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Anthro-Tech Founder Suzanne Boyd Discusses Her Path to Entrepreneurship


Anthro-Tech founder Suzanne Boyd recently sat down with members of the University of Washington’s Veterans Incubator for Better Entrepreneurship to share the story of starting her company. She discussed A-T’s mission and inception 20 years ago as a one-person operation, how she’s working to grow the business, and her goals for the company in the upcoming decade.

Watch the full discussion above, or read the conversation highlights below.

VIBE

Why don't we go ahead and start off with your genesis story. Why did you decide to do this and how did it end up happening?

Suzanne

I feel like being an entrepreneur is in my blood. It was always the path for me. I'm the daughter of parents that started and grew many businesses. Their parents did. I watched them pursue their passion and be successful at it, and it created a way of life for me and my siblings.

I feel like being an entrepreneur is in my blood.”

I saw, from an early age, the opportunities that being an entrepreneur offered and how exciting it is to pursue your passion. I had a real job at a public relations company, and I while it was a great company, I was really dissatisfied with my inability to make an impact. I felt more like a cog in a wheel than being able to directly drive an impact that I wanted to make in my life. I think that's probably one of the reasons why I also wanted to pursue being an entrepreneur: having a direct impact with where I put my talent and my time.

And then the third reason, I think, is why not? I mean it just seemed like all I needed was my brain and my relationships and a computer to start something, and if it doesn't work out I could always get a job.


VIBE

What was it like when you first started landing customers?

Suzanne

I was working at this PR firm I mentioned and had made a decision that I wanted to transition while I was in graduate school. I don't know why anyone quits their job while they have tuition to pay, but I did.

I talked to my boss and said, “You know, this is a transition I want to make, this is the right thing for me.” He was very supportive, and as word got out that I was leaving that company, one of the clients that I was working said, “Suzanne we really want to continue to work with you,” and I discussed that with my boss. He was supportive, so I started my business with a client in hand, which was a great place to be.

We were living as I mentioned in a duplex. We had a spare bedroom, and there wasn't enough space to both have a bed and a desk at the same time, so my husband built me a loft bed. For the first two years, I spent time under this loft bed, and I couldn't actually, you know, stand up under it. The first years were balancing studying and getting my master's degree with starting to build up my company.

Most of the work I did at the time was website design and web development. As I was studying, I realized that two of my loves started to collide. I have a background in anthropology. I really love studying people and cultures, and then in graduate school I was exposed to technology, and the two came together. I realized that if I can study human behavior and what people need and use that knowledge to inform and to make technologies more usable, more useful, more impactful, to improve people's lives. That's when the name Anthro-Tech really came about.

We pride ourselves not just in coming in and fixing a product but also teaching the organization to become more customer-centric. It's a new way of making decisions for a lot of government agencies.”

After I graduated, I had many mentors, both professors who put me in a way of some awesome opportunities, and one of those opportunities was doing a project for a state agency – Department of Labor and Industries. They wanted to understand why it is that small-business owners don't use or act on safety and health regulations in the State of Washington. Perfect project for me. First project with a state agency. We went around and visited all these entrepreneurs to understand their way of life and also to understand why weren't they using these safety and health regulation. With that knowledge, we completely re-architected the rules, plain-talked them so that small businesses could understand them, and put them into action in the workplace. That was one of that agency's first forays into listening to their customers and acting on what they were learning to make something more usable and useful.

VIBE

When did you start to merge user behavior with the web development and design?

Suzanne

It was there right in the beginning. That became, really, our core focus: using what we call the user-centered design process, which is all about people first. Understanding their needs, their behaviors, and applying that to the design and development of experiences. We work a lot in the digital space – websites, web applications, mobile apps – but also improving complicated forms, rules and regulations, environments. The majority of our clients are government agencies, nonprofits, and organizations that have a social-impact mission

VIBE

You mentioned some professors. Where else did you get that guidance or mentorship to make your company grow and work?

Suzanne

It takes a village. I owe the success of this company to former professors, mentors, clients who became huge fans, past and current employees, my family. It's been a network of support that I can tap into.

The project I mentioned for the health and safety regulations was also the agency's first foray into understanding user-centered design. That project led to another opportunity with the same agency, where we were brought in to completely redesign their website using a user-centered design process. Then other agencies started to notice, “Wow, if we really design for people, they're able to be more successful with the services that were offering as a government agency!”

