Rob Hoehn – CEO Interview

Rob Hoehn

CEO of IdeaScale

When did you know you wanted to start your own company?

I was working at a large bank as a programmer and moonlighting on some start-up projects But me and my other co-founders were all starting out our careers at large companies and all had the same frustration: we had tons of great ideas that never saw the light of day. It took years of working your way up inside a large company to be able to present ideas to senior leadership. We realized that good ideas come from everywhere, but large companies have a bias towards ideas from senior management.

We realized that if we could help organizations gather ideas from anywhere and strip away some of the ego or assumptions that go with ideas (who suggested the idea, where it came from, etc), that we would be able to help companies start finding answers to questions they hadn’t thought to ask yet. But it couldn’t just be a suggestion box – it needed accountability and transparency, too and that’s when we first created IdeaScale – an idea management software.

What was your original idea for this company, and are you still doing that (or did you pivot, if so, what is the new focus and why)?

Originally our focus was just around crowdsourcing ideas. Anyone could see them, anyone could vote on them, anyone could take action on them. But the more mature our customers were – the more likely they were going to need to not only take action on those ideas, but deliver and report on results. We also saw that the customers who were doing this were more likely to have long-term success, so we had to build in a lot of functionality to support the back-end of innovation, as well: evaluating ideas, building teams around ideas, funding ideas, reporting on them, etc.

How long did it take you to finally take the leap, and what was it that pushed you over the fence?

I stayed really busy in my twenties. I worked on lots of projects both officially and unofficially, but when we launched IdeaScale in more than twenty Federal agencies that’s when I knew we were going to make this a full-time thing.

Who inspired you to pursue your dream, and why do you think they believed in you?

I stayed really busy in my twenties. I worked on lots of projects both officially and unofficially, but when we launched IdeaScale in more than twenty Federal agencies that’s when I knew we were going to make this a full-time thing.

Who is your favorite mentor and why?

I count myself very lucky to work with an excellent CFO, Mark Wolf, who has successfully helped guide six companies to exit. When you’re early in your entrepreneurial career, that sort of experience is invaluable. He always shares stories and ideas with patience though – has never spoken so forcefully that it felt proscriptive or unhelpful. I hope that after a few more start-ups, I have that kind of good humor and generosity for others who are just getting started.

What was the hardest thing about starting your company, and what did you do to make it through the first stage?

I’ll never forget when we were just starting out in 2009 and the White House IT team said that they were going to run security tests on our system. I wasn’t sure we were ready and it was just a few of us that time, but we knew we really needed to ace it in order to serve large-scale government customers like the White House. So we buckled down and did extensive testing of our own and prepared ourselves for their IT team. In the end, obviously, we passed.

What has been the hardest lesson to learn?

Focusing on growing and renewing your customer base. For a long-time we were a sales-first organization: celebrating every new win and every new customer, but not paying attention to how long someone remained as a customer. That inhibited our growth in the early years. Now we’re an organization that is customer-obsessed. We learn from our customers, celebrate renewals and expansions and invest heavily in our customer success discipline.

What has been the most amazing thing you have experience while running this company?

I think one of my favorite stories was attending a PTA meeting with my IdeaScale t-shirt on and someone coming up to me and saying “do you use IdeaScale?” and when I told them that I worked there, they said “we use IdeaScale at my company” and started telling me what they love about it and why they use it. I’ll never forget that first time of being “in the wild” and someone recognizing me for my company and the work we do.

What is the weirdest thing you have experienced while running this company, and how did you react to it?

Weird? I mean – it all still feels a little weird. But I think one of my favorite stories of how good ideas can come from surprising places: NASA wanted a better glove for astronauts (that was easier for them to manipulate in spite of the zero gravity requirements) and the answer did not come to them from their government ranks, but from a costume designer who created the wing mechanisms for Victoria’s Secret models. It turns out that that same technology had adjacent implications for the space program. You never know where else something that’s working for you can be applied. So what other unusual places can you look for solutions?

What is the best decision you’ve ever made while running this company?

Deciding to host our own event instead of attending and sponsoring everyone else’s conferences. I’m sure all of you who have started your own company know that sinking feeling at those huge tradeshows: was this the best use of our money? Will any of these contacts turn into new business? We decided to bring our customers and prospects together once a year for a networking and workshop event where everyone could learn from each other (no sales allowed). For our customers: this is a huge value-add and for our prospects – it’s one of the best ways for them to get a peek behind the curtain to find out what they can expect when launching an innovation management program. And for us? There’s none of the pressure to stand out from the noise in a crowded exhibition hall – you know what everyone is there for already: to learn!

What is the biggest mistake you made while running this company, and why do you think it happened?

Sometimes we want to work with a company so bad, we’re willing to do almost anything to bring them in. There was one customer who had an insanely cool project, but their team, their requirements, and their program didn’t really suit our product. We were certain that we could develop and customize our software and services to their needs, but in the end, both our company and the customer were dissatisfied. It was an important reminder to pay attention to your ideal customer fit. Even if it’s a really cool logo or a really cool project – it will take too much work to customize your product outside of its use case and it won’t serve any of your other customers.

The one exception to this is, of course, if you think you can transform this customized pivot into an entrance into a new market. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case with this out-of-scope project and we’re sad that no one felt like they got what they wanted in the end.

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your company?

It’s a blessing to be in the software industry where you feel you can help everyone who has had to shift to a remote work environment. We’re seeing a renewed interest in our offering from companies who are realizing that they need a place to digitally share and track ideas now that these exchanges aren’t happening coincidentally around the water cooler or in meeting rooms anymore.

This means, however, that we’re renewing our focus on things like ease of access to our system – making sure our sign up process is flawless so that more and more people can join the conversation. We’ve re-focused on usability recently and that’s made an impact with all of these first time idea management programs.

What keeps you passionate about your company?

The stories of ideas that have been implemented that surprised even the program runners themselves: like how a new Home Depot product (that was essentially just a combination of other existing products) was able to sell $5 Million in its first year. And the idea for that product came from someone in the marketing department. Or how NASA discovered a new way to measure liquid volume in a zero-gravity environment and this saved NASA over $1M and four years of time. And the person who suggested that solution worked less than a 300 yards from the person who needed it… they just didn’t know that their work was related until they saw it tracked in this system. Every time I hear a story like that – I know we’re actually connecting people and that makes me feel excited to find new and better ways to serve them.

What daily routine have you developed to help you take care of your mind, body, and soul?

Even though we’re all working from home now, I still think it’s important to create a break between home life and work life so I’ve mandated a “commute” for myself. Usually that means walking my dog, Ella, but even if she’s staying with a dogsitter – I take that morning walk, because it does a lot for my health, my mood, and my home and work life.

What one thing would you like people to take away from this interview?

We are facing some immense challenges as a global community: inequality, civil unrest, climate change, daunting changes to our technology landscape like AI and cyber currency – we are going to need the best ideas in the world to be able to rise to the occasion. Do not limit yourself by only asking the same people for ideas. And remember humility is an important part of creativity – ask questions, stay curious, and try and find good ideas in unlikely places.