Getting started: 5 Chicago entrepreneurs share their founding stories

by Andreas Rekdal
March 22, 2018

Building a great company requires great ideas, but ideas won’t save you if you can’t follow through. But figuring out how to do that often requires some trial and error. We spoke with the founders of five leading tech companies to learn more about the lessons they’ve learned while building their companies. 

 

4c chicago tech company
Image via 4c

4C, whose technology helps brands coordinate their marketing efforts across television, social media and other digital marketing channels, was born out of research conducted at Northwestern University. Founder and Chief Scientist Alok Choudhary, a long-time lecturer in data-driven marketing, said his most important advice for budding entrepreneurs is to seek partners with complementary skill sets.

Partner with people who have skills complementary to yours.”

How did the idea for 4C come about?

In the second half of 2000s, when social networks started gaining steam. My research team at Northwestern University started using data from Facebook and Twitter to develop data mining and AI algorithms to mine and derive insights from these massive datasets. It turned out that social media data was a goldmine — I called it the “limitless focus group.” In 2011, I founded VoxSup, (later rebranded to 4C) to leverage this data science in technology for marketers. The rest, as they say, is history.

 

When did you realize you were actually on to something?

Through my research I saw firsthand the power of social media data and our algorithms to understand and predict engagement behavior, influence behavior and other characteristics. What I didn’t know at first was how applicable it would be to use cases in marketing and advertising. Early on we saw signs of success as we helped brands identify their most valuable audiences on Facebook and Twitter. Then we did the same for LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat. And then we layered on television data by acquiring Teletrax, the world’s largest TV monitoring network, and did a deal with NBCUniversal. Combining all our assets helped us build a complete picture of people and their behavior.

 

What advice would you offer aspiring entrepreneurs hoping to start their own companies?

Partner with people who have skills complementary to yours. I come from the world of academia and research with a background in data analytics and technology, but my partner, Lance, came from the media and agency world. As 4C has grown, we have been fortunate enough to hire great teams in every department so we can keep up the pace of innovation and deliver more value to our clients.

 

cleverbridge chicago tech company
Image via cleverbridge

Cleverbridge’s e-commerce software makes it easier for companies to sell digital goods and services to customers all over the world. To founder and Chief Business Officer Craig Vodnik, the most important part of building a successful business is to think carefully about how you interact with your team. In lieu of clearly defined values, employees will follow your lead — so offer clear guidance and lead by example.

Be deliberate in creating the right culture and articulating values from the start.”

How did the idea for cleverbridge come about?

We saw an opportunity to improve upon existing e-commerce solutions in the market — specifically for digital goods, online services and SaaS businesses. We had experienced the challenges of buying a product from vendors that did not support our language, payment methods or business hours, resulting in a dismal shopping experience. This motivated us to start cleverbridge in 2005 and instantly offer seven key languages to remove friction from the buying process. Since then, we’ve expanded to support 60 payment currencies, 30 checkout languages and more than 48 payment methods to help clients sell globally online.

 

When did you realize you were actually on to something?

From the start, we knew two things: that we had the best people and that our e-commerce platform was unique and filled a void in the market. It’s a widely offered capability today, but we were early to offer multivariate testing, allowing prospective clients to run traffic through our platform and our competitors’ to test which converted better. This offered hard data on conversion rates and real revenue lost or gained. We won a lot of the time and were profitable by 2007.

 

What advice would you offer aspiring entrepreneurs hoping to start their own companies?

Company culture and values are driven in startups by their founders — whether they’re explicitly defined or not. So be deliberate in creating the right culture and articulating values from the start. Tell everyone what you value, why you value it, live those values and recognize people for doing the same. Lastly, hire people who either share your values or possess the willingness and ability to embrace them. When you have those people, invest in them and give them growth opportunities. We have employees who have been with us since the beginning — many of whom started in customer service but are now leaders in sales, development, client management and other areas — because of our culture and values.

 

milyli chicago tech team
image via milyli

Most startup founders kick off with an idea and figure out how to build a team along the way. For Milyli, which builds software for streamlining the litigation process for lawyers, the ideas came about after the team did. Founder and CEO Steve Ankenbrandt said he and his co-founders knew what kind of company they wanted to run. But he doesn’t think you need everything figured out in advance to hit the ground running.

