The key to growth is customer retention, which you can achieve by focusing on your customers’ success through exclusive, fun & educational events.

How do companies on the Inc. 5000 list grow so rapidly? We interview Inc. 5000 companies’ CEOs to break down what they do differently and find out as much as possible about their ‘secret sauce’. Today, we interview Robert Hoehn, co-founder and CEO of IdeaScale (Inc. 5000 honoree).

TL;DR Instead of attending expensive events with questionable ROI, put up a fun, cool and educational event for your clients and prospects on your own dime.  It will be much cheaper at the end of the day, and you’ll create much more meaningful connections.  The focus of the event should be “customer success”.  It’s all about your customers.  Ask them what challenges they’re facing and how you can help.

NXT: What is IdeaScale?

We are an idea management platform.  The problem we’re solving is that most mid/large-tier companies are great at executing projects but perhaps not as good at selecting which projects to focus on.

Another really common problem is that they use the hippo approach, which means that they rely heavily on the “highest-paid person’s opinion”.

Our platform helps them a) implement a process for selecting ideas and b) democratize decision making.

NXT: When did you start the Company?

We got started right around 2010, after Obama got into office.  We had some contacts with the administration and got some of our first projects.  For example, we were working with major federal agencies, building crowdsourcing portals to reach out to citizens and involve them in decision making.  There’s nothing like building an MVP while having big government breathing down your neck!

NXT: That’s a great first client… how did you manage to communicate the level of credibility and experience required as a startup?

We had actually just pivoted from a Survey platform we had been building successfully for years.  So we already had the tech down, as well as clients to vouch for us.

NXT: In order to build your product, and then grow at such a fast pace, did you raise outside money?

We actually never got around to fundraising.  We wanted to keep all the equity and use profits to grow.  So we got hooked on customer development to pay for the growth of the company.

NXT: Did that prove to be a good idea, or you’d rather have fundraised?

There are definitely pluses and minuses of bringing in outside capital.

The challenge for many people raising money is that they have to define their market and tell a compelling story.  But new products often don’t have those things in the early days.  Also, I’ve talked to many startup founders and they all say that Board meetings can be terrifying.

On the other hand, without investors it’s often difficult to get an “outside view”.  Bootstrapped businesses have to be more proactive to reach outside their comfort zone to reach new ideas and advice.

And of course, from a financial perspective, having a big runway to grow the business is great.  We have to be much more careful with our cashflow, which has also forced us to be much more aware of our financial situation.  But I sometimes get jealous of my friends, who can just go outside and buy what they need and grow.

NXT: What would you say has been the biggest catalyst for your rapid growth?

When we started, we didn’t have a lot of brand equity or “street cred”.  So we had to fight to earn it.  A great way is co-branding.

Co-branding and marketing are very under-utilized growth levers.

When we did a project for someone, we also had our logo on the platform.  So their audience saw who’s behind this.  And we grew through word of mouth.

NXT: And how do you find new customers now?

We do quite a bit of inbound marketing.  We focus mostly on SEO, optimize our site in foreign languages…  All in the effort to keep our customer acquisition costs (CAC) low.

But mostly, we focus a ton on word of mouth (WOM).  Good, old-fashioned WOM is so important.  A lot of the people we’re working with are running long-term programs and it’s a big investment.  For new clients, “democratizing your innovation process” is scary and new.  Being able to talk to someone else and seeing that it works is very important.  So we invest heavily in customer success.

NXT: Can you share an example of how you invest in customer success?

A great example is that we do a “conference” every year.  We get as many of our customers in one room and help them share their story.  We don’t do any marketing there, and we cover all the costs.  At this event, it’s all about our clients, helping them get answers and grow.

NXT: Every business would love to have clients and prospects attend an event for a couple of days… why are your clients showing up to an event like this?

First and foremost, it’s not a sales pitch, at all.  We treat it more like training.  Throughout the year, we ask clients about their challenges and what they want to learn.  And then we design a program around those issues.  Some folks can also get a “continuing education” certificate out of it.

We bring people out to a beautiful space for a couple of days, and make sure it’s fun and educational.  We did a little event with LinkedIn, other folks got to see a medical robotics lab… there are many cool things we can do around Berkeley, CA.

Also, the group of practitioners in our field is fairly small.  Yes, there are online communities, but I think most people miss having an in-person conversation with one another.

NXT: How did you get the idea of running this event?

Frankly, we got sick of going to conferences ourselves!  We’d spend A LOT of money on events… you can easily spend $10-20K to attend some 2-3 day conference, where you don’t control the content, barely get access to the people, and at the end nobody really cares.

It was completely soul-sucking and we didn’t want to do it again.  So we decided to do something that felt more like a party with our people.  Make it cool and fun, and have a good time.  At the end of the day, it also saves us so much money.

NXT: What’s been your secret sauce for growth?

For us, what clicked was when we transitioned from getting customers to keeping customers.  When you first start, it’s all about winning new customers.  But eventually, I can’t keep on growing if I’m losing customers, and it takes me months to win a new one.  Retention and churn are what we talk all the time.



Founder of Board Studios Inc, an animation production agency that helps B2B companies simplify and communicate more effectively. Specializing in B2B makes a big difference because we know what information your clients need, what works and what doesn’t. B2B communications can be very different than B2C, so if you get your video explainer from a B2C agency you may not get the results you deserve.

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