Stamford Woman Writing Her Own Success Story
Sometimes it helps to be a psychologist, accountant, negotiator, philosopher, sales-person, and mind reader all rolled into one when you’re running a company. Business entrepreneur Antoinette Allocca (President of Essential Data) figures she’s used all those skills, plus enthusiasm and spirituality. She used these skills to help turn her technical writing company into the country’s fastest-growing women-owned firm in 1998. Her Stamford firm, Essential Data, supplies technical writers to help companies rewrite software instructions, computer manuals, training documents, and other complex material.
Essential Data cracked the list of 101 Best Connecticut Professional Services Companies and Startups according to Best Startup.
She accomplished all this while giving birth to and raising four children, whose antics and accomplishments pepper her conversation. Allocca’s eyes light up and she gestures excitedly while talking about her children. She is an excellent model for what it takes to lead a women-owned firm.
Essential Data’s Philosophy
In fact, Allocca easily switches from talking about business to sharing her philosophy about life. “You have to have passion” to make sure visitors aren’t hungry. (“There’s food on the table; help yourself.”)
Visitors might even see the children in the office. This is because Allocca wants visitors to understand what mommy and daddy do for a living. Her husband, Mark Greenspan, is the chief financial officer. She wants to be a model for her daughters for what a women-owned business can look like.
Allocca said determination; hard work and an ability to relate well to people helped hitch her fortune to the technology explosion and subsequent demand for technical writers, eventually launching one of the most successful women-owned businesses in this field.
The field is growing rapidly, agreed the project manager for a competitor, SOS Technology Corp. in New Jersey. The 13-year-old company does recruitment, placement, and regular hiring of technical writers for clients, including Lucent Technologies and AT&T Corp, said Paul Romano.
“The biggest demand for technical writers is more in the networking arena and for data networking,” he said.
An Idea Emerges
Allocca said she saw the field’s potential nearly 20 years ago. It was a long haul from there to here. She broke into the business by starting a technical writing department for Vital Computer Services in 1980 shortly after college.
She left that company in 1988 and launched Essential Data in a 200-square-foot cubbyhole. Her husband joined her within the first year.
Aggressive and creative marketing and staff recruitment are what put Essential Data on the map, she said. Allocca knew she needed top sales talent to expand the business, but how do you hire good salespeople without breaking the bank?
Allocca looked for candidates with passion and people skills rather than youth or industry experience. That meant rejecting corporate stereotypes about older workers being rigid, unimaginative, and slower than younger peers.
If sales employees were willing to give her a chance, she said, she was willing to give them chances to earn six-figure incomes.
“You hire them low and give them a big commission for productivity,” was her answer, adding that her commission rate is about four times her competitors.’
Her sales associates earn $100,00, $200,00, $300,000, and more a year. Technical writers are earning $55 to $65 an hour, although experienced ones in specialized fields can earn $80 an hour and up – meaning they can easily crack $100,000 a year, she said.
Allocca’s unorthodox approach to her women-owned business means relaxed dress codes and she encourages employees to take mini vacations and mental breaks rather than wait months.
But don’t expect an easy haul, she said.
“IF people aren’t in here before 8 a.m. or go home before 6 p.m., I say they might as well forget it,” she said of the sales staff.
She also requires salespeople to manage and oversee the technical writers that clients use. This requirement keeps Essential Data more in touch with client needs and problems.
Staff of Essential Data
Client and P.E. Corp. employee Nancy Ryba said she’s impressed with the caliber of Essential Data’s sales staff and technical writers. They have helped P.E. with Y2K compliance work.
“They jumped into the middle of a project, took control, and really helped us out,” said Ryba, who is the technical writing manager and software quality assurance manager of Norwalk-based P.E. Corp., formerly known as Perkin-Elmer Corp.
Ryba praised Essential Data sales associate Sheila Klatzky, who was one of those non-traditional workers that Allocca hired.
A former professor at the University of Wisconsin, 50s- something Klatzky had also been in mortgage sales for 15 years and helped direct sales marketing for an institutional pharmacy.
