Dr. Karen Crawford is the president of List Labs, a manufacturing and contracting lab that was the first of its kind to commercialize many bacterial toxins for research. Since its establishment by Linda Shoer in 1978, List Labs has been female owned and operated. First a scientist, then a businesswoman, Dr. Crawford brings an analytical mindset to List Lab’s unique business operations.
How did you start your business?
Linda Shoer had her PhD and wanted a career in science. Her sisters were also PhD scientists, and one was working at a pharmaceutical company which at the time was developing a vaccine against cholera. Shoer saw cholera toxin as a profitable product. Cholera toxin was not only needed for vaccine development, but it was also useful in cell research. She approached a distributor and made a deal that if she produced a batch they would buy the product. Cholera toxin was List Lab’s first product.
I joined List Labs in 1989. My PhD involved growing bacteria and learning how viruses replicated. I began my career teaching science. I moved to California when I had my two boys and at that stage of my life I wanted to do something related to children. I volunteered and became a science teacher in the Saratoga area. I left when I saw school funding decreasing. My kids had grown-up by then, too. So I interviewed with List Labs. Shoer’s work seemed truly interesting. They were producing many different products with a small team of about 10. We’re about 24 now, producing 100 different products.
How did you fund your business in the beginning?
Shoer took a small loan from local bank. It was just her in the beginning. She kept the operations small. Her first employee was the landlord’s granddaughter and they were just a few blocks away from our current location in a small 3-room lab.
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Running the Business
How did you learn to run your business?
As a scientist I need to understand a problem and think about how to address it. It is the same for business, but in managing a company you work at a different level. My personality is about getting into the details to learn a lot about one thing. In business you become a person who knows a little about a lot. I need to know about insurance coverage, finances, dealing with personnel. But luckily because I have good people working for me I don’t have to know a lot about those things, just something.
Who was your first customer?
Sigma, a distributor, was our first customer. Our customers are vaccine companies, universities, hospitals and government research. The product focus of our business is driven by the customers and they have changed dramatically since 1978. There was a point when almost everything we did was to support anthrax vaccine development. We were in the process of making non-toxic anthrax products to test vaccines when some people released anthrax spores wanting to create havoc. There was a lot of government funding going in that direction so our business shifted its focus to the anthrax product line. While switching focus to meet the needs of customers we have maintained a steadily growing product line.
Now people are into other things. For instance there’s a lot of money going into research with emerging viruses right now. The government wants bio-security, companies want to develop vaccines, and universities want to figure out how things work, and we have to understand all these points of view.
What’s the biggest mistake you made in the first year?
Not making the business modular. I brought the business into the current building, which is bigger. A bigger facility means you need more business. There’s a lot of controlling factors on the design of a biological containment facility, and we wanted a design that could support different kinds of projects. If the business had been more modular, you could take a piece out and put it to rest when you don’t have the business to fill it. But we built the facility as a single unit so we have to maintain the whole thing and that becomes a financial responsibility.
What’s the smartest thing you did in the first year?
Moving the business to a bigger facility— it’s the bad and the good. Overall it’s great. It gives us a lot more opportunities that wouldn’t come with a smaller less well designed facility.
What’s the most rewarding thing about running your own business?
This work is really interesting. It was always my dream to go into research and in this business; I support research in labs throughout the world.
What’s the most challenging thing about running your own business?
Keeping projects coming in to fill our capacity. Marketing is our solution to that. Marketing used to be word-of-mouth. People would cite us in papers under their list of materials, and if someone wanted to try the same or similar experiment, they would order from us. It used to be your network was the people you met at meetings, people from your school, and the people in the lab with you. We didn’t have the social media we have today which makes networking easier.
What’s the most surprising thing about running your own business?
I’m always surprised when people gather up forces and help me achieve something that I see as a goal. That’s always a delight. Somehow I feel like, oh my goodness, first this has to be done and second, I’ve got to do it myself. But then someone steps up and helps me do it.
What business owner or entrepreneur do you admire most?
It would have to be Linda Shoer, the one who started the business— she was fearless. She was able to go out and do cold-call kind of introductions to get business. She did quite well that way. She was also good at making relationships with people that could help her. She had a good way of getting people to feel that she needed their help and they would help her. I think women can be especially good at that, appearing to need help.
What I’ve Learned
What do you wish you had known before you had started your business?
Establish good contacts— people who can do things for you, because you can’t do everything yourself. When I first started, Linda had a handful of people she could always call. There was the the electrician, the accountant, the lawyer. The business has become more complicated as we’ve grown but we always have people we can call on.
If you could go back to when you were starting your business, what advice would you give yourself?
If I were to do another business like this I would make it more modular. It’s hard to imagine it when you have a business that depends upon a lot of infrastructure. This is a pretty unusual business and it’s hard to be ready when the business expands and contracts. It’s not anything I’ve seen done, to have a facility that’s a big shell and having little functional pieces that can be put together, but I think it can be done.
About the Author — Sarah Tang is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley where she learned to love the diverse personalities of mom-and-pop stores. She likes intriguing storefronts, creative specialty stores, and well-designed business websites.