Starting a successful technology company from scratch is difficult for any entrepreneur. Making that technology company so successful that is repeatedly named one of the fastest growing private companies in America is even more difficult.
Now, imagine accomplishing those things as a woman in what has traditionally been a male-dominated technology industry. That’s exactly what Kristi Alford-Haarberg, the President and CEO of E2 Optics, has accomplished since founding the company in 2010.
A leading technology integrator and provider of end-to-end technology solutions that has been named one of the “Inc. 5,000 Fastest-Growing Private Companies in America” for two years straight, E2 Optics has leveraged a winning corporate culture and consultative approach to sales to grow organically at an impressive rate.
The company, which is based in Colorado, but has a large presence in the National Capital region to service the area’s large data center presence, has been a textbook example of how a unique, consultative sales strategy can be a key growth factor and differentiator in a crowded marketplace. And Kristi is an incredible success story of a strong female executive overcoming the challenges of running a woman-owned business in an industry with an established, “Good Ole’ Boys” club.
We recently sat down with Kristi to talk about E2 Optics’ impressive growth, the differentiators that make the company stand out in the competitive technology integrator marketplace, and the challenges she has faced running and growing a woman-owned technology startup.
Here is what she told us:
Corporate Growth, Capital Style (CGCS): Kristi, can you tell our readers a bit about your professional background? What led you to want to create E2 Optics?
Kristi Alford-Haarberg: After graduating college, I started working in a sales position for a technology company. I worked for a cable manufacturing company that manufactured cable assemblies, cable harnesses, and other products. I didn’t intend to enter the technology industry, but I was lucky because it eventually grew to be one of the world’s largest, fastest-growing industries.
For much of my career, I’ve held business development and sales positions for large technology companies – including a role working for a Fortune 200 company where I gained a lot of experience and had a lot of professional success. I often found myself becoming the top salesperson at the companies for which I worked.
When the dot.com boom started, I was at the Kent Companies and was able to land a large customer – Level 3. This is where I started getting my feet wet in the services side. It was one of the first times that I was selling services and not just product. That is when I got my first experience with things like structured cabling, DC power, and installation. I really enjoyed that. I enjoyed the personal human element of services, and how it required that you craft and create a unique solution and experience for the customer.
“I felt that by building a company that shared my values…I would be bringing something new to the market that could grow and be successful.” -Kristi Alford-Haarberg
Following the dot.com crash, I took some time off to focus on family. I started to reflect on what I wanted to do next, and on what I had accomplished in my career to that point. Based on my previous experience, I was confident that I could start a successful company.
I felt that by building a company that shared my values – a company that was very customer focused, that tried to understand customer needs and requirements, and one that brought them tailored solutions which met their unique needs – I would be bringing something new to the market that could grow and be successful.
In 2010, I launched E2 Optics – a woman-owned business in a male dominated industry. I self-funded the business from day one and have since grown the business by focusing on what I could bring to the industry, not dwelling on the barriers that I have faced.
CGCS: Speaking of barriers and challenges, as a female entrepreneur in a relatively male dominated industry, were there any unique roadblocks that you faced?
Kristi Alford-Haarberg: I would say that there were several challenges that E2 Optics faced because it was a small, woman-owned company.
The first challenge we experienced was with financing. I was rejected at every turn from banking institutions because of my lack of entrepreneurial experience. This is a barrier to entry for many women-owned and minority-owned businesses – it can be very hard to get the funding and investment that you need to start and grow the business from traditional financial institutions.
As a small, entrepreneurial startup company, we also faced challenges within our industry and marketplace.
In the IT integration and structure cabling installation industries, there are specific manufacturers who make the materials that are essential for the work we do. As a small startup, I was often excluded from becoming a partner to many key manufacturers, which would preclude us from offering warranties to our early customers. It can take many years to become an “official partner” or “certified” by some of these large manufactures, but those certifications are essential to be a serious player in our marketplace.
“I always took those doubts and roadblocks as inspiration and used them as motivation to build the organization.” -Kristi Alford-Haarberg
Finally, I have been discriminated against and overlooked many times since I started the company. There is definitely a “Good ‘Ole Boys” club in the technology and IT integration industry. There have been many times where the company has been left out, where information hasn’t been shared, or when leads haven’t been shared, simply because we’re not in “the club.”
But I never used that as an excuse. I always took those doubts and roadblocks as inspiration and used them as motivation to build the organization.
CGCS: How did your experience starting E2 Optics shape the culture and values that you’ve worked to establish in the company?
Kristi Alford-Haarberg: The culture I’ve worked to instill in E2 Optics is a result of – and combination of – multiple different experiences from throughout my career.
When working to identify the culture I wanted to embrace within the company, I reflected on the leaders I worked with in my career as an employee. I thought about the leadership styles which worked best – the positive leadership styles that were the most motivating to the employees – and the negative leadership styles that were ineffective and had negative effects. I used those experiences to shape the culture and atmosphere that I wanted to create for E2 Optics.
“Our customers choose to work with E2 Optics because of our culture, values, and go-to-market strategy.” -Kristi Alford-Haarberg
I wanted that atmosphere to be very open, very caring, and very understanding. I wanted our employees to have work-life balance and to have time for their home lives and their families. I wanted to make E2 Optics a place where all employees were excited to get up and go to work every day.
CGCS: The company has branched out significantly since its founding and has grown tremendously – even being named one of the fastest-growing companies in America. To what do you attribute the company’s impressive growth?
Kristi Alford-Haarberg: Our customers choose to work with E2 Optics because of our culture, values, and go-to-market strategy. We’ve never approached business development and sales as transactional. We don’t respond to as many RFPs or submit as many proposals or bids as possible in an attempt to book as much business as possible. Instead, we have a much more consultative approach to how we work with prospects and customers.
E2 Optics wants to feel like a natural extension of our customers’ operations. We work hard to understand each individual customer and prospect. We take the time to understand their operations, their mission, and their requirements, and then work to craft a solution and service which meets their needs. We’re not a bidding machine that looks at each customer engagement as a transaction. We want to build long term relationships that deliver value to both parties well into the future.
This is why many of the world’s largest hyperscalers have worked with us since day one – and continue to work with us decades later. We understand their needs. We’re a trusted consultant and advisor, and an integral part of their business and operations.