Judi Otton of GrowthCast: How A Weekend Project Launched Her Startup, And A 24/7 Lifestyle

GrowthCast is a New Haven-based startup founded by Judi Otton.

GrowthCast’s software provides business owners with the financial insight they need to make smart decisions for their business, whether those decisions involve hiring, buying equipment, or investing in marketing and sales. GrowthCast uses actual contracts – not guesses, projections or wishes – for revenue modeling and cash flow forecasting.

Judi’s background is in high tech product and software development, and includes leading a team at consulting firm Advanced Decisions and working at ESPN. We talked with Judi as a part of the New Haven leg of the Startup Roadshow, to get to know how GrowthCast is progressing and how, like her customers, she makes those all-important decisions on next steps.

Follow GrowthCast at: @GrowthCstFacebookLinkedInGoogle+

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How did GrowthCast get started?

The seeds of GrowthCast go back to 2005, when I joined a consulting firm as a partner. Early in my tenure, we were considering moving to a new, larger office and the question came up, “What does our revenue stream look like a few months out?” We were a small company, so we didn’t have a dedicated CFO or controller that would typically do that type of modeling for us. Being the Excel geek that I am, I went home over the weekend and built our first financial forecasting system. It was very basic and would grow over time. In fact it wasn’t long before it outgrew the capabilities of Excel.

Nevertheless, we used this rudimentary financial forecasting system regularly, before making any big financial decisions, to focus our sales and marketing efforts and to monitor the general health of the business.

I left that firm at the end of 2012, and was looking for my next professional adventure. One of my contacts suggested I sell the Excel workbooks I had developed (because by this time it was multiple workbooks with multiple sheets for many various purposes). The thought of supporting all of that in Excel made me shudder.  But, the idea was a good one. So I teamed up with an old friend and my favorite software developer to build a product that anyone could use and get good insights, without having to deal with those crazy broken links and missing references that you get with Excel.

I’ve heard you say that GrowthCast allows the small business owner to “have the same financial visibility as the big guys.” What need are you filling that Excel or other programs are unable to do? And, what have you learned in your market research about your value prop?

Great question!

Even though I’m an Excel power user, that forecasting model I built for my previous company in Excel still took me time to build and maintain.  Like other business owners, this is time I could have spent on higher value things. Not all business owners have the time, skills, or inclination to build a tool like this themselves.

An even bigger problem than time is the errors. Excel can be very error prone, especially when you’re working with a lot of data, and cutting and pasting formulas. You don’t always see where an error was made. As long as the formula is valid, Excel will give you an answer. It might not be the right one, but it’ll be an answer.

Finally, our model had gotten a little too complex for Excel. I was using many macros and scripts to do the kind of calculations we needed. It was getting impossible to maintain. I knew I could do better.

Where are you with the development of the product, and is the place where you are with the venture and the product where you’d expected to be?

We’ve been commercially available since the end of March 2014. We have a few customers, but not as many as I had hoped at this point. It’s been more challenging than I expected to get the word out, but we’re trying some different tactics, and working hard at it. I also realize from talking to other entrepreneurs that my expectations might not have been completely realistic.  It takes time and hard work to grow a company.  I knew that going in, but was perhaps a little more optimistic.

What has it been like for you to take an idea and transform it into your own venture?

Wow! It’s been the hardest and most exciting thing I’ve ever done. I’ve learned so many new skills (from programming and building websites to basic SEO and so much more!) and so much about myself.

Initially, I had friends that told me not to share my idea because someone would steal it. I’m so glad I didn’t listen. Every time I shared my initial idea with someone I got a new suggestion, or a new connection, or some idea of how the product or company could work. I wouldn’t be where I am without those initial enhancements to my original idea, and I certainly wouldn’t have come up with all of them on my own.

I’ve also had many times where I felt completely overwhelmed. I’ve gotten much better at just picking a few things to accomplish each day or each week or month and not worrying about the never ending list of things I could or maybe should do. I’m not a 20 year-old anymore, so working 100 hours per week for a year isn’t going to happen for me. I work as hard as I can, still try to take care of myself, and try not to sweat what didn’t get done this week.

I am still working harder than I ever have – 7 days a week, for at least part of the day (I’m writing this on a Sunday) but it’s a labor of love.

For entrepreneurs in our state who are just starting out, what experiences and insight can you share about starting a venture in New Haven and/or in CT?

Find a community. Like I said, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and couldn’t do it without all the amazing people at The Grove. This has been absolutely critical for both my success and my sanity. Whether I just need some help with my website, or some ideas about social media marketing, or someone to commiserate or celebrate with, there’s always someone there who gets it. I remember just before we were launching, I was experiencing extreme anxiety, and I’m not a particularly anxious or nervous person in general. I mentioned it to one of my Grove friends, and he just nodded and said “yup, that sounds about right.” Just knowing that what I was going through was normal, it was to be expected, and I wasn’t alone made it dissipate a bit.

Also, be patient. As hard as you think it’s going to be, it’s going to be harder. As long as you think it will take to get your business off the ground, it’s longer. This is one I’m still working on.

And, finally, get feedback. The input that I’ve gotten when I shared my idea or the product has been invaluable. Ideas and angles I’d never have seen on my own.

We all know the challenges facing entrepreneurs can be overwhelming — from building the product to building the business to just trying to stay afloat. What are the little or big things that keep you going every day?

Having someone to talk to at The Grove helps, but also know it’s a roller coaster. It may feel bleak now, but you never know what the next phone call or email will bring. If nothing else, it will change. And fast!

About Suzi Craig

Suzi Craig
Suzi Craig is Director of Community Development for Independent Software (www.indie-soft.com) and is leading the 2014 Startup Roadshow effort for The Whiteboard. She brings Connecticut entrepreneurs closer to each other and available startup resources, and to the compelling reasons for starting and growing a business in the state.