Anyone who has worked in startups knows that success isn’t a quick and easy thing and that the companies considered overnight successes usually have years of unheralded work preceding the plaudits. Ideas take years to develop and take shape, and the companies we build off those ideas can take just as long to grow into what we want them to become.
Last month, I had the chance to chat with Simone Spence, the founder and CEO of Don’t Get Mad Get Paid, a service for helping women collect back child support (and one that is rebranding to be called Athena). Simone spoke about her mission and her journey over decades to create the business she has now.
Mary Juetten: What’s the name of your company and where are you based?
Simone Spence: Don’t Get Mad Get Paid was founded in 2017 and we are headquartered in New Orleans. Our customers named the company back when we were in the design phase. The women participating in the alpha and beta releases of the product in 2019 didn’t have an ax to grind with their ex; they just wanted to collect money that was rightfully owed to them. The name grew out of those customer discovery conversations and it seemed to be a good fit. That said, we are about to begin a rebranding under the name Athena, which is more brandable as a company name.
Juetten: What problem are you solving?
Spence: Our mission is to put a huge dent in unpaid child support. The government reports that there is over $118 billion in unpaid child support, seven million moms owed, and fourteen million open cases. However, in reality, the actual numbers are closer to three times those amounts.
Juetten: Who are your customers and how do you find them?
Spence: Our customers are moms that are owed back child support. Most of the moms are owed tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars in back child support. The pain points are so high with our market that it is not hard to find them. Because I was a mom who had this problem many years ago and consulted on this matter for over twenty years with moms from every state in the country, I have a great founder-market fit. My team and I know who our customer is and the struggles she goes through. We know the messaging that resonates with her, we know where to find and how to find her. With over seven million moms in the U.S. who are owed back child support, the sad reality is it is not hard to find our customers.
Juetten: How did past projects and/or experience help with this new project?
Spence: When I look back, everything I did in the past twenty-five years has been leading me to where I am today with Don’t Get Mad Get Paid. I spent twenty-two years building the IP for this company. This isn’t a 3-year play, it’s a 25-year play. Like many mission-driven companies, our story is personal. Working with moms from all over gave me the knowledge base to be able to productize a methodology that I had created with an 87% success rate and deliver it in a way that is highly scalable for a high-growth tech company.
Juetten: Who is on your team?
Spence: It’s said that a CEO needs to do three things and do them well in order to build a high-growth tech company:
1. Have a strong vision and strategy and communicate it to your team and stakeholders. If the CEO is the kool-aid maker, you have to get your team and stakeholders to drink the kool-aid. This is great for me because I have been an entrepreneur all of my life. When I was a 6-year old kid living in the Bronx with my family, I literally sold kool-aid on the corner for 10 cents a cup for extra money.
2. Never run out of money. That one is easy if you are a startup founder. We have all heard the mantra “always be raising.” If you are not actively raising a round, you are talking to investors in-between rounds for relationship building.
3. Recruit, hire, and retain the best talent for the company. I have an amazing team, from Scott who is our Creative Director, Anne who is Head of Ops, Lisa and Katelyn who are in Customer Success and Michael our developer, to our strategic growth advisor Soso Sazesh, who helped to get companies like Gusto, Instacart, and Betterment to scale, and Josh King, the former CLO of AVVO who is an advisory board member.
Juetten: Did you raise money?
Spence: Yes, we just closed a funding round and will be raising a new round next year.
Juetten: Startups are an adventure — what’s your favorite startup story?
Spence: I love stories about Steve Jobs. One of my favorites is when he helped his father build a fence around their family home. His father told him to make the back of the fence as good-looking as the front of the fence even though nobody will see it. He explained that even though nobody else will see it he will know what it looks like and that will show his dedication to making something perfect. Is there any reason that Apple has always made beautiful products? It’s less about impressing other people and instead about holding yourself accountable for the quality of your work. It’s a startup story in a roundabout way.
Juetten: How do you measure success and what is your favorite success story?
Spence: First thing — do everything with focus and involvement, as if it is the last thing you would do. If you do that everyday you can’t help but be successful. That is my measurement. How have I made a difference on this day in my life and in the lives of others? My favorite success stories are of my children. I have three children all of whom are incredibly kind, warm, and empathic people. Not only that but they are all passionate about what they love and can conjugate verbs! What more can a parent want? That right there is a success.
Juetten: Any tips to add for early-stage founders?
Spence: Be relentless. That is all.
Juetten: And of course, any IP horror stories to share (they can be anonymous)?
Spence: On my way to get to where we are today I’ve written a ton of content, including a few books. There have been times when I have had to sue companies – and once an attorney, who infringed on my copyrights. Imagine that. The good news is that I won every time.
Juetten: What’s the long-term vision for your company?
Spence: I can’t exactly tell you all of our secrets because that wouldn’t be fun! I can say that addressing this major pain point that our customers have is priority number one and we are growing a company to do that. But there certainly are other opportunities out there for us if we want to go that route. We’re a fintech company looking to do big things for a market that has been underserved for far too long.
Thank you to Simone for taking some time to talk with me. I love your perseverance! Child support is something that many probably don’t consider to be an issue, but it’s clearly an issue for millions of Americans. #onwards.