Technology is everywhere, and it often seems as though every entrepreneur wants to incorporate the latest gadget, platform or app into their operations. But finding the best ways to employ all of this modern-day wizardry to benefit their own operations remains a tricky challenge for many startups.
A lot of companies offer solutions, but which ones are really bending the tech curve and providing a true revolution in the way enterprises manage the daily grind?
Consider these examples of industry pioneers right in our own backyard. The Show-Me-State has proven to be fertile ground for entrepreneurs with simple ideas and big dreams about how to use technology in new, innovative ways. These Missouri companies are using advancements in software technology to revolutionize the thinking on how establishments negotiate the workday.
From collecting employee feedback to finding out customer preferences to smoothing patent applications with big data, these are the folks finding disruptive or unique ways to make the wired world work for businesses, here and beyond.
Like a lot of people, Rob Seay enjoys coming to work. Unlike a lot of people, his job is to help make sure others enjoy it, too.
“Our main focus and our vision that we developed within this organization was really to try and help create this world where everyone loves their job,” said Seay, director of employee experience at Bonfyre, a Missouri company that’s changing the way employers manage communications among workers.
An earlier incarnation of the company created in 2012 by Chris Dornfeld and Mark Sawyier — who remains as CEO — centered on helping to deal with meetings and events. But soon the St. Louis startup saw its mission expanding.
“Through that journey, we found that a lot of companies were saying that this tool is something that we could utilize on an ongoing basis,” said Seay. “From a communications standpoint, what they started to see was that it was so easy to use, and the user experience that we built in the tool made it so simple that employees naturally gravitated to that, as opposed to things like email or direct messaging.”
The result was a company pivot to enterprise-wide solutions. Having grown to 38 full-time employees, Bonfyre’s mobile-friendly platform aims to build company culture and improve employee engagement and retention by using an app to connect, communicate, strengthen relationships in the workforce and allow employees to get to know one another.
With an interface that feels like a social-networking tool such as Instagram or Twitter, the platform adds value to worker experiences by allowing employees to share photos and interests. It also enables the company to inform them of events and even design recognition badges that promote the corporate culture’s values, behaviors or characteristics.
The central concepts were to keep the platform mobile and make it “lightweight,” allowing for quick adoption by employees who don’t need an all-day workshop to figure it out.
“One thing we pride ourselves on here at Bonfyre is we say that we’ve never had to train someone on how to use the application,” Seay said. “They can go out there and download the tool, and it is very intuitive. That’s one of the key factors for us.”
Bonfyre’s clients also can take advantage of survey opportunities that provide feedback and fresh perspectives on the mood of folks in the trenches while keeping the lines of communication open with participants.
In a meta touch, the company’s simple platform even reports on its own popularity.
“The other thing that is nice about Bonfyre is that we can do a lot of reporting dashboard analytics back to the organization around utilization, and [determine if] people [are] really utilizing the different modules within the tool that the company would anticipate and expect,” Seay explained.
Today, he noted, Bonfyre serves about 15 clients. It can be just as useful for a lean startup as it can for an established operation.
“Whether you have a team of five people or 85,000 people, the tool can be rolled out and utilized for connection and communication,” Seay said.
For Devin Turner, the road to the future has had its share of unexpected twists and turns.
“When we started a software company at Marquette University, I would never in a million years have thought that we would become part of the fabric of the startup ecosystem in Missouri,” he said.
But Turner, who created his specialized web-conferencing company with co-founder Charlie Beckwith, did indeed end up on the banks of the Mississippi — thanks to an Arch Grant and funding from the Missouri Technology Corporation as well as a growing belief that St. Louis was a better place than the coasts to build a business.
The result was FocalCast, a 4-year-old outfit that helps to make better market research available to those who need it by rethinking the fundamentals of the focus group.
Years ago, focus groups often entailed a lengthy, expensive process that required assembling people in drab rooms and questioning them for hours in front of a one-way mirror so a client, who likely had just flown in from Los Angeles or New York, could see how his operation’s latest initiative was performing in other markets.
But that was before the proliferation of web-enabled mobile devices. That’s where FocalCast comes in.
