Danielle Tate discusses what it takes to start a million-dollar business, proving that you don’t need an MBA to do it.
Have you ever encountered a setback that seemed so illogical, so unnecessarily frustrating that you were inspired to ferret out the “why” behind the problem and tackle it on your own terms? Meet Danielle Tate, a 34-year-old entrepreneur who has pioneered an online name-change business. After Tate experienced the legal minefield of wanting to change her surname when she got married more than a decade ago, she was inspired to do something to change it. The original service, called MissNowMrs.com, has grown into a $1.7 million business that has helped more than 300,000 brides.
Tate herself is a force of nature. Sunny and confident, articulate and generative. She has just written a book entitled The Elegant Entrepreneur, a step-by-step business guide for smart but inexperienced women starting a business. It’s practical, honest, and breaks down the mystique for women who have ideas but may lack the chutzpah to dive in. Between juggling her business, her book, and her plans for the future, Tate knows a thing or two about making hard decisions and prioritizing self-care. I caught up with her to hear more about building a meaningful business and how she finds balance.
Anne Snyder: So the story’s out there on what inspired the initial creation of MissNowMrs.com, but can you tell Verily readers what prompted this business idea?
Danielle Tate: I am an accidental entrepreneur. A personal name-change misadventure sparked the idea for an online name change service. In a nutshell, I created a company that turns a thirteen-hour tedious process into thirty minutes for $30.
Most big ideas stem from personal pain or frustration. The more specific story is that after getting married, I had to get my state driver’s license. I became unbelievably frustrated by the waste of time and the bureaucracy, and I said to my husband, why isn’t this being changed? That’s where the seed was planted. That was the beginning.
AS: Did you have entrepreneurial instincts as a kid?
DT: I’m a fourth-generation salesperson. So, no. Excellent at selling Girl Scout cookies and various other things throughout my life. But, while I wound up being the number one sales rep for a Fortune 500 company, I didn’t have any other side businesses. I’ve never taken a marketing or business class. I’m incredibly tenacious, I always have been. I think that’s the one trait that might have been an early indicator. I am a fixer, a problem-solver.
AS: What has been the part of entrepreneurship—and this particular business—that comes most naturally to you?
DT: I would say ideas. Ideas and the power to implement them, and change immediately, are the things that I think I do well. How it should work. What it should look like. I’m known as a content-generating machine in the office. If it needs written, I will write it. What gets me out of bed in the morning is the fact that it’s not just a big idea that started the company, it’s all the little essential ideas that are essential to growth. I love that I can get up, have an amazing idea, write it down, validate it a little bit, have it implemented the same day, the same month. Having the ability, having the flexibility and creativity is what makes it fun.
AS: What has been one of your steeper learning curves? One of the things you still struggle with?
DT: Total lack of business background. And lack of computer training. Computers for Dummies is a well-worn book in my office. That was an obstacle to overcome.
I did a very poor job, especially at the beginning of the company, identifying talent and owning my role. I hid behind sentences like, “I have a website,” or “I run an online business.” I sold myself short on that. By talking about it, I hope that other people won’t. You really need to embrace the fact that you ARE an entrepreneur. Regardless of how new it is, the sooner you realize that, the sooner you’ll feel that connecting with other entrepreneurs and connecting with others is what’s so energizing. And important.
AS: In an age where innovation is all the rage, do you have an eye for who’s going to make it as an entrepreneur and who’s not?
DT: There’s a lot of jargon. I didn’t understand the use of “disruptive” originally. It can be hard to break into this culture. I used to live in a bit of fear of having high-level conversations with other CEOs. I’d think, oh, if they start getting super acronym-ish, I’m sunk.
I’m so glad it’s all of the sudden exciting, and the world is entrepreneur-curious. I think that’s a very positive thing. There’s no such thing as too many entrepreneurs.
You can’t always tell who’s going to be successful or not, but you can tell when someone is authentic. And not just I’m the best thing since sliced break. But, here’s my stats, I just need some money.
