Rich Loen is the founder of InGenius, a computer telephony integration company creating software that connects telephone systems with leading-edge CRMs (customer relationship management software) to make customer-service agents more efficient. The company was derived from years of hard work and Rich’s born passion for both technology and business.
When Rich was just in high school, he founded his own DJ company to perform at all his school’s dances. “I liked electronics, loud music and hard rock, so being able to build speakers that were huge was fun.” The company grew, and before he knew it, Rich was performing at a variety of dances, weddings, and even gained a contract to DJ at all of McDonalds’ Ottawa parties. They even started renting their own music halls and organizing their own parties. Safe to say, this first taste of entrepreneurship was deemed a success.
The DJ business paid Rich’s way through postsecondary, where he went on to take electrical engineering at Carleton University. At this point, he had moved on to newer things. “I partnered with some guys to build lighting systems for rock ‘n’ roll. I was also a consultant doing engineering for some of the louder sound system companies in town,” he mentioned. Often, if there were a concert playing at a local arena, where something was broken and needed to be fixed, Rich would be there.
“I got a degree in electrical engineering, but all of my options were in software,” he says, “so I got involved in a lot of projects where both skills came into play. That was useful because once you understand how the hardware works, you do a way better job building the software.” He did consulting for a while, developing software for snowmaking machines, before ultimately taking on a job that would alter the direction of his future.
He got a contract at Telesat Canada, a satellite broadcasting company located in Ottawa. His responsibilities included creating some control systems for satellite ground stations and participating in the development of a control system for a large television broadcaster. At Telesat, Rich met Dale Gantous, who was a manager of software engineering at the firm. She had a great deal of knowledge in both business and software engineering, so when she left Telesat they and two other partners started their own business where Dale along with Arlene Rowe would take care of all the business aspects such as; financials, sales, and lawyers, and Rich, along with Erick Sodhi could focus more on the engineering side of things.
The four built a thriving consulting business in Ottawa and spun out two other business ideas - the first being a data backup and restore company for Nortel (which at the time was a huge enterprise), and the second was a video streaming software business named SoftTV. “We did it before the internet was really capable of streaming video during the first internet bubble,” he says, “The thing we did which is cool - that still nobody does - was in the video stream we allowed you to put commands that could then change the webpage that the video was hosted in.”
SoftTV was a great success, especially for educational purposes. “When you started PowerPoint, it would automatically start recording your presentation, as well as everything you were saying and all of the timing,” Rich mentioned, “Schools loved this because all of their lectures could be accessed online without anybody doing anything.”
The internet bubble eventually burst, and they sold the company. By this time, Rich and Dale were married and had to decide what they wanted to do next.
Rich and Dale agreed to start up another venture, expanding their consulting company. They supplied consultants to high tech businesses, which led to making products for companies such as Mitel. Working with Mitel, they got to see what was happening in the telephony industry, as well as where it was going. “We looked for holes in the market and found that people were trying to tie phone systems into different things like CRMs,” he says, “so we wrote some software to do that.”
They worked with larger firms like Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics 365 to create a product unlike any other available on the market. “CRM is one of the fastest growing software segments, and Salesforce is one of the fastest growing companies in that area.” By working alongside them, they were gaining a huge strategic advantage. Another feature that gave their software an early leading edge is that you didn't have to go to every desktop to install the software. Instead, you could just roll it out of one spot and everyone got it. They also completely disrupted the industry with a newer pricing scheme. “We charged monthly, while everyone else was selling it as a one-time sale.” The business ultimately succeeded as a result of developing the right product at the right time.
Nevertheless, Rich and his team had their fair share of challenges when the business was first taking foot. “Running a business is hard. It’s not easy to convince somebody to take money out of their pocket and give it to you.” One of the struggles many small technical companies face is that they are too timid with pricing. “[As an engineer] you sometimes look at a feature you just built and say, ‘well it only took me a few months to build this, so why would I charge a whole lot of money for it?’ However, a more business-minded person might look at it and say ‘yes, but you’ve created something that does not exist and that's extremely valuable, so you deserve to be paid for it.”