“You can do five focus groups with different people all over the world in the same day, and no one has to travel at all,” said Turner. “The client can stay at their office and tap into their specialized viewing account.”
With FocalCast, the moderator can see all of the participants, while participants can see the moderator but not each other. Thanks to FocalCast’s programming. Everyone can operate on different devices, and no one needs to download any software to make the connection.
That doesn’t just cut costs and time for the client. It also makes the whole process less cumbersome for the panelists, potentially allowing for a better sample. The idea is particularly accessible for teens and 20-somethings who have grown up in a world dominated by handheld devices and applications such as FaceTime.
“They do everything on their phones,” Turner said. “They are on their phones 24/7, so that’s where you have to go to them.”
Communicating with FocalCast isn’t merely a substitute for being in a single location: It actually represents an improvement, he said. Instant polls and the interactive sharing of marketing materials or videos are easy.
“You can do actual brainstorming with them on a digital whiteboard live, where everyone is dragging pictures around, typing out ideas and doing this giant collaborative ideation project where no one is in the same room,” he said. “Everyone is on a different device, potentially all around the world and yet they are all on a whiteboard together.”
Meanwhile, the two guys with the classic dorm-room, software-startup story are enjoying St. Louis, a city Turner said he’d never visited before becoming aware of Arch Grants.
“We found that here is this vibrant community of entrepreneurs and business people and artists and everything that is really supportive of startups,” he said. “The combination of the resources, the capital and the talent as well and the cost of living all combined to create an extremely viable business environment for startup companies.”
Danielle Hohmeier likes to talk about how the company she works for was founded.
“I love the story because it reads a little bit like a bad joke,” said Hohmeier. “A lawyer, a data scientist and a software developer walk into a hackathon.”
But by the time Drew Winship, Jordan Woerndle and Robert Ward walked out, the idea they’d created was no joke. Juristat, the company which came to life at a “Startup Weekend” event in 2012, now helps companies from Motorola Solutions to Philips in negotiating the complex world of patent applications. That intensive process often can take years and consume tens of thousands of dollars.
Winship, a practicing attorney who now helms the company as its CEO, said he believed the legal world could benefit from better analytics.
“He was growing frustrated, knowing there were years of data — how certain trials go and how certain judges rule. But he felt he was walking into a courtroom blind,” said Hohmeier, the company’s director of marketing. “Everyone kept saying, you just learn by experience. He said, “No, there should be a resource.’”
Lacking that resource, the founders decided to create one. They eventually settled on the niche field of patent work by designing a software platform that would use big data to give applicants a better understanding of their potential costs and chances of success as well as how long their efforts might take. Juristat offers products that deal with searching and filtering, drafting language, analyzing examiner reviews and conducting business intelligence work.
“Our newest tool is office action response, [which] is really attractive from the operations side,” said Hohmeier. “It is powered by [artificial intelligence], and it helps prepare some of the documents you have to create when you are submitting a response during the prosecution process.”
Hohmeier said the suite of services is popular both with patent law firms and in-house lawyers at companies who want to make informed strategic decisions instead of relying on gut instincts. The upshot has been explosive expansion with clients nationwide.
What Juristat really does is make analytics easier by doing the heavy lifting upfront and providing a platform where information can be understood and choices can be made easier.
“A lot of [U.S. Patent and Trademark Office] databases are public, but they are slow and hefty and not something that, if you downloaded all that data, you’d really be able to get a lot of use out of it,” she said. “Juristat really presents it in a way where you can make actionable decisions.”
The company was the first of its kind in this region, Hohmeier said.
“We have a couple of competitors, but I think in terms of the full scope of the product, it is unique in the market,” she noted.
She said the greatest compliment the company receives comes from those who say it feels like a product designed by lawyers for lawyers — rather than something produced by a tech or data company. The idea is to help enterprises lower the barriers that keep them from protecting the cutting-edge technology they produce. The company also won a Top Legal Innovation Award in 2018 from Missouri Lawyers Media.
“We say that our mission is to bring more transparency, predictability and equity to the patent process,” she said. “That’s really the ultimate goal, to make it easier and faster to get a patent and help speed innovation.”