How to beat cancer, an accident and run a tech firm without VCs

There’s a story most business owners have—the personal one—that they don’t tell for whatever reason.

how-to-beat-cancer-an-accident-and-run-a-tech-firm-without-vcs-2As a women-owned start-up with some large, international clients and no VC funding, Language I/O Co-Founders Heather Morgan Shoemaker and Kaarina Kvaavik were concerned that going public with their recent struggles against cancer, a wicked accident and a venture capitalists (VC) funding rejection might cause new clients to shy away. But after a rock-solid start to 2016, they decided it was time to share their story in order to encourage other female entrepreneurs. While their story is personal, the message of overcoming tremendous obstacles is beneficial to everyone.

Kaarina and Heather started Wyoming-based Language I/O in 2012. Language I/O develops software that allows their clients, including well-known brands such as LinkedIn, iRobot and SurveyMonkey, to easily provide customer service support in multiple languages. Heather and Kaarina’s clients love the software because the unique solution is embedded right inside customer relationship management (CRM) platforms such as Salesforce and Oracle Service Cloud, where their support agents are already working.

What’s even more unique about Language IO, is that it was started and is run by two women. According to Bloomberg, female entrepreneurs start only three percent of technology companies. This is despite the fact that women-led, private technology companies generate 12 percent higher revenues than their male counterparts. Further, women are all but absent on software company management teams outside of legal and marketing positions.

How They Launched
how-to-beat-cancer-an-accident-and-run-a-tech-firm-without-vcsKaarina was born into a tri-lingual household where she spent her impressionable years picking up English, Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian, German, and Russian. After her move to the US in the early 90s, she broke into localization and worked for some of the largest translation vendors in the industry, earning a name for herself in localization sales and marketing.

Heather is a software engineer with a master’s degree from the University of Colorado College of Engineering and an Alaska native. Before she got into software, she worked as a Spanish-English interpreter for the US Immigration and Naturalization Services, taught English in Mexico City and spent five years as a newspaper reporter.

Heather and Kaarina first collided in 2004 at a software startup in Boulder, Colo. They instantly hit it off. Kaarina’s outgoing personality complemented Heather’s quiet, analytical one. In 2010, Heather left a lucrative corporate job and started a software development firm. Not long after, Kaarina called Heather about a new opportunity.
At the time, Kaarina was a co-owner of a translation services company. One of its clients was going global at a breakneck speed and asked if Kaarina’s company could automate the translation process for its self-help content (FAQs, etc.). Basically, the client estimated that without help it would need to hire half of a full-time person per language and still wouldn’t be able to hit its time-to-market goal.

Kaarina called Heather and said, “Do you think you could develop an automated solution for this client?”

Heather knew she could automate the process, but instead of solving the problem for a single client, she suggested that they build a product that could be used by many companies.

How They Funded
how-to-beat-cancer-an-accident-and-run-a-tech-firm-without-vcs-3The two women ran through the can-we-do-this, what’s-the-demand conversation most startups have. This progressed to, “let’s hit the ground running!” and, because both had succeded in their previous careers, they had nest eggs that would help fund their idea for several years.

Kaarina and Heather funded and released LinguistNow®, software that allows those using Oracle and Salesforce CRMs to provide customer service in any language. They started adding large clients such as LinkedIn, iRobot and Shutterstock; grew from two employees to ten; and doubled revenue year-over-year. Initially, they did it on their own without any external investment. In 2014, they received a small angel investment and determined that a larger VC investment would go a long way toward easing the financial tension common among startups. So in 2015, Heather and Kaarina decided to seek funding.

Heather and Kaarina had conversations with VCs in Silicon Valley, Colorado, Wyoming and Boston where Kaarina is located. In February 2016, outside funding seemed like it might become a reality. Heather and Kaarina connected with a VC group they liked and, for the first time since they’d been in conversation with VCs, they found a VC with a few women in leadership positions. That, of course, was when the other shoe dropped.

How They Tackled Cancer
“We were in the middle of funding conversations with a VC in Boston when Heather called and said that she’d received a breast cancer diagnosis,” Kaarina said. “Heather’s very matter of fact about things. She said, ‘So this is something I have to do and it’s really annoying.’ But my heart dropped. I thought, ‘holy shit.’”

“It was devastating,” Heather said. “You tell people the ‘c’ word and suddenly they start looking at you like you’re a victim. Like you are a dead woman walking. Focusing on Language I/O during these difficult months kept me sane.”

A week after the diagnosis, Heather flew to Boston so she and Kaarina could meet with the investors they had started conversations with. They returned after a successful meeting and continued to run Language I/O as if nothing had changed.

“I don’t think our customers knew a damn thing,” said Kaarina, adding that both she and Heather were worried that if clients knew about the diagnosis, it would negatively impact their clients’ faith in their abilities.

Heather had to have a mastectomy to remove the tumor, which a PET scan showed was larger than the oncologists initially thought. The surgery was slated for March 2016 after which Heather would be out for nearly two weeks, leaving Kaarina and the rest of the Language I/O team to manage on their own. Heather worked up to the day she drove to the hospital.

