After spending 12 years as an environmental consultant, Erin Rothman became familiar with the inefficiencies around how companies and government organizations stayed compliant with regulations. Inspired to build a better solution, she teamed up with Anya Stettler to start StormSensor.
The Seattle-based co-founders have spent the past year developing a platform that automates the stormwater monitoring and reporting process for cities and businesses.
“We founded StormSensor to take the fear, expense, and frustration out of environmental compliance,” Rothman said. “Stormwater is a natural starting point: stormwater runoff is the leading cause of water contamination in urban areas, and increased visibility and understanding has created a growing industry.”
StormSensor, which is currently working in the 9Mile Labs accelerator in Seattle, helps clients save time and money with its technology that automates the data collection, monitoring, and reporting process for stormwater management.
We caught up with Stettler for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature.
Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “StormSensor tracks water quality data in real time, so cities and businesses can identify and fix problems before they get out of hand.”
Inspiration hit us when: “Erin was a VP at an environmental consulting company and the stormwater group had a ton of business but was still hemorrhaging money. The leadership team couldn’t figure it out, so Erin talked to her guys out in the field. They were constantly making wasted trips to sample sites — just because it was raining at the office didn’t mean it was raining at their sites, which meant that 60 percent of their time went un-billed.
On top of that, everything was done manually — they had to physically sample water, write down their field notes, transpose handwritten notes to digital, manage both hard and electronic files, reconcile all of this information across multiple, incompatible software platforms, and then wait for the PM to review their reports before they could be submitted to the regulators. It’s a highly manual process that seemed ludicrously complicated. Surely, Erin thought, this could be automated.”
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “So far we’ve bootstrapped everything — we wanted to prove the concept and get pilot tests under our belt so we could demonstrate the significant value we deliver to our customers and to the industry as a whole.”
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “The environmental industry is not necessarily known for its technological innovations; much of the technology in use today was developed in the 1970s and 1980s with a few revisions incorporated along the way. We have a solid background in the industry, so we get the issues that need to be resolved, and we get how our users work and how they talk. We incorporate that into our design: our software is simple and straightforward, and it cuts about 85-to-90 percent of the workflow, giving our users the ability to select how their data is presented and how/when they receive alerts. Our hardware is the only solution available designed specifically to monitor stormwater so we can offer it at a much lower price than our competitors.”
The smartest move we’ve made so far: “We bootstrapped this ourselves, so everything we did prior to receiving funding from 9Mile Labs took a great deal of enthusiasm, encouragement, and inspiration because everyone contributed their efforts without expecting to get paid. Whatever we did have to pay for, we negotiated down to the lowest possible number. To get to our working software MVP, incorporate StormSensor as a Delaware C-Corp, and develop our first duct-tape (turns on, blinky-blinky) prototype (a.k.a. Blanche), we spent about $2,000.
In other words, we have a team of brilliant people who are doing as much of this as they can for fun, and we’re making something extraordinary as a result. It’s not easy. And it’s sure as hell not quick. But all of that time and effort has made us so much better, every step of the way.”
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “Underestimating the time it takes to build waterproof hardware. Just because 3D printers exist, it does not mean that building a prototype full of sensors and electronics and communication devices is easy. Hardware is hard. But with Bruce Darling providing exceptional electrical engineering support in his spare time, we were able to build enough of a prototype to hand to William Gibbs (our mechanical engineer) at Corvus + Columba so he could fit our jumbled-together sensor array into our testable prototypes, cutting out a lot of research time and effort (and money) on his part.”
Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Bezos. The man knows how to keep things streamlined, and his dedication to customers is extraordinary. We always, always, always, want to do right by them. Without focus on our users and their needs, we don’t have a company.”
It’s not easy. And it’s sure as hell not quick. But all of that time and effort has made us so much better, every step of the way.
Our favorite team-building activity is: “Getting things done. The most inspiring moments we share are those where we, once again, accomplished something together that seemed impossible just weeks earlier. It’s incredible.”
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “Determination. The moment in the interview when someone tells us something is hard to do and lists all the reasons it will take too long? The interview is over. We focus on solutions. If it was easy, someone else would do it. Every project we started had a whole host of things that could go wrong. We build our solution with the big picture in mind, and tackle each item on that list as we go.”
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Always move forward. This startup thing is really, really hard. Harder than you think it could be. Maybe give yourself a day or two to process the inevitable collapse of some apparently critical aspect of your plan, or the impossibility of achieving anything given your current situation.
But even with the daunting weight of it all, get up. Meet with people. Have a coffee. Get some exercise. Work on some other part of the project. Get some rest. And get up and do it again. Because somehow, as long as you keep trying and keep moving forward and keep talking to people, you will find a way to overcome whatever insane obstacle is in front of you this time. And if you can do it this time, you can do it next time. And every time after that. Worst case? You build character. Best case? You build something amazing out of nothing but an idea. Every freaking day.”