Lead(H)er: Kristen Tyrrell, Chief Operating Officer at Catch
Kristen Tyrrell is trying to invent things that don’t destroy the world.
“I have always worked with companies whose mission I agreed with and aligned with,” she said. “It almost sounds silly to say, but I think think it is a bit of a shift from how the Boomers and Gen X entered the workforce and what they thought the purpose of a job was. I think more and more people are looking at our role and responsibility in society and the types of things that we build.”
As the COO of Catch, she’s working to build a platform that helps freelancers and contract workers manage finances, save for retirement, get insurance, and more.
The startup is in the very early stages of collecting beta users and is about to enter its first major round of fundraising. At this stage in the Catch journey, Tyrrell is focused not only on making sure that those funds arrive, but on keeping up what she calls activation energy.
“The amount of activation energy that it takes to get that first user can be exhausting,” she said. “Personally, I find that to create something of value that hadn’t existed before is something that very few people actually get to experience. I think that early stage startups give you insight into what it must be like to be an inventor.”
Before joining Catch, though, Tyrrell had to do a little bit of reinvention on herself. She entered her freshman year at Pepperdine University determined to be a lawyer and chose to major in math in part because it was one of the only subjects that didn’t come easily to her. Though she considered dropping it for something more manageable, she chose to stick with the major. An admissions officer at Yale’s law school had told her that a math major would show she could think logically, and a college advisor encouraged her to stick with it and see what happened. Not only did she keep the major, but she also added a second one in economics.
“It showed me, yes, you can struggle. I probably would have had a higher GPA if I had changed majors my freshman year but I really appreciate the value of sticking with it.”
What she didn’t keep, though, was the dream of law school. Tyrrell soon realized that law was less about logic and more about researching obscure facts and other information, a process that didn’t appeal to her at all. When she graduated, she instead enrolled in a one-year master’s degree program in international business. The program began in London and ended in Shanghai, allowing her to travel the world at a time when the economy was struggling - not a bad idea for a 22-year-old, she said.
The math and economics degrees provided her with a strong foundation in logic and analytics that helped her confidently complete the program. With the economy still barely on the upswing, she took the only job offer she had and began interning at IXL Center, a consulting firm in Boston that eventually brought her on full-time. After three years of creating PowerPoints for Fortune 500 companies, though, she realized that she had gotten all she could out of the experience and left for Commonwealth, a socially-focused and not-for-profit fintech company.
“I feel really lucky that I got involved in fintech in a place that was designed to help people,” she said. “It was consumer driven and about how do we use finance to stabilize people’s lives? How do we help people be empowered with the tools and the capabilities they need? It was such a research-based organization that they did that in a way that was not patronizing, that was really designed to understand users.”
The experience at Commonwealth helped her look at customers and clients differently, a major asset at Catch. With such a diverse market to serve, Tyrrell and her coworkers at Catch constantly work on asking users what they need instead of making assumptions. What they need, for now, is an easy way to manage all of the financial matters that freelancers and contractors have to deal with on a daily basis. When a major life event happens, and it’s time to update tax withholdings or purchase additional insurance, Catch is designed to make the process easier and suggest helpful services, like life insurance after the birth of a new baby.
“There’s such a need to make all of these unpleasant things easier to manage easier to understand and put them all in one place to make things organized,” Tyrrell said. “There are all these things you need to do at a time when you’re not sleeping and probably very stressed out about life in general, and there’s not an easy way to do that. We think that’s a huge opportunity that some of the other players are missing because they’re so focused on selling life insurance or opening your 401k, and that’s not how people live their life.”
Tyrrell’s immediate goals involve doing everything she can to make Catch successful, allow it to grow, and ultimately impact the lives of people who need resources like these. She’s mainly focused on expanding the company before competitors in this space can take up market share and is attending meetings in San Francisco with Catch’s CEO to get funding. And while the next stage of Catch’s development is exciting, there’s something about early-stage startups will always have Tyrrell’s heart.
“I think there is always that part of me that will be very attracted to new solutions, new ways of doing things, ways to add value that other people haven’t previously been able to do,” she said.
Rapid Fire Questions
What do you like to do in your free time?
I hope you can capture that laughter with my answer! Honestly, I like good food and good wine. I think Boston has a fascinating food scene, and I am excited when new restaurants open, and I get an opportunity to go to brunch at a place that I didn’t know did brunch or something. It’s also regularly contained, which is nice because I don’t have a lot of time for things like trips right at the moment. I am training for a marathon. I don’t know if that’s something that I do for fun though! That’s for fitness and other goals.
