Stay-at-home moms Maggie Tolkin and Amy Motschwiller, both residents of Brookville, NY, founded Student Backup, an online computer backup software program, in 2005. We sat down with the duo to discuss who inspires them, what they've learned, and how they keep their friendship intact while running a successful business.
Quick Facts: Maggie Tolkin and Amy Motschwiller live in Brookville with their families and run their business out of Garden City.
Maggie and husband Brad have three sons: Ryan, 23, Sean, 21, and CJ, 20
Amy and husband Donald also have three children: Max, 23, Melanie, 21, and Caroline, 17
When Maggie Tolkin's oldest son, Ryan, went to college, she made sure to send him with all of the prerequisites a parent can provide, from clothes to a laptop and, of course, a personal flash drive to protect his important student files. About two months later, she got a hysterical phone call from Ryan saying his computer had crashed and his files were gone. He admitted that he hadn't been using his flash drive and didn't even know where the device was. Faced with her son's problem, Tolkin had a stroke of inspiration that she shared with Amy Motschwiller, a good friend who lived nearby. The two put their heads together, combined their areas of expertise, and in 2005 cofounded Student Backup, a daily online, automatic computer backup software program.
Tolkin and Motschwiller both grew up on Long Island and met while studying at Cornell University. They continued their friendship at NYU's Stern School of Business, where they both earned MBAs. The two stayed close as they pursued careers, Maggie in marketing and Amy in the high-tech field, then both married and relocated to Brookville, where they were stay-at-home moms for several years.
Today, the company founded on their friendship is thriving. And though they've heard that a business partnership is "the surest way to end a friendship," the experience has only brought them closer, and has been a key to their success. "We're both hard working perfectionists with a very strong mutual respect for each others' opinions," Motschwiller says. "When one is down, the other is up. We are our own backup."
Once you had the idea for Student Backup, how did you get the company started?
MT: We began doing research and found there were many backup alternatives available, but they were expensive and not user friendly, so they were not ideal for college students, who are basically apathetic and never think they'll suffer a computer disaster.
AM: We applied to the Cornell Johnson School of Business through their entrepreneur program, and they did research for us, validating what we already understood about college students: about 60-70 percent don't back up, about 50 percent have suffered a computer crash, and over 75 percent are fearful of data loss. And yet, it doesn't motivate them to use a flash drive. [When we got that data] we really felt we were on to something very exciting. We then brought in a software partner, Adam Schwam, and with him we developed StudentBackUp.com.
Besides your strong friendship, what has been the key to your success?
MT: Listening to our customers.
AM: We've expanded by getting feedback from our customers. Not only do we listen to them, we're also out there visiting campuses all the time, to see what's going on with students and how universities are interacting with students and their needs.
Did you ever plan to start your own company?
MT: We were both always hard working and eager to continue to enhance ourselves. We were very happy to have our years at home with our children, but this fell into our laps and we couldn't not take advantage of the opportunity.
How do you manage the work/life balance?
AM: When we started the company, we were at a time in our lives when our children weren't as needful. Our kids were starting to go to college, so the timing was right, and the balance was easier. It's never easy, but our friendship helps us to be more flexible.
MT: We get together, and for the first 10 minutes we catch up on our children and families, then we move on to the task at hand. If we have soccer games or a husband's business event, we regroup at another point during the day, even if it's 9 at night-we figure it out around our busy lives.
What's one thing you wish you had known before starting the business?
AM: The largest challenge we faced in starting the business-and we kick ourselves all the time about it-is that we started marketing the product on campus via a student sales force, and it wasn't that successful because it's the parent who buys the product. We now have a sign in our office that says, "It's the parent, stupid."
What advice do you have for other moms looking to start their own business?
MT: Go for it. If you believe in it, just go for it and keep going.
AM: People will tell you all of the obstacles. We always talk about our business and some people say "Well, can't you just use a flash drive?" But if you think you have a good idea, that energy really comes through, and it moves you forward when you have little obstacles in the way.
For more information on Maggie Tolkin, Amy Motschwiller, and their company, visit www.StudentBackup.com.