Creating Your Own Career: Mary Ellen Heinen by Jennifer Moyer

 MaryEllenHeinmenphoto.jpgThe Veteran: Mary Ellen Heinen

With more than 20 years of entrepreneurial experience, Mary Ellen Heinen is proof that a degree in library and information science has market value that extends beyond a traditional library or archive. Her latest venture involves a curation and preservation app called Timebox; Heinen shares lessons learned from taking a product from concept to marketing.

Heinen got her start as a reference librarian at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and was later able to parlay her outreach and education skills into marketing positions. A former Massachusetts resident, Heinen was NELINET's director of marketing in the 1990s and she partnered with New England librarians to promote OCLC products. As co-founder of Glassbook Inc., which designed one of the initial software products used for reading and distributing e-books, she spearheaded Stephen King's Riding the Bullet e-book launch, which sold 650,000 copies in the late 1990s. "As a librarian, you're learning something new every day. I coupled those skills with some risk-taking when it came time to strike out on my own," says Heinen.

Another stroke of luck for Heinen was finding a tech-savvy partner in life and in love. Her husband Len Kawell was one of the developers for Lotus Notes, a software program that was a harbinger to the Web, and is still used by more than 100 million people worldwide today.

Together, the couple sketched out several concepts (on napkins), believing their combined skills could solve big problems. They achieved significant success with designing Glassbook, and they eventually sold Glassbook Inc. to Adobe.

Another product is their award-winning Linux-based Pepper Pad tablet, which is recognized as "the precursor to the iPad" in technology circles. The company successfully sold two versions of the product through and BestBuy, but was unable to build a worldwide market. While the product's program lasted for nine years, Heinen's company finally closed the door on the Pepper Pad in 2010.

"We learned that you need to educate partners about what their roles are, and to inform them about the value of marketing as a critical stage in the production process," says Heinen. Today, their company recognizes that marketing extends beyond social media; it includes public relations, news releases, advertising, capitalizing on viral Internet features, and attending conferences of the target user group.

While Heinen has faith that a product will succeed, she also knows the signs when it is time to pull the plug. Although statistics about new company survival rates are dated, a 2011 Small Business Administration report cites that 5 out of 10 new businesses exist after five years. Many people will continue to go into debt and avoid taking vacations for years hoping to realize their dreams. Heinen suggests saving or finding money in advance to allow the concept to develop and be modified over time. "Everyone has a different pain point, and it's important to know what that is. There is sacrifice along the crooked path of starting your own business. Yet sometimes it is worth it to wait it out as that's usually when you start seeing interest."

Timeboxartifact.jpgTheir newest personal information management app, Timebox, reflects the combined powers of a librarian and programmer. The product was developed to help people preserve and archive photos along with stories and other significant digital assets that can easily be transformed into PDF e-books and shared. Unlike traditional photo-sharing applications, the free app provides an intuitive interface that allows users to categorize their photos easily rather than simply parking and storing them in the cloud. Photos can be downloaded from a mobile device or from Facebook to bring digital assets back into the physical world. Users can create "artifacts," such as cubes and physical books, that can be shared. The product was featured at the American Library Association meeting in Chicago.

Heinen recognizes that there are comparable products on the market. "You're never the only one with an idea. Many stars need to be aligned to achieve success. Entrepreneurs need timing, luck, financial backing, perseverance, risk tolerance, a great team, and a marketable product that solves a problem. It is about all of the risk you are willing to absorb."


Personal Information Management Resource Bank:

The Library of Congress Personal Archiving:

Vanessa Reyes contributed personal information management resources to this report.

Alumnae/i News | Career | Feature story | Infolink Newsletter | News | Summer 2013