How do you handle stress?
I think that for me, it’s often finding ways to get perspective. It’s really easy to get tied into the details of exactly what you’re working on, and from time to time you have to sort of step back and say, “Why are we doing this?” A lot of times for me, stress kind of goes away when you’re able to step back to that level. Your broader perspective is about trying to achieve these things for these people, build a team. Any individual thing that can cause stress can be fairly well managed if you look at the bigger goals.
How many cups of coffee do you drink in a day?
I usually do – usually is the right word – one cup of black tea first thing in the morning. I’m not a caffeine freak, but here in California I was up at 4 AM yesterday, so certain days there’s a little more caffeine and the occasional Diet Coke. I try to stick with the unsweetened black tea because I feel better about my decisions when I’m not knee deep in Diet Coke.
What’s your favorite spot in the Boston area?
In Cambridge, about a block away from my house, there’s something called Franklin Street Park. It’s very, very small. It’s like the size of a lot that a house would be on, and it’s not a children’s park – children can go there, but it’s mostly benches and bamboo, and there’s this exciting silver bubble in the middle of it which his kind of hard to describe. It’s just a really nice place to go and sit and be. I’ve seen teenagers and families with little kids. It’s just a very diverse place, and that’s what I like about that spot. It’s not just for children, but it’s also not just for adults. You really get a sense of the full range of people who live in the neighborhood when you go there.
What’s one of your biggest accomplishments, outside of family?
I think it’s having the first user onboard at Catch. That feeling, especially when you’re a brand new startup, is amazing. You’ll often onboard your first users by phone, so you can talk to them and see how it’s going as you move. That feeling of actually watching the steps in order work, especially in fintech where there’s a lot of complexity in connecting bank accounts, opening bank accounts, moving that first dollar, all of those things happening in sequence and working. That’s why I do what I do, and that’s a pretty exciting feeling.
Is this where you saw yourself 10 years ago?
I definitely thought that I wanted to work at big companies. I grew up in Reno, Nevada, so not a ton of opportunity there to begin with, but the only companies I knew were companies who had brand names. The only exposure I had to small business in Reno was often local business, local restaurants. It’s fine, but it wasn’t really what I saw for myself. I very much expected when I was young, even in college, that I would go and work in a very large company. Now that I’ve worked at startups, I think the only way I would ever be at a large company is if Catch got very big. I’m not going to go to GE or Google. That’s a cool company and they have these wonderful brands and a lot of amenities, but I think that is definitely not what I saw.
I don’t think I would have anticipated the amount of travel I’ve been able to do in the last 10 years. The ability to study abroad in Argentina and do my master’s degree in London and Shanghai - I’ve worked in Germany and different areas of China - I didn’t think of the ability to do that during work. In my last role at FutureFuel, our development team was in Portugal and I got to spend a month last year living in Portugal. I wouldn’t have expected that. I do credit getting that master's in international business with helping me be very comfortable with situations like that, whereas a lot of people would be like, “Ok I’ll fly out to Portugal for four days.” I thought I really needed to build some rapport with the team, and the flights are the most expensive part, but it’s not that expensive to stay there, so why don’t I just stay for a while? That ability to transplant into different countries is something that I definitely didn’t have when I was young, and I’m pleased to make that part of my career. I’ve been very lucky. I think that’s an important part of this - there’s hard work, there’s taking advantage of opportunities, and then there’s a lot of luck.
What’s your advice for recent college graduates?
I think, first of all, they’re freaking lucky! The economy is so great right now, there are so many jobs, so count your blessings! The actual advice is, don’t say no to things. Don’t feel like you’re too good to do anything, don’t feel like something is not right for you to do. Not to totally be silly with the Sheryl Sandberg quote, but really lean into opportunities and really take advantage of whatever it is that comes your way. The job offer that I had at the consulting firm when I finished grad school was an internship. It wasn’t even a full-time offer. It was mostly because they wanted to try me out, which I totally understand, but graduating with a master’s degree and being told that you still needed to be tried out was a really scary spot. I just jumped on projects, anything I could do. There was nothing that wasn’t in my wheelhouse. That ability to manage that ambiguity was really important. I think as people get started, you’re at a point in your career where ambiguity should be your best friend, and you should just learn to love it and learn to roll with it. You’ll get opportunities you never expected because of that.