Women on Top
The Risks and Rewards of Being a Woman In Austin's High Tech World
Laura Radewald: Quite an ExperienceFor every start-up that succeeds, there are a dozen -- perhaps more -- that, for one reason or another, don't make it.
Experience Art, an interactive art company started by former ad executive Laura Radewald and two other women, Deborah Andelt and Nancy O'Brien, had a lot of things stacked against it from the start. First, it marketed directly to consumers rather than to other businesses ("b-to-c," in the current dot-com jargon), a model that fell out of favor during the dot-com bust.
Second, it had what Radewald calls a "virtual business model": Not only did the company sell content over the Internet, its three owners all lived in different cities (O'Brien in Minneapolis, Andelt in Phoenix, and Radewald in Austin). The company did not, in the physical sense, exist; its founders kept in touch through an Intranet network. Third, and most problematically, it targeted women, a risky proposition even a few short years ago. According to Radewald, the most common response she got when pitching the concept to venture capitalists was befuddlement. They would say "'That's a woman thing. I don't get it.' ... or, 'I invest in things I'm interested in and this doesn't interest me,'" Radewald says. "A lot of VCs went home and asked their wives if their wives thought it was a good idea."
The idea, as Radewald explains it, was this: Experience Art would deliver "artistic experiences" -- what Radewald calls "intuitive creativity games" -- to its customers in exchange for a fee. In addition, it would offer actual art and fine crafts at a "virtual art fair" with constantly rotating merchandise for sale.
The idea, Radewald says, was to wrap an experience around something people enjoyed but might not seek out -- like art -- and make it accessible to everyone, even those who don't think of themselves as artistic. At the time, it was a tough sell. "People said nobody would pay for content on the Internet because there wasn't anything out there worth paying for," Radewald says. "My response was that people also didn't pay four dollars for a cup of coffee until Starbucks turned coffee into an experience. Two hundred VCs turned Starbucks down and said they were nuts. But Starbucks is an experience."
For two years, Experience Art struggled slowly onward, winning access to the prestigious Austin Technology Incubator, which provides office space and funding referrals to a hand-picked group of start-ups. (Computer Moms, also profiled in this issue, has its offices at the Incubator.) But after a year at the Incubator -- almost two years to the day from when Radewald quit her job and started writing Experience Art's business plan -- it became clear that the company wasn't going to secure VC funding. In August, Experience Art closed its virtual doors for good. And Radewald, a lifelong entrepreneur, started looking for another job.
Although their access to venture capital and other kinds of funding was clearly limited, Radewald says, by the fact that all three company founders were women, she doesn't attribute the demise of Experience Art to gender bias. "For the most part, I've found that after spending five minutes talking to me, people really forget my gender," says Radewald, who formerly owned an advertising agency. The bigger problem, she says, was that Experience Art was a few years ahead of its time. "A lot of people thought what we were doing was a good idea but too scary ... We also overestimated the rate at which high-bandwidth Internet service was going to be available ... [People thought ] everyone was going to have high-speed access [by now]. But it didn't happen that way."
So, for the first time in more than 10 years, Radewald has started working for someone else -- as the vice-president of marketing for IBT Technologies, an Internet-based technology training firm. And that, she says, is just fine with her. "I spent two years of my life begging people for money. I sure as heck don't feel like getting out there and having to raise money for my business again." But, Radewald adds, starting a business is in her blood: Her father, as well as her seven brothers and two sisters, are all entrepreneurs like herself. Starting a business "is like childbirth -- right after you have a baby, you say 'I'm never going through that again.' And then, two years later, you've forgotten about all the pain, and you're ready to do it all over again."
Company: Experience Art
Web Site: None
What It Did: Provided interactive art experience using "intuitive creativity games"; sold fine crafts online.
How It Was Funded: Self-funded