“I remember my husband and extended family bringing my two daughters into the hospital room right before my surgery,” said Heather. “I was in my hospital gown—no makeup—hadn’t been able to eat or drink since dawn and hadn’t slept a wink the night before. I was all hooked up to tubes and the anesthesiologist was trying to get my family out so they could move things along. Lucy, who is only seven, saw me and ran over to my bed and just hugged me and sobbed. It was so hard to be strong for her when I was honestly terrified.”

Thankfully, the cancer was successfully removed. Despite the large size of the tumor, a genetic test indicated that chemotherapy was not necessary. However, an intense radiation cycle was needed to lower the likelihood of local cancer recurrence. Every weekday for six weeks during April and May, in addition to raising a family and expanding a startup, Heather drove two hours each way from Cheyenne to Denver for radiation treatment.

“I would sit in the parking lot of the cancer center with my laptop connected to my phone for wireless, fixing issues moments before I was supposed to be under the radiation beam,” Heather said. “It was tough, but I did it for six weeks.”

Kaarina asked Heather how she had the strength to drive two hours one way every day, receive radiation, and keep working. Heather said, “I’ve got books on CDs. I’m actually enjoying this. I’ve finally got some me time.”

During those intensive weeks of radiation, Heather convinced her oncologist to let her pause treatment for a day so she could fly back to Boston to again meet with the VCs. She wore a scarf to cover any signs of radiation burns and she and Kaarina marched into the meeting to give one last presentation, outlining their Language I/O expansion plan to the full VC group. Things were looking up. Both women felt positive about the prospect of getting the funding. That, of course, is when they got another surprise.

How They Accepted the Big VC No Thanks
Despite the fact that a patentability specialist told the VC that the Language I/O software was highly patentable; a technical consultant pronounced LinguistNow® software soundly architected; and Language I/O was not only profitable, but doubling revenue year over year, the VC backed out.

“It made no sense,” said Kaarina. “Everything was positive. The women we were talking with said they wanted to work with us; we were down to the details. It’s when we met with the male partners that it went south. At one point in the fund-raising process, I told Heather that it would be better if we dressed up like men. Heather agreed; she likes to wear ties.”

Turns out, the Language I/O founders’ experience with investment rejection isn’t unique. Statistically, very few women-run companies get funding. Studies show that the mostly male-run VCs want to lend to other men, not women, especially when it’s hard-core, patentable technology in question and not baby wipes or fashion.

Despite the rejection, Kaarina and Heather were still doing the impossible: Funding themselves, treating cancer, running a company and ensuring multinational companies such as SurveyMonkey, LinkedIn, and Shutterstock were having seamless, multilingual interactions with their customers.

They say bad luck comes in threes. For Heather and Kaarina, the third piece came when Kaarina’s boot met a piece of Boston black ice.

How They Survived the Accident
“I fell face first in a parking lot, fractured my nose, gave myself a concussion, and completely tore my rotator cuff off the bone,” Kaarina said.

To regain the full use of her arm, Kaarina had no choice but to have a surgery that literally rendered her dominant arm immovable for six weeks.

Before Kaarina had surgery, she installed dictation software on her computer so she could keep working. Heather continued commuting from Wyoming to Denver for daily radiation. During this medical breakdown, Heather and Kaarina not only maintained their service level, they also landed three new clients and launched a new product—LinguistNow® Response—on the Salesforce App Exchange, the world’s leading business app marketplace.

“A lot of people ask, ‘how do you do all of this?’” said Kaarina, who to this day sleeps on a recliner in the living room because sleeping in her bed is still too painful. “I mean we’re running an international company, working through this stuff, paying bills, and taking care of kids. The answer is, you just do it. There are no other options. As Yoda said, ‘Do or do not. There is no try.’ And then you have the people around you that support you, that believe in you–your family, your friends—that’s important!”

How They Hope to Make it Easier for Girls in Tech
Most importantly, as the mothers of daughters, both Kaarina and Heather say they hope that what they’re doing today will somehow make it easier for young women who are interested in working in tech. They’re hopeful that the barriers may be a bit lower when their daughters hit the workforce.

“As a woman at the University of Colorado’s College of Engineering school and later being employed at various software firms, I experienced sexual harassment the males never saw,” Heather said. “But that kind of discrimination was so obvious it was easier to confront than the more subtle biases I encountered daily. It got worse in managerial positions where one boss promoted only the female subordinates who would flirt with him and took projects away from the rest of us.

“When one of my daughters comes home from school upset about something unfair that happened, I first sit down with her and listen to the situation as objectively as I can,” Heather continued. “But in the end I usually say the same thing. Life isn’t fair and you are always going to run into teachers and employers who penalize you unjustly. Life is going to drop some bombs, but don’t let that stop you from speaking your mind and doing what you love because in the end, you’ll be happier being who you really are.”
So that’s what two female entrepreneurs can do when faced with adversity, after adversity, after adversity. Incidentally, 2016 is shaping up to be a great year. Even without funding, Heather and Kaarina have established Language I/O as the de-facto translation solution for two major CRM platforms, their client list continues to grow and revenue is doubling year over year. And to top it all off, they are about to launch a new-to-the-market chat translation product for both Oracle and Salesforce.

To connect with these amazing women, find Heather here and Kaarina here. For more information about LinguistNow®, click For more details about the story, email [email protected] or share it on Twitter @LanguageIO or on Facebook.

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