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The Birth of GovDocs

Zach Stabenow is the CEO and Co-Founder of GovDocs. We had the opportunity to connect with  Zach about his entrepreneurial journey starting GovDocs and GovDelivery.  His story of success and thoughts on what is important are an inspiration for anyone taking the steps to make their dream happen.

How did your entrepreneurial journey begin?
It started in a studio basement apartment in the City of St. Paul with a small desk, one Dell computer with a dial-up modem and a futon for a bed.  I was fresh out of the University of Minnesota having been in the work force (tech industry) for only two years, when the entrepreneurial bug bit me.  My mother was a school teacher turned entrepreneur who started and ran a small business during my childhood and her father had a number of entrepreneurial ventures in North St. Paul so it was probably inevitable that I would have a passion for starting my own business just based on hereditariness.  So in June of 1999, I co-founded two companies; GovDocs and GovDelivery with a close friend, Scott Burns, as my business partner.

What are your current projects and or business ventures you are working on?
I currently own and run GovDocs, which is now independent from GovDelivery. GovDocs employs 50 people and growing who have a passion for providing employment law management software, data, and print solutions to the largest companies in North America.

What are the most important things to consider when starting a new idea / venture or start up?
Focus first on addressing a small niche market that is being under served.  Then, go serve that tiny market better than anyone else in the world for years, or even a decade.  It is incredibly tempting for entrepreneurs to build a business that serves a mass market right out of start-up phase because of the attractiveness of scale, but what I’ve learned is that your business first must prove that it can be #1 or #2 at something on a smaller level before it can advance to serving a mass market.

What resources did you use when starting your journey?
Books.  I read a lot of business books and trade publications before starting my entrepreneurial journey.  The most useful books that contributed to my business learning though were the historical biographies and auto-biographies of entrepreneurs who shaped our country’s history through business.  Ironically, one of those important biographies, was The Life of James J. Hill by Joseph Pyle and I also studied Highways of Progress written by Hill himself.  I have found that the most valuable business lessons come from reading and learning from those who have come long before us who are able to offer their life-time perspective of experience, rather than a recent business fad or technique.

How did you leverage the resources at the Hill Center?
Several years ago, I decided to examine GovDocs’ potential for additional strategic expansion from our core product offering.  To know whether my market hunch had any validity, I needed more empircal data.  A business acquaintance had suggested I use James J. Hill Center’s research library databases to gather data profiles on the largest companies in the U.S. so that I could analyze their geographical locations and other attributes.  That data and analysis turned-out to be crucial to convincing me and our leadership team to pursue our next strategic expansion opportunity.  Today, we still refer to that data when analyzing how well we are capturing market share.

What or who has made the biggest impact on your entrepreneurial career so far?
My mother.  If she hadn’t made the entrepreneurial leap herself, I wouldn’t have had the front-row seat to see what real guts and determination it takes to risk personal failure and money and to push through all the adversity required to start and grow a business. What has been the largest hurdle and / or success you have experienced as an entrepreneur?

Getting the very first customer (or set of customers) to purchase and use our products/services has always been the biggest hurdle when entering new markets.

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs just getting out of gate?
Research the market you’re about to live in.  You can have a huge competitive advantage if you put effort and time in to this step.

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs that are stuck or have had their first failure?
Immediately perform physical movement on activities that will inch your business forward.  Make another phone call, write another email, design another prototype, interview a prospective customer… do anything that gets you physically moving and the business forward.  This helps bring your mental determination back and it gets one more item done for the business. Then repeat that 10,000 more times.

What is it about Minnesota and the entrepreneurial ecosystem and how has it managed to keep you here?Two key reasons:

  1. Minnesota has a long and consistent history of incubating some of the most successful entrepreneurs and businesses in the world.  That history and tradition motivates me.
  2. Minnesota weather and mosquito’s make for a hardy work force to hire from and build great teams. Whether you grew up here or were a transplant, to endure -15 temperatures, snow and mosquito bites year in and year out will turn almost anyone into a consistently hard-working team member. You can’t get that Silicon Valley.

The James J. Hill Center mission honors the legacy of its founder by continuing to support entrepreneurial spirit in the 21st Century. We offer researchprograms, and networking for each stage of business development. Our efforts also include services to the broader community through the hosting of cultural and artistic programming and events.  Visit us in downtown Saint Paul at 80 West Fourth Street, off the corner of Market and Fourth.  

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