The people who have personally experienced the problem and the issue, who have invested their own time, who can say, “I built it”—are the winners. “I have a couple hundred customers—Now I need help.” Do you have a business partner? Not just a pitch deck. Not just “someday we’ll have customers”—those pie in the skies can sound amazing. People are so charismatic and they can be believable. But the people who understand how you’re going to make money, and how to build something that already works, as well as the ones that have failed and are on their second or third business, having identified what they did wrong and why they’re now going to succeed…these are where I’m going to put my money.
AS: How would you describe your community? The community that supports you in your business, brainstorming, execution, etc.? How are you intentional about the people you’re surrounding yourself with?
DT: As far as people, I’m a rather private person; I have a great group of close friends I’ve known for extended period of time. We keep each other sane and relevant. No matter how successful one of us is or isn’t, we’re good checks and balances.
I spend the month of August in Turks and Caicos. One of the benefits of working hard and founding a company in my early twenties is that in my early thirties, I was able to buy a place and can now go there for a month and hang out with my family, reconnect. Be in the water with my six-year old, regroup. And I come back in September absolutely refreshed and ready to take on the next big project.
As far as being inspired by people, I’m part of a very small women’s group—we meet one Friday a month. I do everything in my power to make sure I attend that meeting. It’s at 8:00 in the morning. The women in there are so dynamic, from such different backgrounds, all founded their own companies. Sitting at that table, making connections afterward has opened so many doors for me. I think I might be the youngest in the group. It’s wonderful to be associated and affiliated and surrounded by women of all of these different ages who are amazingly successful. Everyone helps everyone in any way they can. HELP is in the air. It’s very much a Who are you? What do you need?
AS: As you’ve been charting out this territory of streamlining the process for people, specifically women, to change their legal surnames, have you found yourself surprised by the underlying depths of what you’re doing? Names are powerfully intertwined with our identities.
DT: Yes, name change is a very charged topic. Regardless of what is written about name-changing trends, there are just unbelievable amounts of opinions. People are outraged that women change their names at all. And others think it’s the woman’s right.
The name change choice is very personal. I don’t think all women should change their names. But if they’re going to, they shouldn’t reinvent the wheel. Out of 2.3 million marriages a year, 88 percent change their name. So this change is still a large part of the married community.
The nice thing that I have discovered after 300,000 customers is that brides today are so confident in their equality within the relationship that name change is now a function of personal style and tradition. It doesn’t have the same connotations it once did—of ownership, for instance. It’s rather whether it suits them or their relationship. It’s symbolic of being a union. And so while it’s still a very charged topic and some people will always be upset about the concept, it’s nice to see that that those who are changing their name these days are really doing it out of personal preference and style, not out of obligation.
AS: How do you see your business expanding in the future? What are new arenas in the area of identity/name change that you see opening up? Say, in the adoption world, for instance. Could you enter that space? Or do you find yourself being consulted upon there?
DT: We are an ever-expanding platform. MissnowMrs.com does marriage name change. GetYourNameBack.com does divorce name change. We also have a service for legal name changes for children who are adopted.
We also have the married name game. It’s a quiz that brides take that helps them identify their ultimate last name, based on data points that are usually a component of their name change.
We do marriage licensing now, which is a free resource of marriage information. Because typically each county webpage has a confusing array of certificates and it gets very confusing and un-fun. Instead, we simplify the process—here’s exactly what you need to know, when to file, how long it’s good for, etc. And it’s under similar branding as MissNowMrs.com—it’s a nice funnel into that site.
A recent sprout from MissNowMrs is SimpleCharity.com. SimpleCharity helps charities maintain compliance. So, if you’re a nonprofit and you end up with donation from a state outside your own, you typically have to file forms into that state, where, in a digital world, many charities are getting many donations from out of state, and it’s thousands of accountants fees to keep it all straight.
So we’re now able to use MissNowMrs form processing technology that’s auto-complete all their charity receipt forms. This saves them so much time and money.
AS: Have you encountered any competitors?
