Think of a start-up.
Picture the offices. Bean bag chairs instead of desks, twentysomethings with hats flipped backwards and black-frame glasses. Lofts full of wet-behind-the-ears optimists six months removed from their last business class. Hear the clicking keys of Macbooks and well-polished elevator pitches, their deliveries as smooth as glass and an idea as slick as oil. Think Silicon Valley. Think San Francisco.
Now throw that out.
Three years ago Susan McEvilly launched a tech company. She was 20 years deep into a professional career that included stops at Commerce One, PeopleSoft and Apple. She was a single mother to two children, both in college. She was not a risk taker. And while McEvilly’s story seems to fly in the face of convention, the thing that she values most is the opportunity to make her own choices. Her education at Saint Mary’s gave her the background necessary to be an entrepreneur, and the lifestyle she’s cultivated since then has given her the freedom to live her life on her own terms.
In the face of a changing industry and downsizing, McEvilly was presented with the opportunity to be bought out of her contract as Cisco. She volunteered for the buyout and took the money to launch Meet Me In The Cloud—a start-up that helps organizations integrate WebEx technology. She says she is at a crossroad, both professionally and personally, but the life she’s created isn’t a struggle, it’s an opportunity.
OUT OF THE OFFICE AND INTO THE CLOUD
“I was scared,” she says of her days prior to taking the buyout at Cisco.
At the time McEvilly had been at the company for eight years, having moved from procurement to sales to operations and management along the way. Utilizing her formal education from Saint Mary’s and her years of industry experience, McEvilly became a specialist in the sale of the WebEx—a program used for online collaboration, digital meetings and video conferencing. Over time though, McEvilly discovered a hole in Cisco's business strategy.
“When Cisco bought WebEx they didn’t really know how to sell software as a service. They had a tough time adapting to their clients,” she says.
She approached Cisco internally about this, but was rebuffed. Cisco offered long-time employees a voluntary buy-out package, one McEvilly qualified for. She was convinced that Cisco needed to provide a new approach to on-boarding their clients to WebEx.
“I was nervous when I took the buy-out, but I was convinced I had found a niche. And I knew I had the educational background and industry knowledge to do it,” she says.
Cisco asked if anyone wanted to leave, McEvilly raised her hand.
The first year wasn’t profitable, but McEvilly had done her homework. In the year between taking the buy-out and launching MeetMeInTheCloud.com she had drastically cut back every expense, met with small business owners, mapped a marketing strategy and designed her webpage. She built a company that would serve as the conduit between Cisco’s WebEx software and the client, it would be high-touch and intuitive.
“I wasn’t making a lot of money,” she says. “But I was making enough to prove that my model could work. I did my own marketing. I was responsible for every investment decision.”
McEvilly’s “in-house” philosophy extended beyond her business strategy. As a company that was designed to buttress the growing use of digital conferencing, she eschewed a brick and mortar office and ran everything in the cloud on a high speed internet connection from her home in Danville.
Meet Me In The Cloud grew modestly at first as it gained traction and a successful reputation. By the beginning of the second year, McEvilly’s company had built a track record and she took on more and larger clients.
Today she has business partners across the world—from county governments to hip-hop artists, Washington nonprofits to public school districts, real estate contractors to chicken farmers—and she doesn’t have an office. She adjusted her pricing models, established working relationships with organizations like the University of California-Los Angeles and Creighton University, and hired a staff—all of whom work remotely. McEvilly’s hunch has been validated—she has successfully made the lead from one of the pillars of Silicon Valley to becoming her own boss, from office complexes to a single room in her house.
FREEDOM OF CHOICE
If there is one disadvantage McEvilly’s professional life it’s the built-in insolation that comes with life in the cloud.
“It’s not for everybody,” she says. “I spend a lot of time alone. I spent a lot of time during the day chatting with people or connecting online, but I’m actually physically alone in a room.”
To combat this she keeps hard personal deadlines about when she works and builds de-stressors into her day.
“When I first started out, I was so excited to be a part of these large, world-class organizations, but over the last two years I’ve realized that I need a balance between work and personal time. I need a network beyond myself. I need input,” says McEvilly.
“Every day at 5 pm I get out of my house. I have scheduled yoga classes and I go salsa dancing. On days when I can, I’ll go to the public library or a coffee shop and work. On the weekend I make it a point to get out and unplug. I go hiking on Mt. Whitney and the Sierras. It’s very different than what I used to do.”
Engaging with her community is another arena where she can spend time now. She sits on the board of directors for the Eugene O’Neill Foundation, a group dedicated to celebrate and promote the vision of the playwright who called Danville home for a time. She volunteers with Glide Memorial Church, and can frequently be seen at the School of Economics and Business Administration’s SERVE events at the Contra Costa Food Bank.
Getting to a point where she can center herself, both personally and professionally, is the luxury that being an entrepreneur affords McEvilly. Her drive to run a successful company is balanced by taking time for herself. The limitations of life in the cloud are compensated by giving back to her community.
“I’m not one to ever hold still. I’m always trying something different, pushing and pulling,” she says. “A college degree gives you choices, it gives you opportunity. My education gave me options to live my life the way I want to. That’s what I value about Saint Mary’s—it gave me choices.”