By Roxanne Szal, California Business Journal.
Every few months, starting at 5 years old, Erica Solis would pull everything out of her bedroom closet and drawers — every mismatched sock, paper clip and pair of shorts. She’d then carefully place each back, one by one, adapting the best organizational structure suited for her lifestyle at that time.
Today, that’s what she does with startups. Solis has worked in startups her whole career. Through the expansion of funding, teams, revenue, development, culture or all of the above, she’s served as a rising tide for every venture.
Solis started at a homebuilder, New Home, in Aliso Viejo, where she was the youngest person in the company by 10 years. She began as an executive assistant — but was soon overseeing project management and human resources.
In the startup world, there is a lot of ground to cover, and Solis made it clear she was willing to step up, eventually taking on an even larger bulk of tasks, from marketing to hiring 150 new people and implementing standardized procedures. And so, despite her youth, Solis quickly gained the trust of her higher-ups with her can-do attitude.
Solis describes New Home as the most evolved startup she’s worked for. In fact, only five years after its founding, the company went public. Solis is tough, but humble, so she’d never explicitly admit it — but there’s no doubt her work on company culture, awareness-building and efficiency helped shape New Home into something successful and desirable enough to go public.
Solis and her father Eric tag-teamed her next project: MovoCash, an e-wallet app. In contrast with the home-building startup, getting MovoCash off the ground was “hard, messy and gritty,” Solis says. “It was a dirty, early-stage idea. We had to think: How are we going to implement this? How will we get the partners? The people we need to make this a reality? So we hustled. And we had days where all we could say was, ‘Well, we tried.’ Then some glimmer of hope would come.”
With a penchant for process and procedure, Solis started by securing MovoCash’s payment processes then tackled compliance. Soon, the father-daughter duo began meeting with venture capitalists and angel investors. And while New Home and MovoCash were miles apart in terms of resources and development, Solis again assumed a similar role: all of them.
“When you’re in startups, you’re a commando. You do everything from take out the trash to meet with HP executives – even the same day,” Solis says with a laugh.
Once she got MovoCash up and running (the app’s available in the mobile app store), Solis joined a new startup: the Desert Clinic Pain Institute, a small chain of pain management clinics throughout SoCal. This role awoke her “passion for healthcare.”
“There were only three of us,” she explains, “but I loved it. Chronic pain patients are a complex base. I had never thought about pain in the way I did for that company. Pain is universal — we can all relate to it. It opened my eyes and my heart.”
In a little over a year, Solis helped grow the company from 10 employees to over 130 employees, and expanded the brand from two to eight clinics and from $1 million in revenue to over $10 million.
Desert Clinic Pain awoke something else in Solis: her desire for a purpose-driven life.
“I loved knowing that my contribution was helping these people,” she says — which is why, once her two-year stint at the clinics was up and Solis ventured out on her own, she stayed in healthcare, founding Poppy Life Care, a nonprofit for families living with children’s health issues like autism, ADHD, anxiety and depression.
Today, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting almost 1 in 5 people. In fact, Poppy was formed by Solis’s personal and professional experience, specifically her own anxiety and depression.
“This topic is very close to my heart,” she says. “It’s a sensitive topic and uncomfortable. It’s personal. It’s vulnerable. But it must be discussed. We need to take the blinders off.”
Poppy Life Care is trend-setting in the mental healthcare industry with its interdisciplinary, integrative treatment model — a treat-the-whole-person (and their family) approach.
With a wide range of startup experience, from fledgling ideas to public companies, we picked Solis’ brain: When trying to get a business off the ground, where should one start? Her answer: Focus on corporate culture.
While at New Home, Solis was given a large amount of responsibility … but also a lot of leeway. She realized the importance of positive company culture and creating one built on trust — rather than micromanaging. This focus on healthy culture and ferreting-out of micromanagement is a tenet of business philosophy Solis brings to every startup she’s coached and managed since.
“I go in and determine: How are companies taking care of their people?” she says. “Are people in the right roles? Are they being empowered to do their jobs? Do they have the autonomy to be creative? Or is there a lot of micromanagement? That can stifle productivity and bottleneck efficiencies and growth.”
And that culture starts at the top: with the CEO. Solis’ calm, warm approach encourages trust between her and executives. She then utilizes this level of comfort to push them a bit, to encourage them to do some self-reflection — for the good of the company.
“Some CEOs say an organization doesn’t have a personality. But I disagree — they do,” she explains, “and frankly, the personality comes from the people at the top. Specifically, the CEO. It’s my job to challenge them to do some self-reflection and focus on that personal growth. Because it affects their entire organization.”
Relating to culture is the idea of standardization, structure and processes. “Creating a structure so that you can scale is so important,” she says. “When you’re a startup, you have to be agile, to be able to pivot. For this reason, in the beginning, often a flat structure is the best way to go. But when you get to a point, flat no longer works. It becomes inefficient.”
The most challenging part, Solis says, is that a company’s structural needs are constantly evolving. Part of her job, then, is to assess how they can revisit structure and continue to improve, change and grow.
In addition to founding and running Poppy Life Care, Solis is a partner at MC & Sol Properties and manages an Airbnb listing. Her constant quest for efficiency through systems, process and procedure is what Solis attributes to her personal success, too, and her ability to multitask.
“We all have to go easier on our brains,” she says. “So I use technology to make my life easier and increase my productivity. I can streamline a lot so it doesn’t take as much from me. That way, I maintain my energy and productivity. Otherwise, I might be going in a million directions, yet get nothing done.”
And Solis advises clients and companies do the same: Streamline and templatize to save energy, time and money. “Technology provides structure and efficiency,” she says. “Are they managing everything through a spreadsheet? Because then, something as simple as a hiring system can make life a whole lot easier.”
When Solis was younger, she was not just painstakingly organized with her bedroom items — but also dramatically empathetic, devoted to the relief of others’ pain. Perhaps, not surprisingly then, a majority of her purpose-driven professional career has operated in the same vein.
Her final words to readers: “Make sure you have purpose in your life and you are investing in things that give you life. Invest in people or organizations that are different, treat people well and have true care and passion. Those are the organizations and people that can make great and significant impact.”
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