This interview is part of a new series called Startup Stories where Miguel Hernandez uncovers remarkable entrepreneurial stories behind some of Grumo’s past clients.
In this interview Brad Luffy shares a bit of his entrepreneurial journey and his motivation to create a visual tool to help people and companies to organize, share and present information or ideas in a simpler way.
What is SolveBoard? Click [video_lightbox_youtube video_id=8GBsfAZqU_s&rel=0 width=640 height=480 anchor=HERE] to watch the demo video Grumo produced for Brad to find out.
Q&A with Brad Luffy
Why did you become an entrepreneur?
I have spent most of my career working for large organizations. Over time, I became frustrated by the inefficiencies and lost opportunities I saw around me every day, and I struggled to address the reasons behind them. However, as anyone who has worked for a large organization will tell you, solving problems from the inside is often difficult. It is all too easy to reach the point where you just stop trying. I did not want to lose my passion for finding solutions and therefore began to explore entrepreneurship as a creative outlet which would allow me to develop original solutions for the problems I experienced.
How did you come up with your idea?
I started my career in a large international corporation in Asia. It was an incredible experience for me and I learned a great deal about the good and bad of international business. One thing I experienced firsthand was the difficulty of communicating effectively across oceans. Emails were long and drawn out, addressed to dozens of people, and referenced countless topics. A lot of people were nervous about replying to such a large audience so valuable feedback got missed. All too often, people stopped reading the emails halfway through, since so much information did not pertain directly to them. Effective communication frequently required flying people in from all over the world to have an in person meeting because the emails just weren’t getting the job done.
Arriving back in the United States after several years abroad, I began to see and experience a shift to new communication tools, like social media. While social media makes communicating more fun and interactive, I often find that we are still left with the same problems that email presents. Broad topics will attract countless participants and eventually the streams will have so many tangents and unrelated discussions that people will lose interest and stop participating in them. In my opinion the chaos inherent in social collaboration platforms, while being cool and exciting, will have little value in solving the problems experienced by most business employees.
What is needed is a new tool that addresses communication problems at the source. I feel strongly that the source of many communication problems today is the inability to ORGANIZE what is being shared and with whom that information is being shared. The solution would need to be able to scale from small amounts of information to large amounts of information, while remaining consistently simple and accessible. We need a one-size-fits-all approach, so to speak. So with that assumption, I set out to build a tool that would allow users to organize and share information more effectively, more quickly, and more easily. From there I came up with SolveBoard.
How did you validate your idea?
I started asking questions. I asked a lot of questions to family, friends, professionals, forums, and anyone who would listen. One thing that I really wanted to do was create a product that was so simple to use that those with even the most basic computer skills could find value in it.
As I asked questions and talked to a variety of people, I was struck by what I was hearing. I heard about simple business projects that resulted in dozens of emails flying around. I heard about how much back and forth communication is required for even the simplest acquisitions. I heard about a person who dealt with serious job complaints after failing to keep track of and use the most recent revision of a document for a project that he had been involved in. It became obvious that many business professionals were dealing with the same communication and organization issues I had encountered myself.
My research, my discussions with others, and my personal reflection continually provided the same validation. Everything I learned validated my own experiences. I know first-hand how hard it is to effectively engage in multi-party communication with a group that is not centralized. I know that at some point someone will say “Let’s just set up a meeting to discuss this.” And I know that failure to communicate and get the job done without in person meetings results in huge costs to companies and wasted time. I began to wonder how much companies would save by improving their communication tools and if they would be willing to pay to reduce these costs. This validation and questioning greatly motivated me as I worked to develop SolveBoard.
How did you fund your startup?
I had the good fortune of having a group of friends and family members willing to invest in my vision, both financially and with their much needed advice and moral support.
Share 1 tough moment/challenge in your journey
It is scary to look at the huge trends going on in the enterprise collaboration space, often influenced by some of the biggest players, and think that I can come up with something better. It takes every ounce of my willpower to stand and say, “Yes I can.” Now I need to be able to do that every day until the day when I can say, “Yes I did.”
Share 1 breakthrough that helped your startup
I wouldn’t say that I have had a major breakthrough. We are still in development and still tweaking the product. Along the way I have had several incremental breakthroughs or “Ah Ha” moments where I have seen opportunities or areas to make high value-added improvements. I read a book during development called Design like Apple, which I feel is a must read for any entrepreneur. As a direct result of reading this book, I made several changes to our product to improve the ease by which the user could engage with it.
Share 1 piece of advice to upcoming entrepreneurs
Nobody knows anything in entrepreneurship. It is the study and exploration of the unknown. A lot of people will tell you that they have a fool-proof plan for how to build a massively successful startup. Unless their name is Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, both of whom learned from their own experience and mistakes, I would follow your passion and build what you believe in. You may very well go down in flames, but at the end of the day you put yourself out there and were an entrepreneur. At least you played the game your way and can have no regrets about following your heart or intuition.
Share 2 entrepreneurial role models:
I love the essays by Paul Graham. I find them to be practical and written in such a way that you feel he is sitting and having a coffee with you. It was one of his essays “Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas” that provided a great deal of inspiration on how to build SolveBoard. This is a guy who just puts it out there, good and bad, and I like that.
I would have to say my best friend Andy has been a role model to me over the course of my entrepreneurial life. He has a company that he built from the ground up and it is now ranked as one of the top web design companies in Atlanta. I have been able to learn so much about starting and running a business through his successes, failures, challenges and opportunities. His example has taught me a lot and has most certainly given me great examples to follow and avoid.
Share 2 entrepreneurial books
Obviously Design like Apple is one of my favorite books, even though it does not directly relate to entrepreneurship.
The other book I would recommend is Disciplined Entrepreneurship. This book encourages you to take a firing squad approach to your own ideas, allowing you to focus on developing great ideas instead of mediocre ones. It is also one of the few startup books that does not guarantee that your startup will work, which is a false promise you will hear all too often. Instead of promising you success, this book explains how you might fail…which is infinitely more useful.
Share 1 entrepreneurial blogs
Paul Graham has in my opinion one of the best blogs on entrepreneurship. Take your time and read, then reread each one of his articles. They cover a huge array of topics in a practical manner.
Share 3 platforms/tools you cannot live without
SolveBoard: I have almost everything organized and stored there 🙂
Youtube: This is a great resource for documentaries and interviews.
Wikipedia: I use this site every day to find ideas and information galore.
Share 1 Productivity hack
Ok, I might appear to be self-promoting a bit, but SolveBoard is my productivity hack.
How did you find Grumo?
A friend sent me a link to Grumo’s website and I went to check it out. I liked that they had pretty awesome stuff and were very up front about the process and costs.
What made you decide you needed a demo video?
I have an idea and a product that is very difficult to convey. What is it? Is it an email replacement? No. Is it a social collaboration platform? No. So what is it? As I struggled to demonstrate the power of an idea like SolveBoard for enterprise communications, I realized that I was too invested in it. I was too involved and I was never going to be able to surface and look at it from an outsider’s point of view. A demo video made sense because it would convey an overview of what SolveBoard is trying to do in a way that makes sense to everyone. Not to mention that what I learned about my own product along the way was worth the price of admission.
What have you done to promote your video?
We have posted the video on our homepage and when we begin to actively approach enterprise customers over the next few months, we will use it as an icebreaker to start the conversation.
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