He goes on to mention another obstacle faced by many start-ups, which is finding qualified staff. Both Rich and Dale consistently search for people who are enthusiastic about what they do and don’t just want the job because their parents said they had to. “I look at grades, but not as a priority. One thing I look at are their hobbies and the things they have done outside of school,” he said. “Dale and I used to run a consulting company, so we would interview consultants all the time. We have interviewed thousands of people already.” He states that within 30 seconds of an interview, he can often tell how it is going to go, and the rest of the time is used to verify that first impression.
A reason to ensure that you are extremely careful in hiring the right people is that the process can be damaging to your company’s standards. “Because you’ll end up thinking ‘they’re nowhere near as good as they need to be; but they’re good enough, so maybe I’ll be alright with them’, and as soon as you start to think like that your standards drop significantly.”
These and other challenges have been overcome, and InGenius has strived as a result of Rich’s incredible passion for what he does. Rich is married with children, and as the Founder of InGenius, an element of his job revolves around playing with technology, something he truly loves to do. Rich advocates that starting a business should never be for the sole purpose of money, but it should be fun; something that makes you happy.
I asked Rich what he thought were the most important qualities/skills that attributed to his success and that he would advise other up-and-coming entrepreneurs to follow. He responded with:
- An overwhelming passion
You should never do anything that you aren’t passionate about. If you truly love what you do, it will resonate in the product that you’re trying to sell.
- No bullshit
Trust between you and your stakeholders is another crucial element in reaching success. “[It is important] that your employees trust you and know that when you say something it’s true and not bullshit.” Ensuring that your company strives to maintain open and honest communication at all times with everyone involved in your business is critical to increasing their confidence in both you and your brand.
- Build something that is needed
When making a product, you must ensure that people are willing to reach into their product and spend their hard-worked money on it. “That’s a really hard thing because engineers get distracted by shiny objects. They will build something because it’s cool, and you have to take a step back and think, ‘will people pay for it? Does it actually affect their lives?’”
- Surround yourself with an amazing team
Nobody can run a business on their own, so you need to surround yourself with people that are fun and love what they are doing. “You’re there all day, so you want to have an environment that’s interesting.” An amazing team should also share the same passion as you do for the good or service you’re providing to customers.
- Be curious
“You have to be exploring and thinking so that you don’t get trapped into one way [of doing something],” as Rich described it. It is important for any business owner to keep one ear open because even though you had a great idea, people might want something else. Therefore, you may have to make subsequent changes to your initial concept to meet their needs.
I also asked Rich what he thought were the most common mistakes made in today’s entrepreneurial practices. He answered with:
- Poor ideas
As mentioned earlier, it is important to design something that fulfills some sort of need. “So many people come to me with a completely stupid idea, and they are so set on it. You have to evaluate your market because many people build things that nobody wants.”
- Starting too quickly
Following up on the last point, some people build a product that nobody wants but will add features to it in an attempt to give it a stronger appeal. You’re left with a product that still has no value to customers but has all these fancy add-ons to compensate. “[Instead, you should] create a minimum value product, so you build something that does the absolute bare minimum. Then you sell it and customers can reach out [and give feedback].”
- Having the wrong team
Partnering with someon in a business is like getting married, except you will probably spend more time with your business than you will with your actual wife. “So this is someone that you have to trust absolutely and define roles. When you say you’re going to do something, you do it.”
- Uncertainty of sales timing
It is should always be in your best interest as an entrepreneur to know when sales are going to occur, almost like a clock ticking. “When starting a company, you work extremely hard to make that sale, and it’s a miracle when it happens,” he says, “You need to turn that miracle sale into something predictable, like a metronome, and that’s the difference between having a good sales team and a great sales team.”
- Charging too little for your good or service
One of the most challenging tasks for a new business is to evaluate the worth of their good or service. By charging too little, you risk losing potential profits, while on the other hand, overpricing will decrease the demand for your good. Pricing your product just right is difficult, so evaluating your market in depth, or getting outside opinions in terms of a reasonable price range could be extremely helpful.