As COVID-19 Pauses Legal World, KC’s Stenovate Uses Pandemic for Strategic LaunchDavid Cawthon
Launching a new business during a pandemic sounds challenging at best. But for Lauren Lawrence, it might be perfect timing. Her Stenovate platform serves the unique needs of court reporters and the professionals they collaborate with.
“It’s ironic,” she says. “Everything is slow now, but we just postponed the legal world. All those lawsuits still exist and have to get back on the schedule. And we’re now adding a bunch of new depositions because of COVID. Stenographers will be swamped.”
And her platform will be ready.
“When they’re buried is when Stenovate really shines,” Lauren says. “You have to rely on your teammates and have a system in place. Our platform provides that.”
If the platform doesn’t exist, create it
Lauren knows of what she speaks. She has been a court reporter for about seven years.
“I love the profession,” she says. “Truly, it’s the world’s greatest job. You have a flexible schedule, and it’s financially lucrative. It’s my favorite thing. But the downside is that there are not business tools designed for freelancers who do that job.”
For every hour a court reporter spends in court or a deposition, there’s at least another hour of editing or proofing to do. Reporters work with editors called scopists and with proofreaders to complete this homework. And most court reporters, scopists and proofreaders are freelancers.
There wasn’t a great way for Lauren to hire scopists and proofreaders. She could find them through referrals or Facebook groups and then vet them herself. But that was just the first challenge.
“I didn’t have a great way to keep track and communicate the details of each job,” Lauren says. “Then we’d need to agree on how to share files — and there is a litany of tools. Then, the communication needs to happen. Sometimes that would be via email or text messaging, but there are all these different ways to communicate. Then I’d need to get the files back, people would have to figure out how to send invoices, and I’d have to figure out how to pay them. Do you use PayPal? Venmo? Zelle? I wished there were something built for this that would simplify work for this community.”
Like countless entrepreneurs, Lauren couldn’t find what she needed. So she set out to create it.
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The long road pays off
Designing and building the platform Lauren envisioned didn’t seem like a big deal.
“I honestly didn’t know what I was getting into,” she says. “I just thought it was going to take a couple thousand dollars. I’d find a developer friend I can pay a little money to, and we can quickly and easily solve these problems.”
But it wasn’t that simple. Lauren talked to developers around Kansas City and was shocked. She received estimates ranging from $15,000 to $350,000 — and she wasn’t sure why.
“It was a little bewildering,” Lauren says. “I thought about giving up, but at that point, I couldn’t let it go.”
Instead, she started hand drawing what she wanted the platform to look like. It would share files, track projects and simplify invoicing and payments. Job boards and social forums were on Lauren’s radar, too.
A friend suggested she pitch to Digital Sandbox KC.
“Digital Sandbox KC told me ‘no,’ that it just wasn’t far enough along,” Lauren says. “But that’s OK! They gave me a list of six things to work on. It’s not a ‘no.’ It’s a ‘work on it; then come back and talk to us.’”
So, she started working on the six things. And she participated in Pure Pitch Rally, where she got to pitch to “land sharks” and corporate sponsors, one of which helped seed Stenovate’s next move.
“Full Scale gave out $50,000 in credit that night, and I received half of those credits,” Lauren says. “And I cried! It was so exciting! I had been developing this idea in my mind for years.”
Working with Full Scale, a presenting sponsor for Pure Pitch Rally, and working on the list of six items moved Lauren ahead substantially. She pitched the Sandbox again and landed some early project funding. Then, she took advantage of a course at Missouri Small Business Development Center at UMKC.
“I got a lot of beta testers because of that,” Lauren says. “They encouraged me to call people and listen to the problems they face as stenographers. It helped inform me beyond what was my own purview.”
An angel investor got involved. And as Stenovate continued to progress, the Fountain Innovation Fund out of the Enterprise Center in Johnson County stepped up to invest. Lee Zuvanich, a long-time tech advocate, joined the company as COO.
“Once one person believes in you, other people start to pay attention,” Lauren says.
Lee Zuvanich (left) and Lauren Lawrence (right) of Stenovate. Photo courtesy Tommy Felts, Startland News.
Launching – and how to get there
Stenovate officially launched May 5 with a monthly subscription model. Right now, it has more than 160 registered users. Lauren expects this number to increase significantly as courts get back to work.
“The big thing for me is helping all of these small, primarily women-owned businesses,” she says. “Almost 90% of court reporters are women, and I would say it’s in that same ballpark for scopists and proofreaders. They’re all working from home, figuring out their own business systems, too. They’re all working hard, and I love that I can simplify their work lives through this platform.”
Lauren has words of wisdom for entrepreneurs who are where she was not long ago.
“The advice I’d give goes against my own comfort level, but that’s why I’d give it,” she says. “Find advisors and talk to people. Listen to feedback. Tell everyone what you’re doing. The networking aspects in the Kansas City community are really critical and the nature of people in KC is that they want to help, even if it’s just making a connection. Ask for help. It’s the best thing you can do.”
She especially encourages people to reach up to leaders in their areas of interest.
“Talk to people – especially people who are smarter than you or a step ahead of you,” Lauren says. “Connect with leaders in those spaces – surely they’ll have a cup of coffee with you. Ask, ‘Who do you know? How would you go about this?’ Just doing those things is a big part of why we are successful today.”