Nicole Hamilton, Feel My Money, Woman Entrepreneur
Nicole reached out to me through Diedre Lord, another smart woman entrepreneur. I was intrigued with what Nicole was building, an online and mobile application that brings complete transparency and clarity to consumers in the mortgage process. Like most women, she was building out a platform based on her own personal circumstances as she went about getting a mortgage. The site is called Feel My Money.
Nicole grew up in the DC area going to Sidwell Friends for high school. Both of her parents are in academics teaching English literature at University of Maryland. Nicole laughs when she says they still edit her press releases. Her Mom is a Shakespeare scholar and her father is a Milton scholar. Her mother continues to teaches at University of Maryland managing at $30m budget in her department and her father is now retired.
Nicole wanted to leave the east coast for college and go somewhere small. She went to Pitzer where she got a degree in psych-biology which is a precursor to neuroscience. During her junior year she spent 5 months in a total immersion program in Nepal. It was a Peace Corp type program learning Napalenese. She lived with a family while she was there hearing all their Hindu stories each night.
After graduating she followed a boy to NYC. Her parents assumed she would go to graduate school in neuroscience. Instead Nicole took a paid job at Columbia University working in the neuroscience department of Eric Kandel, Nobel Prize winner, to study neuro-cell generation. It was the early 90's. She also worked in the illegal drugs lab studying the effects of marijuana and cocaine on live subjects. She'd get her friends to come in and be the monitors of the project. She stayed for a year.
Nicole moved on taking another job at the University of Pennsylvania to look at fetal cell implants. It was there that she realized how political academia is. You have to publish results and decided that the world of academia was not for her. She took a job with Schick Technologies that had licensed an active pixel sensor from the laboratories out of Cal Tech. That is when they started developing digital imaging instead of film for the medical community. It was an amazing experience. Nicole considered that her 3 years there was her business school.
She began there working on a patent litigation suit against a French company. She became the main liaison with the patent office which worked directly with Merck pharmaceutial because they backed the development of the image processing. Through this she learned how corporations develop diagnostic tools to sell to the public. She managed the clinical trials and worked directly with the President of the company and the engineering department. Nicole eventually became the head of Womens Health Imaging and the first thing they looked at was an osteoporosis imaging detection system. The system would look at how the hand would correlate with the hip. The first machine was $11K for a doctors office. It was the first of its kind. Totally cutting edge stuff.
Then they began to look into momographies. Digital has a tiny percentage of radiation compared to using film. They presented the new technology to the FDA . Through that process she learned about quality control issues, selling the product, private placement etc. An incredible experience. The really interesting piece is that at the time Kodak was still only using film. Digital cameras were in the process of being developed. It is one of those moments she thinks back about now as she starts her own business. Kodak knew that they were replacing medical films with digital yet they decided to ignore it making them super late to the game.
Nicoles next journey was taking a job with the Warshaw Group. She had no other corporate experience and it was the beginnings of the dot com hey days. Warshaw made software for the Newton device to do critical data collection of the first electronic medical records. Most of their customers were engineers. She stayed one year.
Next move. Nicole landed a job as the product manager at Gateway for wireless applications. This was when the internet was just starting to be on the phone. It was already in Europe and Asia but not yet in the US. She learned about micropayments as it was a totally different industry. She had to learn the phone systems and telecom companies of each country. This was the beginning of apps on the phone too. They built a personal information management system which is essentially a contact manager. They looked at what type of apps would businesses wants to use. They got acquired in 2000. The company that bought them died a few years later.
Nicole returned to the Warshaw Group because the partners had split up and the company was going in a new direction. She now had all this experience from the telecom industry that could be applied to protocols such as the Palm and Blackberry. Slowly they began to see real adoption through the mobile workforce. There began a trajectory of mobile products. Nicole was overseeing Biz Dev, road maps and corporate development. She started to not only thinking about having her own company she started to think about having kids. She got pregnant and had her first son in 2004 and with that she only did some part time work for Warshaw on the side while she figured out her next thing.
Nicole began doing some development consulting. She got a partner who designed and fabricated business products from medical devices to furniture. It was through having her own business that she learned she could sell. The first product she sold from her company was her proudest moment. It was a check for only $2500 but she realized she could convince someone to pay her for her time and that was empowering. She did this for a few years before the recession hit, it was 2007. Too many of her customers went out of business. Her husband was an architect and his business was hit hard too. She realized she had to go back and get a real job to make some money for the family.
Nicole returned to Warshaw in 2008 as the managing director of mobile software. She applied everything she knew to this job and doubled it in tough economic times. She hired all the people, built the business and ran the division. She realized she was really good at getting from point A to point B. With all those roles and responsibilities she knew she could create her own company instead of working for someone else or just doing consultant work as she did before. She had confidence that she did not have before and she could once again afford to start her own thing. In the meantime, she had another child.
Nicole and her husband decided to buy a house in Columbia County. They figured based on their own experiences they could easily build a house. They bought land, began and then the reality set in. They had children, it wasn't easy to get up there and their jobs were not suitable for spending long stretches of time in Columbia County. They decided they needed to sell the house and they couldn't. The good news is that they did not put a lot of money into the house but money was tight. They had to refinance the house in order to stay afloat. Trying to figure out principle payments vs refinancing or selling was beyond frustrating. Nicole made spread sheets of Excel to figure out the problem. That is what she would do at work too. They would help their clients collect lots of data to analyze and visualize but it wasn't so easy to do when it came to financing a mortgage. She began to wonder if other people were having so much trouble getting transparency. That is when the idea began to form for Feel My Money.
It was two years of thinking about this and building out the business at night before she quit her job. She educated herself about the industry particularly figuring out how the revenue was going to work. When she was comfortable she jumped in full force. She found a UX developer in the financial industry to join her. She found a CTO who had worked in a mortgage company. She found an expert who had been in the mortgage industry for 25 years. Their software allows people to really understand their own personal mortgages and the decisions that they are going to make over time. Taking out a mortgage is a long term commitment and through out the life of that mortgage you might sell your house, refinance or rent and people need scenario planning. That planning could save individuals tens of thousands of dollars.
She has had a great reaction from mortgage brokers too as they can help their clients easily understand the process and the truth is it helps the brokers see a clearer picture as well. Once again a woman builds a company where she finds a void in her own life experience. Nicole is a very smart methodical woman and her career history in medical labs to telecommunications gives her the experience to be a confident smart entrepreneur.