The Innovation Management software space is quite crowded. Ideascale has managed to carve out a niche. Read on!
Sramana Mitra: Let’s start by going to the very beginning of your journey. Where are you from? Where were you born, raised, and in what kind of background?
Robert Hoehn: I am from Northern New York, almost bordering Canada. I actually did Computer Science in high school. I was a pretty lucky kid to have experience in programming at a pretty young age. I went to the University of Vermont and joined their Computer Engineering program. I studied Computer Science and Business.
After that, I decided to take a little time off and think about where I wanted to live and what kind of environment I wanted to be in. I toured the country for a while and visited a few cities over the summer. The Pacific Northwest really called to me. I’m very comfortable with rainy blue weather. It didn’t bother me at all. I ended up in Seattle, Washington. There’s lots of interesting things happening in Seattle, so that’s where I landed.
I started working for Washington Mutual before the crash. I learned a lot about database systems and reporting systems. It wasn’t really called data warehousing at that time although that was what we were doing. I was able to transfer into a team that was doing a lot of work that was building enterprise-scale web application with Java. I learned a lot about how to work with large enterprise corporations and at the same time, had a lot of experience building web applications.
These were pure enterprise-grade web applications. It was really valuable for me. It’s one of those things where, at that time, you didn’t think was valuable. When I started on my own, I realized it was incredibly valuable. That was 2002 or 2003. We started to see the rise of Software-as-a-Service. At that time, it was called ASP.
Salesforce was growing and we started working on an online survey tool called QuestionPro that competed with Survey Monkey. At that time, we didn’t really know anything about data centers or anything like that so we just went to Walmart and bought a bunch of servers. We had a data center in our garage. People love the garage stories. We did that with all the headaches that came with it like family members tripping over the cords. We did the whole thing ourselves.
At some point along the way, we realized that we didn’t need to have our day jobs at Washington Mutual. My colleague quit first and then I quit soon after. I started doing sales, marketing, and engineering.
Sramana Mitra: Let me get a few facts straight. You did start this Survey Monkey competitor company while you held on to your Washington Mutual job. It’s a Bootstrapping Using a Pay Check story.
Robert Hoehn: Exactly.
Sramana Mitra: Since you started the startup, how long were you still at Washington Mutual?
Robert Hoehn: I probably did both for about a year.
Sramana Mitra: What did you accomplish in that period while you still had a pay check paying the bills? What did you get done on the company? Did you have paying customers?
Robert Hoehn: We’re a completely bootstrapped company and we’ve always been profitable. It was all about finding paying customers. Later in the story, we split off into two companies – one is Ideascale and the other is Question Pro.
Sramana Mitra: Right this moment, we are on the Question Pro story. What year are we talking?
Robert Hoehn: In 2006, I finally quit from Washington Mutual.
Sramana Mitra: You had paying customers at this point?
Robert Hoehn: Yes.
Sramana Mitra: Was it covering the cost?
Robert Hoehn: Yes.
Sramana Mitra: You basically bootstrapped to breakeven before you quit your jobs.
Robert Hoehn: That’s right.