So, we started to build this reputation for bringing customer-centered design into government organizations. The first, I would say, 10 years of the company we were a handful of people doing this work and really building up a reputation. We didn't have an office. We worked, you know, from coffee shops, on client sites, at the kitchen table, you name it.

We were doing this work that was impacting lots and lots of people in Washington State. From there federal government started to take note of this, so it's been really an amazing journey. We pride ourselves not just in coming in and fixing a product but also teaching the organization to become more customer-centric. It's a new way of making decisions for a lot of government agencies.

I think being an entrepreneur means you are putting in 200% and working harder hours. It doesn't feel like hard work because you're so passionate about what you're doing.”

VIBE

When you started your business, did you ever feel like you were spreading yourself too thin? Did you work extra hard or did you cut some things off?

Suzanne

Both. I work really hard. I think being an entrepreneur means you are putting in 200% and working harder hours. It doesn't feel like hard work because you're so passionate about what you're doing.

You want to balance the plates that you have spinning very carefully so you don't perform poorly on a project and get a negative reference or get a negative word of mouth or something like that. The way I make it work … I am always prioritizing. I prioritize every day. I prioritize every week. I prioritize every quarter to make sure that I'm focusing on the right things that will move the company forward and try not to drop any balls.

Have I dropped balls? Absolutely, but it's continually prioritizing where you spend your time. I have felt spread thin. When that happens, we look at what is the part of the work where – we talk about being in too many seats, essentially – what does that look like, and can we turn that into a position and staff that position? That's the work that we've been doing over the past year or so: hiring somebody in charge of business development, hiring somebody who does social media and digital marketing.

VIBE

What's the hardest challenge you've faced so far with the company?

Suzanne

I would say the hardest challenge I've faced has also been the most rewarding one. Our company is like a tight-knit family, and we've had awesome employees who've really helped shape the voice and identity of the company in the early years move on to start a new chapter of their own. That can be really hard, but at the same time very, very rewarding to know that your company was the place where they shaped their early professional career. Also, when someone else moves on, while it feels like you've got a family member leaving, it opens the door to new energy and new perspectives coming into the company.

VIBE

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs that are looking to start their own business?

Suzanne

You've got to be willing to work hard, harder than most people think, and therefore I would recommend you do something you're really passionate about, that you love doing, that is for a good cause, that makes you feel alive because then all those hours they won't burn you out. I would also surround yourself with people who want you to succeed, whether they're mentors, whether they're employees, whether you're accessing resources like the VIBE where there's people want you to succeed. Don't try to do it all on your own. I think those are some of the big pieces.

I always felt like I was so blessed growing up. I grew up in Europe, my family is uber, uber supportive. [I had] good access to education, to health care, all of these things that just sort of fell in my lap. There's this internal duty. What can I do to give back to the world? That's where I think that passion comes from. This is my way.”

VIBE

What is your superpower? What's your secret sauce? What's your differentiator?

Suzanne

Our company's core expertise really is in utilizing the user-centered design process to build great customer experiences and in training and mentoring and bringing the organization itself along to become more customer-centric. We are both consultants and designers and researchers but we’re also change agents. …. We are changing the organization in the process. We are helping them become more customer-centric.

VIBE

What does the company look like seven years from now?

Suzanne

Seven years from now, we are taking on projects with an even greater social impact. We're already doing some really amazing work with state agencies, with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation … but where the work we are doing is positively impacting lots and lots of people. That's what my team is passionate about. We work in public transportation and higher education and early learning and issues around the environment and so more of that.

VIBE

It's part of that superpower secret sauce that you have: that passion for change.

Suzanne

I always felt like I was so blessed growing up. I grew up in Europe, my family is uber, uber supportive. [I had] good access to education, to health care, all of these things that just sort of fell in my lap. There's this internal duty. What can I do to give back to the world? That's where I think that passion comes from. This is my way.

VIBE

Did you ever feel like the business might not work?

Suzanne

There's always doubts, but the confidence is stronger than the doubts. You're taking a chance. You're taking a less predictable journey when you're doing something on your own versus accepting a job somewhere. So yeah, you think is this gonna work? It might fail, those are all fears you have. But in the end, my time spent thinking about it being successful exceeds the time thinking about if it goes wrong.

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  2. Anthro-Tech certified by the Women's Business Enterprise National Council