Ask an Entrepreneur: How Do You Stay True to Your Vision and Open to Advice?

Welcome to TechColumbus’ blog series, Ask an Entrepreneur. Central Ohio’s entrepreneurs have a wealth of information and learned experience.

Baloonr co-founders Amanda Greenberg and Noah Bornstein teamed up to create an entirely new approach to vetting creative content and ideas over the Internet. We asked Amanda to talk with us about Baloonr’s experience in turning their vision into a product and brand.

TC: Working with Baloonr, we’ve been struck with how methodically you and Noah went through your product launch—from determining features to staying consistent with your vision and brand.

AG: Noah and I both have always been focused on the user, and that’s how we approach everything. Noah is a UX (user experience) designer; that’s his sweet spot. I worked in public health, which is all about reaching people in the clearest way possible to achieve positive behavior change.

With Baloonr, the change in behavior we want is for people use our product to practice, share, and expand their creativity.

TC: So how did that vision for Baloonr come to you?

AG: I’ve had moments in my life when I feel something so clearly and intuitively and know it’s the right thing to do. That’s how I’ve always felt about Baloonr. The vision, mission, and my personal connection, it wasn’t just a passing idea or thought.

With Baloonr, it was just one of those things—sounds cliché, but I was in the shower. (Laughs)

TC: Another shower idea…we hear this lots from entrepreneurs.

AG: I wasn’t trying to think of anything particular at the time, just about how a lot of my friends had stopped sharing things online, and how I wished there was a place to share creative and funny things without having my name attached. And, I wanted to know how others connected to my content without all of the comments and messiness oftentimes found online.

There was no place online where people could share everything, knowing it wouldn’t be prejudged by who the person is, how popular, how many connections they had—there wasn’t a way to vet ideas and creative content free of all those things. I didn’t want to be limited by a pseudonym and building a brand around that pseudonym – I wanted to try a bunch of different things out.

The idea for Baloonr started from me wanting to practice and improve my creativity without tarnishing the brand that I had built in public health and policy consulting.

TC: And from that idea, came your vision?

AG: Yes, and I would say that they somewhat came at the same time. We’ve lost the ability to make sure everyone’s voice is equally heard and recognized. Noah and I want to create something that people love, that changes the way creative content and ideas are created, shared, vetted, and viewed.

That’s Baloonr’s mission and our brand—we want a better way for the world and the people in it to see the top creative content and ideas.

TC: So once you had the idea and the vision, how did you bring it back to ground to create a product and service that people would want to use?

AG: The first thing we did was develop a survey to see if other people had experienced the same kinds of things. To see if they had creative content they wanted to share. If they held back, how often?

That was in the summer of 2012, and the research exploring the downsides and anxieties associated with social media was really picking up. People weren’t really talking about it like they are now.

TC: There’s a great line attributed to Henry Ford (without evidence by the way)–that if he’d asked people what they wanted when he was designing the automobile, they’d have said a faster horse.

AG: Exactly. We focused on collecting information in a clear way that would help to guide us, and we made sure to really listen. We followed a methodology that worked for us, and we had guidance from Project Olympus, a Carnegie Mellon University innovation center. We were one of their PROBE (PRoblem-Oriented Business Explorations) companies.

TC: Sometimes founding teams invest time in surveying or interviewing to validate decisions they’ve already made.

AG: My background is research; I’m analytical and so is Noah. We wanted to find out what potential Baloonr users really thought.

We did a mix of anonymous surveys. We did focus groups. We conducted one-on-one interviews. By the time we got to those one-on-ones, our questions were more targeted. Once we had our beta product, we did user testing, to see where users moved and clicked. Then we used that information to refine the product, and we will never stop learning and refining and learning and refining!

We listened to how people responded, listened to how they reacted beyond words. You can tell a lot based on whether they smile or laugh when you talk about components of your brand or features. You can also tell a lot by what questions you get afterward – what connects, what can people easily remember, what sticks, what doesn’t. In so many ways, actions and reactions trump words.

When I pitched Baloonr to people and said that you could “pump it” if you liked it or “pop it” if you didn’t, everyone would giggle or laugh. I knew then that the feature aligned with how I wanted people to feel. And I always asked this last question—is there anything else you can tell me? I always want to get as much information as I can and usually that is when the real conversation begins.

TC: As a startup with no outside funding, how did you pay for all this market research?

AG: Initially, as mentioned previously, we were in the Project Olympus program at Carnegie Mellon University. That’s all about validating proof-of-concept. They give advice and help guide your company and growth. Then you have to decide what you are comfortable with. Ultimately, it’s your vision and your plan.

We posted surveys through outlets we had. We also used our networks to get to people and talk to them. TechColumbus is a great resource for coaching and connections.

TC: And how did you handle it when you heard things you didn’t want to hear?

AG: As a company founder, it’s challenging. You have all these different thoughts and input from people spinning around in your head. You can’t give them equal attention and stay on track.

Early on, I heard an important piece of advice from Kit Needham, Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Project Olympus, Carnegie Mellon University. Kit told me that as a company founder I could always say, “I appreciate and have evaluated your advice, and I don’t think it’s the right decision for my company at this time.” This little gem has come in handy. (Laughs)

TC: You’ve been open to input and advice, yet you aren’t distracted by it. That’s a tricky balancing act for entrepreneurs.

AG: I knew what I wanted the brand to be, and so did Noah. We always saw the brand the same way…even when we got mixed reviews. People said it feels a little childlike. Well, the silliness and fun piece of it is important for us.

In life, everyone starts off classifying themselves as artistic or creative. When you ask kids in kindergarten who is an artist, they all raise their hands. By fourth or fifth grade, you begin to see a divide. Not so many kids raise their hands. It’s crazy, especially since creativity is the most sought-after leadership competency and the majority feels that it is the key to unlocking economic growth.

It was important to us to carry that into our brand targeting adults. We were deliberate. We want people to feel lighthearted about this opportunity to build their creative confidence, and we want to spark that kindergartener in everyone who would have raised their hand with gusto. That aligns so perfectly well with what Baloonr does in the world. There’s a great quote in the Robert McCammon novel Boy’s Life: “No one ever grows up. They may look grown-up, but it’s just the clay of time. Men and women are still children deep in their hearts.”

TC: So now that you’ve launched Baloonr, what’s the next step on the path to your vision?

AG: We initially launched as a consumer-facing application. There’s been such interest and need in the B2B space–creativity is the most valued attribute by many CEOs–that we’ve recently shifted our acceleration toward deployment in companies and organizations—to practice creativity, collect internal market research, and to generate new ideas as a company.

The whole entrepreneurial journey for me has been about if I die tomorrow, what would I do today about our vision and mission for this world. An entrepreneur needs that drive and that belief in what we are doing. I’m not worried about messing up or looking stupid – there isn’t time to worry about that. This is what I want to contribute and what I want to do with my “one wild and precious life.”