Trust in what you are passionate about and understand that you do not need to have everything figured out.”

How did the idea for Milyli come about?

It was all about the culture and building software the “right way.” My two co-founders and I actually left our previous employer without a specific product idea but instead a vision for how we thought a software company should be run. We knew we would come up with a product idea at some point in the future.

 

When did you realize you were actually on to something?

After a few years and a couple product misses, the one thing we knew without a doubt was that we were assembling a great team. During those years we also built up significant expertise in the world of e-discovery. Combining that domain knowledge with our engineering team, we refocused 100 percent on developing products and providing services that added efficiency, lowered costs and aligned with our new mission of making e-discovery easier.

 

What advice would you offer aspiring entrepreneurs hoping to start their own companies?

Trust in what you are passionate about and understand that you do not need to have everything figured out. Aspiring entrepreneurs often think they have to know everything about running a business before starting one. Anyone who has built a business will tell you that you will make a lot of mistakes along the way, but you will learn from each of them.

 

upshow chicago tech company
image via upshow

With interactive displays in restaurants, gyms and entertainment establishments across the country, UPshow combines social features, marketing materials, games and video content to keep patrons engaged. Founder and CEO Adam Hirsen said one of the most important lessons he’s drawn from his company’s rapid growth is how important it is to solicit constant feedback from customers.

Everyone has dreams of colossal growth out of the gate, but the most important thing to do is survive.”

How did the idea for UPshow come about?

We saw the impact that jumbotron screens at major sporting events have on the fans. People love the prospect of being featured on large TV screens, and they are curious to see who or what is coming up next. We felt strongly that every business should benefit from this energy and engagement, and use it in a way that helps grow their business. Consumers crave social media everywhere they go, and UPshow fulfills that need.

 

When did you realize you were actually on to something?

The cord-cutting trend has been eye opening for us. It's clear that cable TV has lost widespread appeal and value, and businesses want a more personalized in-venue experience that matters to their customers. When large national brands like Hooters, TGI Fridays, Buffalo Wild Wings and Crunch Fitness started coming onboard, we knew that our product can add value for the best brands in the world.

 

What advice would you offer aspiring entrepreneurs hoping to start their own companies?

Talk to your customers, and be open to all feedback to understand the value that your company offers, the problems you solve and even the shortcomings of your product. It’s also important to know that sales is everything. If you can't sell, find great people who can. Finally, everyone has dreams of colossal growth out of the gate, but the most important thing to do is survive at every stage. Fund the business. Get customers. Bring great people into the mix. Survival is key.

 

chicago tech startups
image via shutterstock

Wellspring makes software that helps research universities turn the discoveries they make into profitable, real-world technologies. CEO Rob Lowe, who came up with the idea to address his own pain points at Carnegie Mellon University, said his team started signing up clients for the Wellspring platform before it even existed. To him, the key to success as an entrepreneur is relentless dedication.

Few people are willing to make the sacrifices and put in the hours.”

How did the idea for Wellspring come about?

Out of frustration and lack of staff. I was a professor at Carnegie Mellon and head of the ventures program. We had just done an request for proposal, bought the leading product in the market and were thoroughly disappointed. CMU was pushing the envelope with new and innovative commercialization programs, but it had a relatively small office to support the programs. We felt a world-class software solution would create leverage and enable us to scale operations in ventures, online licensing and mass marketing of academic technologies.

 

When did you realize you were actually on to something?

Pre-sales were the proof. We bootstrapped the company to profitability, starting with a just $10,000 loan from the founders. To bootstrap a company successfully, you need to sell hard upfront. We went out and got pre-sales based on some screen designs and a vision. The fact that clients, including some of the most prestigious universities in the United States, were willing to pre-pay for the software based on our vision demonstrated to us that there was a strong demand. We reached profitability the year after our beta product release and knew we were off to the races.

 

What advice would you offer aspiring entrepreneurs hoping to start their own companies?

Have grit. I've founded multiple companies and advised in different capacities on dozens more. The most successful entrepreneurs are tenacious and unrelenting in how they approach the work, and tenacity is one of our core values. Lots of people have brilliant ideas. Few people are willing to make the sacrifices and put in the hours. Even with the best product and service offerings, success requires that you and your leadership team outwork, out-hustle and outlast your competitors.

 

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