Stark CEO Cat Noone on Accessibility, Design, and Leaving the World a Better Place

July 24, 2021

The Crunchbase “Female Founder Series,” is a series of stories, Q&As, and thought-leadership pieces from glass-ceiling-smashers who overcame the odds and are now leading successful companies.


Cat Noone is passionate about ensuring everyone can access the world’s latest innovations. That’s why Noone co-founded Stark and developed a suite of tools designed to help make widely used software products more accessible. 

In this Q&A, Noone shares more about her entrepreneurial journey, including the difficulties she faced showing the ROI of accessibility, her experience raising the company’s first funding round, and the resources she’s leveraged to succeed.

Cat Noone, co-founder and CEO of Stark

 

Q: When did you first realize you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

I don’t know if I ever wanted to specifically be an entrepreneur. Even now I don’t consider myself to be one. I view myself as someone who is discontent with leaving things as they are and not doing anything about them despite that change being within my means and skill set.

When I entered the tech industry I quickly learned that there’s so much to fix here, and on a global scale, too. Spend enough time working on the right things and you realize how much of a role tech plays in the global GDP, and that it’s very much so a “one hand washes the other, two hands wash the face” situation.

The digital tools we use on a daily basis are a (literal) product of our environment, and the idea that I could play a role in reshaping the inequitable narrative that has been created for and by those tools was especially alluring to me. At my core, I wanted to explore how we can disrupt these dated systems with the tools that we create to ensure everyone can always access the world’s latest innovations. I wanted to do my role in leaving the world a little better than I found it and hopefully making a small dent. If that gets labeled as an entrepreneur, then okay, I guess I am? I don’t particularly care about what you label me honestly. I just hope when all is said and done it sheds light on the way we changed the industry and world.

Q: What problems are you solving with Stark (and for whom)?

The most immediate problem Stark solves is for product (design and development) teams and wider organizations striving to create accessible, compliant, and inclusive digital products. Our tools integrate with the software they use to plan, build, and test products, and automatically bake accessibility into every stage. The short of it is: by optimizing these processes for teams, they ensure they’re building in an efficient way (for their optimized workflow and their customers’ ability to have a usable product). Beyond the ethical responsibility, we’re also helping to reduce costs and legal risks for companies, optimizing their workflow, and opening up the funnel to more sales for them. 

That said, Stark ultimately solves problems for end-users: the people who face digital barriers at every turn. As humans, we’ve landed objects on the moon and have self-driving cars but we still haven’t standardized catering to people with diverse capabilities. It’s at the point where individuals with disabilities are much less likely to use technology. At Stark, we genuinely care about those people, and we want them to be part of the world’s latest innovations, not forced bystanders. So we set out to help teams understand how to achieve exactly that, and realized we were working in a green space with old players that was ripe for disruption.

Q: How have your experiences launching previous companies prepared you for your work with Stark?

My previous companies taught me how to take a lean approach to business, to be efficient in the way we work, and to build a minimum lovable product that people would rally behind and fall in love with. They helped me understand how to form hype machines, marketing strategies, and to build a team of incredible world-class humans that produce phenomenal work. However, Stark is my first time being a CEO and its social focus has thrown me into a much more mission-driven, political space. 

I’ve learned what the world looks like when you build a product that is opinionated and has soul. I’ve come to appreciate that when people love your product, there will inevitably be people who have an issue with it too—and if there isn’t, you’re not building a product and company that will make enough of an impact. 

It takes quite a bit to launch a quality product, and a whole lot to launch a company. But it’s another level to launch and scale a company with high intentionality. Stark has shown me that there’s a huge difference between creating a product and building an organization to scale. We might have the rocket ready, but anyone who knows rocket science knows that means we need a ton of fuel to get it off the ground. That takes a special formula to come together. I’m proud that we’re at that point.

Q: Why are you the right person to push the mission forward? What skills and characteristics made you realize your potential as a founder?

I think most founders would agree that there’s been a catalyst in their life that caused them to start their journey. Without diving too far into the rabbit hole, I was raised by grandparents and in that, I developed an awareness and soft spot early on for the people who often get forgotten in life; the ones who have big voices but aren’t always listened to. I also worked at the board of education with children with a spectrum of disabilities and came to realize that systems—not just products—can be designed. More importantly, I also realized that those same systems can be dismantled and iterated on. 

As I explored how to manifest my realizations into solutions, I had a lot of people tell me that I wouldn’t be able to. Rather than push forward just to prove them wrong, I doubled down on empathy, awareness and used that to research where accessibility does and should fit overall in the world becoming fast governed by technology. 

My catalysts gave me the necessary grit to commit to leaving the world a better place than I found it.

Q: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced with Stark?

Not many people have done what Stark has done. We’re a B2B company in the accessibility space that’s consumer-grade and community-driven—a bottom-up approach where everything has been a learning curve. We operate in a messy yet very green space that’s notoriously been owned by old players born in the dot com era, and we’ve had to simplify that landscape while providing the education around why the change is necessary as technology evolves and so too does the way we build for and understand it.

But showing the ROI of accessibility when accessibility has long been an afterthought (until recently) was difficult. We didn’t want to take a hardcore enterprise focus—accessibility is going to be ubiquitous—so we opted to take a community-driven, consumer-grade, and enterprise-ready approach. We give the community enough free tools that they naturally and eagerly convert. That model has allowed us to be a company with community-driven product development, to open up our top of funnel even more, to continually hire fantastic and world-class people, and to scale the company as a whole. 

