC’s new tiered rates here)
Another thing about transparency; we went through some tough times when we weren’t getting paid from FCC, but we never hid any of this from our staff. We asked them if we could pay them later and they chose to believe in us and were willing to stick with us until we got through it together.
Robin: I personally don’t like business plans because they can lock you in, but it is a good idea to keep a general plan as a point of reference.
Jewel: Put down your ideas and visions, but how to reach them? There are a lot of different ways, so you have to be flexible.
Robin: The biggest reason Convo survived, with first-timer Deaf owners, was because we found a strict financial person. For your first start-up opportunity, set aside money for a lawyer and a financial person. For your second and on, you could be less dependent in these areas because of your experience with the first business.
Jewel: It’s important to have smart and trust-worthy people around you. Don’t ignore your intuition. Dream big, but be realistic at the same time.
Robin: Paranoia is a good thing sometimes. If you feel that something is off, don’t ignore it! Stay on top of it. Another tip is to build a model of a one-year plan. Sometimes what seems good in your head will appear flawed in writing. For example, our legal fees became our debt, so it’s good to outline the first year in writing. Most people look at debt as a bad thing, but that’s not necessarily true. Some debt are good debt. It is okay to borrow money for a good investment. Immerse yourself into your service and become your business’s best salesperson, as long as it’s not scripted and comes from the heart because you believe in it. Have a back-up plan and surround yourself with people smarter than you are; it’ll teach you a lot.