Laurie Collins, DC entrepreneur, on turning adversity into opportunity.
I know Laurie Collins primarily as an Instagram whiz. We both attend DC Instagram meet ups, where she is @dccitygirl, a featured photographer with over 30,000 followers (#InstagramGoals). Collins is also the principal of LC Systems, a DC-based information technology firm that she founded in the early 1990’s.
LC Systems started when Collins turned a challenge into a one-woman business venture. The company is now 24 years old and 18 employees strong. I met Collins in her Woodley Park home office to learn more about her path to becoming an entrepreneur and what words of wisdom she has for others.
What drove you to start LC Systems?
Well I got married at 19, so I never finished college—believe it or not—and I am a systems engineer by trade. So how do you get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’? I was working for Hewlett-Packard in their field marketing area. Their reseller, a small mom-and-pop shop, decided that they wanted an engineer—someone to train and everything…and I said sure! I left this top-ten in the world company and went to the reseller to become a systems engineer.
Why did you decide to take that leap?
At Hewlett-Packard, I was doing administrative work, and when new equipment came in I showed it to customers. This gave me that little itch of interest in computers and technology. But I was almost 30 at that time. I didn’t immediately know what I wanted to do.
I left HP to go be trained and I was sitting in training classes with all men—I was the only woman. I eventually finished the training and became a Microsoft certified trainer. So then I taught [data] networking classes and again, it was all men! I grew up as a tomboy, so that helped, but I was pretty scared. I wasn’t going to let them know that, but I was pretty scared.
“If you don’t love what you do, don’t do it!
For young people, you have time to switch gears and figure it out!”
What were you afraid of?
Them [the men] doing better than me and of not knowing the answer. My knowledge level and my confidence level had to be pretty high. The instructor would say, ‘Let’s hear from the only girl in the class!’ and I realized that must be me! So I had a big hurdle to jump over, but I was up for it.
Time went on and I was with the reseller [as a systems engineer] for about six years. I was having some success with my career, but I was not really grasping what I had accomplished because I was still young and still in the middle of my career.
I got pregnant with my daughter and went on maternity leave right about the time the company got bought. The president had asked me to migrate their network, and I had started to prepare to do this before I went on maternity leave.
I came back after my pregnancy to this huge corporation…the former president of the company was now a vice president and I had a new boss. My new boss and I did not get along. I think he had an issue with me being female, and I was aggressive, forward, and strong-willed, and a new mother and everything…and he laid me off. I can’t tell you, Genna, how that made me feel. I felt defeated in so many ways.
That must have been really scary, too.
Yes! I’ve never been fired from anything—I’ve always been proud of my work career. I didn’t even want to tell anybody, but I went to the vice president and told him I had just got laid off. He said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll hire you back as a consultant. You’re the only one who can migrate this network!’
So that was Monday and my last day was Friday. On Wednesday, I used my employee discount to buy a computer, a fax machine, and a printer. And the next week, on Monday, I came back as a consultant—I had my same office and everything, and I was earning three times my [former] salary.
Around that time, I got a call from a friend who said that they needed an engineer at the United States Senate, and I went up there as a subcontractor for 3Com Corporation. They needed three engineers, so I made my first hires. I was still going back to help the reseller and doing telephone support for my old clients. So that first year, I worked a lot, and I had a lot of success.
When did you officially become LC Systems?
Well I became LC Systems that week I was laid off, but I didn’t know anything about payroll… my engineering skills were up here and my project management skills were down here. Over time, I started to take less of an engineering role and focused more on running the company.
I was up on the Hill for six years and I then I started helping [former DC] Mayor Williams create DC.gov—the old DC.gov, not what it looks like now! We had so many projects…I had five employees…then I had 20 employees! And then…well, I’m still there. I have 18 employees now.
What is your favorite thing about being an entrepreneur?
I’ve always said that you have to love what you do. You can’t say, ‘Yeah, I have my own business and I do what I want.’ You’re always reporting to someone. So if you don’t love what you do, don’t do it! For young people, you have time to switch gears and figure it out!
“Be humble and appreciative because you never know if you are going to have that work the next day.
It’s not a free ride. You have to work hard.”
What qualities make you most successful as an entrepreneur?
Confidence…drive… knowledge—definitely knowledge. You have to really know your product. I’ll give you an example: when we would do sales calls [at the reseller], it would be the vice president, a sales person, and me, an engineer. And I would answer the technical questions.
When I won one of my first contracts [at LC Systems], it was only me at this big, long table and I had to remind myself that I may not know how to sell, but I know my stuff! I think it’s better to be on the technical side. When you’re a sales person you can’t be technical, but when you’re technical you can be sales.
What do you think is the most important thing you have learned since starting your own business?
Well, I think I said it already—that you’re not the boss. There is always a boss.
This is so interesting because that is coming up as a theme!
And also to be humble and appreciative because you never know if you are going to have that work the next day. It’s not a free ride. You have to work hard.
Can you give me one example of a time you’ve ‘failed’ or experienced a challenge with your business and what you learned from that experience?
When the stock market crashed and then also going through a divorce and personal family issues. And then the government was hiring my people [employees] away because they were good and they wanted them—which, by the way, they didn’t have to hire a recruiter or train them! I had already trained them and brought them and just laid them at the table. It was a personal challenge to survive, and I had no idea what the future would hold.
I made it a challenge to fight. I went down to the DC Council and testified about the government hiring my employees. I explained that I am not a recruiting service; I am a small business and how can I grow if you’re taking my people? I was very vocal—as much as possibly I could to make sure that this wouldn’t happen again. I had no positive cash flow coming in, and it was a huge challenge. Huge. I was in limbo and I had to continue to show good face and act like nothing happened.
So would you say that the experience taught you to keep pushing through?
Not only to push through, but also to simplify my lifestyle. If ever it happened again, I would be in a better position. I swore I would never put myself in a position to owe people money and not be able to survive. I have some bills now, but I don’t have bills bills. I’ve put myself in a position that, if everybody quits on me tomorrow, I am going to survive. I downsized, and you have to be happy with it.
My last question is: what advice would you give other women entrepreneurs?
[Laughs] You got to get up every morning and like what you do! Just keep trying, and keep trying to make yourself happy with what you want to do.
And it’s okay if you don’t know what you want to do, because you might be forced into a situation that might create a job, like what happened to me. Getting laid off and getting rehired within one week…you never know. It’s a cliché that when one door closes another door opens…but leave your options open.