Q: What’s your investment journey been like? What capital flows are you targeting?

We took a traditional venture-funded path. We’ve raised a single round to date, and made an intentional move in that initial round to first converse with angel investors who then connected us to our institutional investors. After that, we went on to raise $1.5 million total from some of the industry’s best. It was co-led by Darling Ventures and Indicator Ventures and incredible angels like Jason Warner, the CTO of Github, Kleiner Perkins’ Scout Fund, the product lead for accessibility at Atlassian, the director of equitable design and impact at Culture Amp, a director of design at DuckDuckGo, a former VP of software development at Oracle, and more. 

A big part of our investment journey has been working with people who really understand our B2B bottom-up approach, have built infrastructure at scale in some of the most prominent tech companies, who respect our mission, and who can look at accessibility from all angles and reverse engineer it. We’ve been intentional about the investors we’ve brought on board too, in fact, many of them have founded their own companies so they’re operators at their core. It’s been a really great mix of friend and friction—knuckling down to understand and build a solution to accessibility’s place in a growing world of technology, along with a storyline that makes clear to customers and future investors what exactly we’re doing and why it matters.

We’ve done so much after only a year of funding and I can’t imagine what’s in store for the next one. Well… I can, but it’s exciting to anticipate. 

Q: How have you leveraged the people and resources around you to succeed?

When I’m asked this question there are three things that stand out:

  1. Bringing on an executive coach for myself as the CEO
  2. Setting the team up for distributed lifting
  3. Tapping into the people, resources, and large slew of data that is our investors

I brought on an executive coach at the beginning of 2021 and discovered I was at the point of needing to “give away my lego blocks.” I realized I was no longer a designer of a team clearly onto something. I was now the CEO of a company supercharged by our first investment round and rapidly scaling the team and business. And quite frankly, I wanted to make sure I didn’t suck at it. To date, I’d argue hiring an exec coach will always be a top-three investment I made while building Stark.

While doing so I’ve also learned how to help set our team up for distributed lifting. I realized at one point that it’s super hard to go from the highest altitude (like top-level strategizing) to a more narrow vertical like designing and code, and still be productive or helpful. Doing so was completely taking away from higher priority tasks that need to be done by me—which sit at higher levels of thinking. I was exhausted—removing so many of the healthy habit time design blocks I had set in place. You and I both know, if those aren’t there, it’s a one-way ticket to downfall.

Another important move I’ve made has been taking that big step back and simultaneously putting capable folks into roles where they had the opportunity to lead and succeed. When anyone first joins, they’re promised an extremely challenging, rewarding, and safe place to do (hopefully) the best work of their careers. It’s my job to launch them into that circle of success.

And with that, I’ve been equally diligent about bringing in people for the areas I’m not particularly… let’s say… a guru in. The way I see it, we’re experts hiring experts, and I’m not afraid to ask fellow experts for advice (or if they want to join the team)—be it team members or investors. Regular investor updates have been a fantastic way of tapping into their brains in alignment with whatever is a core focus and relevant for us that month at Stark. If you do it right and bring strategic folks on board, you’ll always have at least one person to turn to for anything in particular—be it introductions or conversations about infrastructure.

Q: Have you faced extra pressures leading a company with a social mission?

We’re definitely held to a higher standard, and we absolutely should be. I don’t want to be compared to the same benchmarks as companies that only focus on this “bro, just grow” behavior that sacrifices so much opportunity and potential for the company and shafting community. I don’t want to be apolitical. I want us to make products that people fall in love with and that scale in a way that allows for strategic growth.

We’ve established benchmarks for ourselves – and high ones – and we use that internal pressure to ensure that everything we ship supersedes that. Every time we finish a project, we’re forced to think “this was amazing, I’m proud, and now we have to one-up ourselves.” The experience is humbling and it keeps us honest. Admittedly, so does the community given how vocal and engaged we are. Even if we do something, say something, and we’re called out, people know that it’s done with good intent and that we’ll always put value before vanity. It’s all a part of the long game at the end of the day.

While people are playing checkers, we’re playing chess.

Q: What advice do you have for women founders building their own company?

At this point, it’s the usual and obvious ones you’d come to expect. Know that you’re going to work twice as hard, expect to be roadblocked and gaslit, and you will be doubted and questioned more for things that folks in the pale, male, Yale cohort never would be second-guessed on. Your t’s will need to be crossed and your math double-checked. Your strategy? You’re going to be told “no” again and again, but then you’ll be told “yes.” Every “no” is closer to a “yes”, and as cliche as it sounds, you have to keep going. At all touchpoints, keep going. And don’t let the struggles that come with every industry derail you from your mission, from what drives you and sets your soul on fire. 

There’s a community of women out there for you who are vocal and can offer support. Tap into your resources, find your people, and find out how they navigated things. At the same time, find the men that are your allies – they’re the ones who still have the leverage and will turn around on the ladder and haul you up. Make sure these people are a perfect symbiosis of “friction and friend” that help you knuckle down and achieve your goals. You don’t want to always be surrounded by “yes” people.

Likewise, use your resources to help fellow women. Offer your time, skills, network, and strength – you have more of it than you may realize just now.