Career Advice

Tech Startup Founder: “You Just Have To Go For It”

These days, there’s an app or a website for everything. Brooke McIntyre is using the web to bring together writers looking to help each other improve their work and unleash their creativity. She may not have a tech background, but she’s using a relatively new medium to update a century’s old process.

What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How long have you been doing this job?
I am the founder and only employee of the tech startup Inked Voices. It’s a site that helps writers find, form and run writing groups online. The groups on the site work like real-world writing groups – people submit fiction pieces, get critiques from their fellow writers so they can improve their writing, and share general advice about the writing world. I’ve been working on the site full-time since October.

How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail?
There are basically three parts to my job – product development, sales, and customer service. Product development is the actual creation of the site. I’m not a web developer at all, but the site is based on my designs and my ideas. I start by sketching them out on paper and taking a picture with my phone, which I send to a designer who creates the look and feel of the site. I work closely with a backend developer, who creates the actual structure and code that makes the site work. I have to think about the features I want the site to have, both right now and in the future, and let the backend developers know so that they can build a structure that works for what the site does now and where I see it going. We work in iterations—they’re sort of like the drafts that writers use—and I make sure that the finished product matches up with my ideas and the feedback I’m getting from writers.

I was surprised to learn that a large part of my work would be in sales, even during the beta phase, when the site is open to a limited group of users. I need writers who are willing to use the site and give it a try and provide feedback. It’s been a lot harder than I expected it to be – I’ve been reaching out to any writer’s organization or group I can find. And once beta writers are using the site, I’m responsible for customer service. I answer their questions, ask them what’s working and what’s not, and help new writers find groups where they can read and critique the work of people writing in similar genres and aiming for similar goals.

What was your journey to doing this kind of work? How did you get here?
I went to business school at University of Michigan a few years back with the intention of forming a nonprofit, but on graduation, I decided to take a job working for a business-to-business company doing marketing and branding. I enjoyed my work, but when I had my second child, my work-life trade-off became more important to me. I decided that I wanted to spend time doing something that I was more passionate about, and for me that was writing. I started by taking some writing classes, focusing on children’s book writing, which is something I’d always dreamed of doing, and ended up forming a critique group with some people in my class. Our group used email and Google Drive to run our online group. While it worked OK, I immediately started seeing opportunities for improvement. Our system lacked structure and had to be constantly managed. I also wanted us to have our own private, shared space for critique and discussion. I saw an opportunity to create a place and a system for small groups like mine.

In creating Inked Voices, it was very important to me to give writers a way to find their own writing groups. I was really fortunate to form a great group through my online class, but not everyone has that opportunity. Tech tools won’t help you if you can’t find anyone to partner up with.

In some ways, it wasn’t just one thing that led me to start Inked Voices, it was everything – my business background, my experience in the critique group, my love for working in teams. I knew I wanted to do something with meaning and do something entrepreneurial, so I decided to put all that together and give it a go.

What is your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you?
Being a woman had more of an impact before becoming an entrepreneur. I used to be 1 of only 3 women on a 10-person management team, and I often felt left out of the club when it came to networking. Today, I’m still sometimes the only woman in the co-working space I share, but it feels different. I think it’s probably because I’m working more independently now and not working for someone.

I think age has been a larger barrier for me to overcome. I’ve always looked young and it used to be hard to get people to take me seriously. In my mind, I thought I couldn’t do something meaningful with my career until I was at least 30, and it was reinforced by what was said by everyone around me. Of course, now, working in the technology space, I’m surrounded by younger people all the time. It’s kind of ironic that I waited to be older to try to make an impact and now I’m old for my field. I let people put up barriers for me, and they were mostly artificial. I definitely could have “leaned in” more and negotiated harder at times for what I wanted.

Do you love what you do? Do you think you’ve found the right path?
Yes, because I think that stories are magical and words are like music. I remember myself as a child, devouring books and getting lost in characters and learning so much by reading. And now I get to work on the other side of things with people who are creating those stories. Not everyone who uses Inked Voices is a creative writer, but a large number are. I get to help people who are telling stories and using their imagination and creating things for all of us. When I see people enjoying their writing and getting good feedback, it makes me happy. Self-expression is so important.

What do you need to succeed in this field?
You need tenacity, along with real desire and commitment to create something that’s actually going to work. For someone like me, who doesn’t have a tech background, you also have to trust people. I’ve had to find people to work with who are comfortable with someone who isn’t as tech-savvy as they are and who I believe will be able to translate my ideas into code. I’m not going to be able to sit down and code with them and we both have to be okay with that.

What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?
Don’t wait. If you want something, start doing it. Nobody’s going to hand it to you. Start volunteering, do a project, take on the kind of work that you want to do. Don’t hope that someone is going to a chance on you or shine a light on your talent. Shine a light on yourself and take the chance. You just have to go for it. I wish someone had said that to me when I was starting out.

What kind of challenges do you face?
This is a new space for me and it’s a steep learning curve. I’m learning about writing as an industry. I’m learning about technology and the software development process. And while some of what I do is similar to my past experience, I’m working on a service that is for consumers, which is different than working directly with businesses. So I am in constant listening and learning mode.

The hardest part is probably the selling component—I have new respect for people with careers in sales. Sometimes people are enormously helpful with their feedback, advice or time and other times the door is slammed in my face. As with any industry, there are gatekeepers. So I’ve had to be very scrappy from the very beginning.

On a personal note, there’s also a financial challenge. It’s one thing to take on the risk of starting a business when you don’t have kids or you have a partner who can pay all of the bills, but that isn’t my situation. Right now, we’re using one income and our savings to fund the site’s design and development costs and our living expenses here in New York City. My husband especially has been so supportive of me taking this leap and I don’t want to waste this opportunity. So I’m working hard and trying to either succeed or fail quickly.

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?
I want to keep developing the site, and eventually I’d like to build a version of it that would work in the education sector, helping teachers form and run writing groups in their classrooms. There is a huge tie between literacy and writing, and I’d like to give educators the tools to help teach writing as a life skill.