SCHENECTADY — The unifying theme of Heidi Knoblauch’s widely varied academic and career pursuits has been critical thought.
“There’s nothing that will ever replace the time you think about things,” she told an appreciative audience Thursday at one of the monthly entrepreneurship luncheons sponsored by the New York BizLab and Clarkson University at the BizLab.
Knoblauch, 34, holds degrees in majors ranging from American Sign Language to history of science and medicine, culminating in a Yale doctorate in 2015. After several years working in academia, she opened the popular Plumb Oyster Bar in Troy in late 2016.
More recently, she founded Receipt HQ, a startup that offers a searchable electronic repository for the paper receipts restaurants must retain. She was named chair of the Troy Industrial Development Agency in January and is a board member on the Upstate Alliance for the Creative Economy.
“The transition from academia to entrepreneurship is actually a lot smoother than a lot of people would think,” Knoblauch said. “In academia you have to find your niche … that same type of thing you have to do as an entrepreneur as well. You have to take an evaluation of the landscape and find a way that you can contribute to the landscape.”
The entrepreneurs who fail are often the ones who haven’t performed that evaluation, she said.
This sort of curiosity and analysis extends beyond her business life: She got to Schenectady more than two hours before her noon presentation Thursday and walked around like a tourist because she hadn’t seen downtown in daylight for a while, visiting multiple coffee shops.
So how does someone with a doctorate in history and a resume full of academic jobs decide to be a restaurateur, and make it happen in just three months?
“The initial drive behind that was not at all rational,” she said. “I would actually call it irrational.”
She recalled her emotions when she first saw the Emma Willard campus as a teen and decided that she wanted to enroll there.
“Those moments in life when you have that overwhelming feeling … I don’t think I’m good at balancing that emotion, when I feel it, with reason. But I’m very very good at making sure that that emotional drive has reason behind it.”
She chose oysters because she fell in love with the woman who would become her wife over $1 oysters in Brooklyn. She chose Troy because there was only one place in Troy that served oysters, and it served them only one night a week, and it was much busier on that one night.
Emma Willard turned out to be a transformative experience, she recalled, and Plumb has been great as well — after a choppy start.
“I took a lean startup model to Plumb. I don’t have any investors. It was two loans and whatever money I had. And … it was an utter disaster!”
The tables she bought were too flimsy and the plates she chose were too slick and stylized for the slippery shellfish to be placed on them.
So Knoblauch reinvested early revenue in upgrades at the Plumb Oyster Bar. The operation now sells 600 to 700 oysters on a Saturday and has 25 employees.
Great accomplishments often start with an irrational belief that they can be achieved, she noted. “I’ve definitely failed at a lot of things, I just don’t know that they’ve been things I’ve been overconfident about,” she said.
Her next venture is Receipt HQ, which originated in the 14,000 paper receipts she generated in six early months of running Plumb. Credit card companies want restaurateurs to retain signed receipts for 18 months in case the charge is contested. Tips added to a credit card charge make the receipt a payroll record, which must be retained even longer.
“The worst part is sometimes you’ve got to find the receipts,” she said. “So Receipt HQ is just like, how do I solve this problem in my own business?”
Using a National Science Foundation grant, she traveled to popular tourist areas and asked restaurant operators how they archive their receipts. A remarkable number all had the same method: Stuff them in a No. 10 envelope and put them in a box.
Aside from the difficulty of searching through them, the boxes become a storage problem where space is limited, such as in an airport eatery, or in an expensive real estate market like New York city.
Clients mail their receipts to a scanning service that forwards an electronic copy to Receipt HQ for archiving. The company is developing data mining techniques that will show clients which tables and servers trend toward lower sales, as well.
Knoblauch said not having academic training in data management doesn’t stop her from solving data management problems.
“Academia teaches you how to structure knowledge,” she said. “So it could have been a PhD in anything. Academia teaches you how to think. And then you’ll see that Plumb Oyster bar is essentially, how do you apply systems in a very fast-paced environment? With Receipt HQ, it’s how do you solve a problem for yourself and other people?
“It’s really about developing systems. No one’s going to buy a business from you if you don’t have the systems to run it.”