My husband, Phil, and I were both law students when we decided to launch our first business. That was 1997. It was an exciting time, since we were just beginning to understand the promise of the Internet and web services. That was long before social media and mobile apps. Phil felt very strongly that small business owners shouldn’t have to shell out $2,000 to have a lawyer file some relatively basic paperwork to incorporate a business. So, between law school classes we registered a domain name (we actually had to send a cheque to Earthlink to do this) and published a website that let entrepreneurs incorporate online.
We had the typical challenges that you’d expect when two young people try to launch a business. Money was tight, but we did everything we could to keep our expenses low. Phil left for two months to take the bar exam while I ran the business. He returned to find four workstations in our living room, since I hired three of my fellow law school friends to help answer phone calls and process orders.
We weren’t necessarily experts at the beginning. I remember our first call – it was Tom from Oregon. He was looking to form an Oregon corporation. We actually had no idea how to incorporate in Oregon, but we figured it out fast. I think that’s the point; sometimes you can’t wait until you’re 100% ready. You just need to dive in and learn as you go.
When you walk into the office, you don’t stop being a mother, father, partner, etc.
The success of our first business was immense – we sold it to Intuit. After selling, however, we grew bored. With our first business, we both caught the entrepreneurial bug, so it was almost impossible for us to sit back. After we sold our first company, I did dabble in some other business ventures and projects, but I quickly realized that helping small business owners was my passion. I didn’t want to do anything else. So as soon as our contract allowed us to start another online legal filing service, we launched CorpNet.
Running CorpNet has been much more challenging than our first time around. That’s because when we launched CorpNet in 2009, it was a far different economic climate than when we started our first business in the mid/late 90s. Our field is significantly more crowded today. We’re competing against some major giants in the online legal field, along with a whole range of newcomers. In essence, we have had to reinvent the wheel in terms of figuring out how to market our services and reach customers. The biggest lesson for us has been to realize that what worked the first time won’t necessarily work the second time around. You always need to evolve with the market.
The second time around, we don’t necessarily need to take over the market. We just want to build a sustainable business for ourselves and our employees. We have added a few new legal services in the past few months, and our goal is to expand our portfolio to help small business owners better run their companies.
I love working with entrepreneurs. I’ve learned some valuable life and business lessons over the past two decades, and I’m thinking of new ways to share these stories and hopefully inspire other women (and men) to take the plunge to launch their own businesses.
Phil and I are partners in marriage and in business, and we don’t discuss business at the dinner table. Now with four kids, it’s virtually guaranteed that we will not be discussing profit and loss statements or marketing strategies over dinner. But even before we had children, Phil and I worked very hard to refrain from talking business over dinner. It’s the one time during the day that we make a clean break from being business partners.
It’s also important to respect each other no matter what. I may not always agree with Phil (and vice versa), but I always respect him. I understand we each bring our own unique talents and strengths to the business. Believe me, I voice my opinion and stand my ground when needed, but I also recognize that there are times when I just need to trust where Phil is headed.
When it comes to my kids and business, my kids are always the priority. Period. If I need to postpone a meeting for an unexpected issue at school, then that’s what I need to do. Of course, I also make sure that our employees feel just as comfortable attending to their own family matters when necessary. When you walk into the office, you don’t stop being a mother, father, partner, etc.
My advice to parents who are also entrepreneurs is to try to instill the same entrepreneurial spirit in your children, and let them see that you love what you do. Phil and I wholeheartedly believe that if you do something you love, you never really have to work a day in your life. That’s one of the most important lessons I’d like to pass down to my kids. No matter what you choose to do in life, you need to be passionate about it. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Certainly, selling our first business to Intuit was a huge success financially. However, I’m most proud of the fact that Phil and I have been partners, both in business and life, for more than 18 years now. We have weathered several storms along the way, but we’ve always done it together.
Bio: Nellie Akalp
Nellie Akalp is a passionate entrepreneur, small business advocate and mother of four. As CEO of CorpNet.com, a legal document preparation filing service, Nellie helps entrepreneurs start a business, incorporate form an LLC, set up sole proprietorships (DBAs) and maintain a business in compliance with state filing requirements for a new or existing business.