DT: Very early on, we had several copycats. They were individuals who had mined intellectual property and information from MissNowMrs. So I had a tough decision to make. Was I going to use the profits coming into the company to keep it growing and ignore this, or to fight those who had come in? I made the difficult decision to protect MissNowMrs. I needed time to build the plan, to have recognition, and lock in strategic partnerships. But instead I spent eight months testifying in federal court to protect MissNowMrs. Here am I a nice Methodist girl from western Pennsylvania . . . it taught me a lot. I grew up a lot.
AS: Is there anything unique about being a female entrepreneur?
DT: When I say the word “entrepreneur,” what’s the first image that pops in to your head? More often than not, when women answer this question, they say, a computer guy, a nerdy geeky guy, a white guy.
I feel like we’re world citizens. If we just let nerdy white men be entrepreneurs, we’re going to end up with solutions for problems that occur to nerdy white men. AS women, we have different problems, challenges, and therefore solutions. It’s a moral obligation. We’re world citizens—it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or woman, ethnicity or culture—if you have a problem, you need to have come up with a solution. Build a company or have someone else build it.
Take SHE, Sustainable Health Enterprises, founded by Elizabeth Scharpf. She was working for the World Bank in Rwanda when she noticed the women were missing work. She found out that girls were also missing school, and pretty regularly. She finally got someone to talk about it. And it turned out that the cost of a maxi pad was more than a day’s wages—these women were missing school and work for this. And instead of being, like, let’s just all donate, or assuming that a big company would get involved, she took the skills she had and looked at what Rwanda had as a produce. Turns out they export bananas. She figured out a way to take the bleached fibers from the leaves and turn them into sanitary napkins for 7 cents a piece.
There’s a women who saw a problem that she could solve. A man might have done it really differently.
I also think women are slightly risk-averse, which I think as a general rule is outstanding. Women aren’t going to throw a product into the world unless it’s really good. It also creates a sticky floor of female founders. The risk adversity can make it daunting to start out . . . it’s hard to be a female founder. Part of why I wrote the book was to demystify the steps, and help people understand how to validate the idea. And how it felt to do so. And so, once you have an actionable plan, and understand a lot of what could happen, it might still be scary, but it’s not as risky. I feel like that will lower the barrier of entry to Female Founders.
AS: Is it advantageous to be a female entrepreneur today? To run a female-inspired company?
DT: For most purposes, I would say, yes. In every interview I did for the book, the word power came up. Being a female founder gives you power over your paycheck and your work hours and your paycheck and your lifestyle, and your definition of success. You can add in what you feel is important. You can care for family members, or start another company, or travel. You have the power and freedom to do that.
In the world of funding, it can be more challenging to be a female founder. Especially if you have a company or product or service that’s female-centric. It can be very difficult to explain the problem or solution to people who do not have the same problem. And get them to open up their wallet.
You have to be able to speak in analogies. One woman had a fashion line for vintage items. I have no idea why you’d buy an old purse, a male funder might think. But would you buy a minted condition of a Ferrari? Absolutely.
Also, women don’t typically brag. When you’re pitching for money, people invest in the person more than then idea. So why can you as a person make your idea successful? Why they should choose you to make your company great. Selling that can be a challenge for women, but it’s getting better.
AS: Could anyone do what you have done? What did you have that others don’t, whether in the way of character, background, connections, or support?
DT: I have always been a glass ring puller. If there’s an experience or life opportunity that may not happen again, I will take. Was I scared to leave the world of sales and a six figure in my early twenties? Yes. But I was also scared not to take the opportunity to launch the opportunity. And always wonder, well, what if I had done that? If I did it, and I was moderately successful, I could easily find another job, so I pulled the glass ring.
I have a really supportive family and am married to an entrepreneur. That’s definitely a leg up.
AS: If a hundred years from now the world has some fairy dust from Danielle Tate in it, what would you hope is your imprint?
DT: I would hope that if there were any imprint, that I in some way moved the needle for female funders, through the book, through whatever else might happen, that other women took ideas and started companies because of reading my book, or some iteration thereof. I wrote it to help other people, my peers. I thought originally, I’m not qualified to write this. But then someone told me to think of all those many women who are just like me, with ideas, without MBAs, and how many of them will never start a business. Think of what comes with being a female founder.
For this reason, I knew I had to write it.
This interview was originally published in Verily.