The long-time single parent had lost her home to the cost of divorce and needed a helping hand, but not a handout, Allocca said. At the time, the office was little more than a hole in the wall, Klatzky recalled, but something was appealing about it and Allocca.
“I felt like I belonged here in my mind’s eye,” Klatzky said, adding that Allocca was honest about the pros and cons of the job.
“I had trust in her; she didn’t oversell the job,” Klatzky said.
Newly minted technical writer John Shea is happy with his new occupation and liked Allocca’s style, too.
The former computer programmer said the long hours and repetitive nature of the business were burning him out.
He makes about $60 an hour, which he said is equivalent to what he was earning as a programmer without the mandatory unpaid overtime of his previous career. Shea, 43, said he also gets to see his wife and children, who are 2, 4 and 6 years old.
“I got tired of saying goodnight to them over the phone,” he said.
Allocca said she also welcomes the flexibility owning her own business provides. Yes, there is a lot of grunt work, she said, but “I have the time when I need it for the children.”
Planning for birthday parties and school events has to be balanced with business needs, she said. It’s hectic but exciting.
“Olivia is 2, Joey starts kindergarten next year, Judy is 9 in June and Simone is 10,” she said with a smile of accomplishment.
It Hasn’t All Been Easy
STAMFORD – forget potholes and bumps – the road to the top for business owner Antoinette Allocca was paved with some dead-ends, washouts, and hairpin turns. The road to being a successful women-owned business was not easy.
Although she’s thrilled that her Essential Data technical writing firm was the fastest-growing women-owned company in the country last year, her career climb was not so speedy.
A marketing major from Hofstra University, Allocca went to work in sales for Burlington Industries in early 1980.
“I hated it,” she said. She answered an advertisement for Vital Computer Services later that year, despite poor grades in computer courses. The company was small, but the growth potential intrigued her.
By developing a pool of technical writers for Wall Street firms and expanding the client base, she helped boost the women-owned company’s sales from $1 million to $8 million. She asked for a partnership in 1984 and the company verbally said yes.
Still, she was only making $250,000 after five years in the company. The partners were making $1 million a year. Meanwhile, she had bought a home in Stamford in 1986 with high mortgage payments.
“I was sunk. I was getting up at 5 a.m. in the morning, but I was totally dead-ended,” she said of her career there.
And when the stock market crashed in 1987, sales fell and her commission income consequently fell. The company did not honor the partnership promise, so she left in 1988 to form Essential Data.
Husband Mark Greenspan joined her later that year and her first child, Simone was born in January 1989.
When Simone was six months old, her husband cashed in his Individual Retirement Account.
The recession battered the company and the stress took its toll on Allocca. She developed Epstein-Barr syndrome in mid-1991.
“I really couldn’t get out of bed,” she said. “Money was tight.”
The Path to Success
Finally, they won a major contract as a dark horse with Colgate-Palmolive. Things began to turn around.
Allocca remembered those wonderful words her husband uttered while checking the books.
“There is no turning back now; we’ve made it.”
Traditional hiring methods for salespeople did not work, but she turned to lessons she learned in a course she had taken at the Women’s Business Development Center in Stamford. This course would lead her to lead a very successful women-owned firm of her own.
It was too risky to hire big-hitting salespeople at high salaries, she said. Due to this, she revamped the formula to low salary but high commissions.
She started them at $25,000 to $30,000, crammed them into a tiny room, and had them listen to her sales pitch. The successful ones saw their salaries rise to the six-figure level.
The office was so small. Employee Dick Haeffele had to get up from his desk when Allocca’s husband wanted to get his file cabinets.
Sales grew enough to allow a move to a 400-square-foot office. Eventually, the company ended up in a fairly spacious office on Church Street.
Whether you need a single technical writer for a brief project or a team of consultants to produce a complete line of documentation, the quality of our work is guaranteed for you. Our clients’ work closely with an Engagement Manager from one of our 30 local offices for the entire length of your project at no additional cost. Contact us at (800) 221-0093 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Published: June 1999
Tom Caruso | The Connecticut Post