David Gardner and ColorJar may just embody the Midwestern idea of the American Dream. Gardner grew up in Minnesota, attended Dartmouth where he founded his first start-up, and then moved to Chicago where he founded ColorJar.
It makes sense that this genuine and humble CEO would be involved in Techweek Chicago, and has been for several years. This year Gardner is speaking at the “Branding and Tech” track and focusing on positioning strategy and helping tech companies break through the “noisy world.”
BM: What initially drew you to wanting to be in the start-up, tech industry?
David: Going back in time to 2003, where I did my first tech startup, when I was a student at Dartmouth. We created a positive news website for the college and the community. That was my first taste. The internet was a very different place. This was a pre-Facebook world, pre-Twitter, pre-YouTube… I was hooked from there.
BM: What advice would you give to a new startup?
David: People are right to give the advice to put something out into the world quickly and see how users react. But I would pair that with advice that you need to be very intentional with everything you do. Yes, get a product out there quickly for people to use, but don’t underestimate the importance of taking a step back to figure out how you fit into the world, what’s special, and how you convey that to everyone.
Because you could have the best product in the world, but if people don’t very quickly understand what it is and why it’s valuable and how it fits into their lives, they’re never going to give it the time of day.
You could have an amazing product, but if people don’t understand it before they use it, they are never going to try it at all. The only way to do that is to be incredibly intentional with your message and every brand decision that you make.
BM: Did anyone ever give you great advice early on that you have kept with you?
David: A lot of people—I can’t really give the credit to any one person. The Chicago tech community as a whole is so inclusive and supportive, that I feel very fortunate….Even people who could be competitors of ours are supportive and I’m supportive of them. The last three or four years has been really cool to the gain momentum and reach a point where it’s kind of a frenzy. I would really give credit to everyone in Chicago, that’s really why ColorJar has been successful, because there are so many people rooting for us and being helpful.
BM: Is that sense of community what kept you here in Chicago?
David: I think the theme for me with Chicago is balance. It’s a very balanced place to live. That sounds like maybe not an exciting thing, but I think it is actually wonderful. It’s a huge metropolis and has every opportunity you could want from living in a big city: from food, culture, business, on and on. There are an amazing amount of talented people that live here, especially with all of these great universities.
Employees, we call them “teammates” here, tend to be extremely loyal. We have people work here and stay here a long time, and that’s unique to us, but also something I’ve heard from other founders in Chicago. In some other places people really hop around a lot more.
That loyalty is wonderful when you are trying to build a company and a culture. There are tons of great customers in Chicago with all the large companies that are headquartered here. It just seems to have the right mix. It has the right balance of a lot of different things that make Chicago a great place to live.
BM: What is the biggest positioning and branding challenge for a start up?
David: The biggest challenge is not to over-message. So many people are too close to what they are doing and are too in love with top three or five or seven features or benefits of how the product could be used. They want to be broad as to not limit the amount of customers they have.
The key is to understand yourself so well that you are confident enough to be able to pick out the one thing you’re best at and lead with that only for a very specific audience.
Once you are able to reach that specific audience with a specific message, you can broaden from there. I think people are too general and lead with far too much. Customers have very short attention spans and they don’t have a lot of time. You need to convey what’s important and why they should give you a shot, very quickly.
BM: Do you have a favorite or most memorable project you have worked on here at ColorJar?
David: That’s difficult, there are so many. But it’s been really fun to see what Kapow Events has done. We began working with them when it was just three partners in a room, and the room was our office because they didn’t have one. It was just three partners and an idea. It had a different name, and it was early. We helped them figure out the initial user experience and how it should be designed and developed and we created a product for them.
To see them go from that, three guys with an idea just 3.5 years ago, to today having 170 plus employees and being in a dozen or so cities, and adding an office in a new market every month and growing at the rate at which they’re growing has been pretty cool to be part of along the way.
BM: What is most rewarding about founding a company like ColorJar?
David: The people at ColorJar. We all get to work together. We really built an A-Team of some of the best strategy, development, design, and project management talent around. To be able to call those people peers and teammates and go in and do this together every day has been the coolest part.
You can watch David’s panel at Techweek Chicago OR watch it for FREE on our livestream here.
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