As founder of a $30 million technical support startup, Heather Blease was on top of the world. But when one mega-client didn’t deliver, her company came crashing down. After nearly a decade, Blease decided to launch the Brunswick, Maine-based SaviLinx, another technical support startup, with a new business model–and a new perspective.
Being an entrepreneur wasn’t something I set out to do. I told my father my favorite subjects were art and gym, and he suggested I go to college for electrical engineering. I wasn’t really math oriented, so it was a huge struggle. When the manufacturing plant I worked at was sold, I couldn’t get a straight answer about what was going to happen to me or my team. I was sick of waiting for a decision. Then it occurred to me that I could start my own business. My first contract was with my former employer.
2017 INC. 5000 RANK: 28
HEADQUARTERS: Brunswick, ME
YEAR FOUNDED: 2013
2016 REVENUE: $11.4 million
3-YEAR GROWTH: 9,204%
In 1995, I launched EnvisioNet–an outsource support provider for the tech industry–and I can honestly say that when I started, I had no idea what I was doing. I got one client, then 10, and then suddenly, in just six years, we were at 2,500 employees and $30 million in revenue. Microsoft asked us to expand even more; it had a new product launch that was expected to generate big call volume. We invested millions in infrastructure, but we never got many calls. We were paid by call minute, so without calls there was no money. Investors got spooked, and we couldn’t close the round. We had to file Chapter 11, and because I was the guarantor for a lot of financial leases, I had to file Chapter 7.
An old contact offered me a VP job at a tech company to see if I could win it some government contracts. After six months of learning everything I could about the government marketplace, I told the CEO that I didn’t see it happening for his company. It can be hard for a large company to break into a government contract if it doesn’t have past performance. But with all my research, it was almost as if a business were being placed at my feet: If I started a company, I’d gain the advantage of being small and woman-owned, but I’d also have the experience of my EnvisioNet years. I was really reluctant to try to put a company together again, but it was almost like: Gosh darn, it’s meant to be.
The technology of call centers has changed so much. In the 1990s, we had to invest millions just to get started; now the infrastructure is cloud-based and turnkey and you can pay as you go. But we also have an entirely different business model. Instead of getting paid per minute of phone call, we’re paid per employee hour. That’s a tremendously safer model, because government contracts are five or seven years long. Don’t get me wrong: The first few years of starting a business are stressful. It was pure survival mode. But I have a sense, now, that we’re over the hump.