Innovation can crop up where and how you least expect it. In our series “An Unexpected Source of Innovation,” we take a look at some of America’s little-known sources of technological creativity!
If your image of a tech company founder is a Mountain Dew swilling 20-something with unkempt hair and an unwashed t-shirt, you’re hardly alone.
But that Silicon Valley stereotype is worlds away from these three business leaders who are using information technology to disrupt, upend and even reinvent entire industries.
Although she is a 20-something, Lucy Stonehill is hardly the picture of the awkward, bespectacled technology entrepreneur hunched over a keyboard. In fact, Stonehill, 27, admits to knowing nothing about technology when she came up with the idea for her business in 2012. Her company, BridgeU, is a London-based educational consulting startup that works somewhat like a dating site except, instead of matching people with potential mates, it connects overseas students with U.S. universities. Upon graduating from Dartmouth College in 2010 with a degree in English Literature, Stonehill found herself weighing her career options when it occurred to her she was already providing educational consulting services to friends in Europe. “Particularly,” she says with precise British elocution, “how to navigate through the complexity that is preparing for and applying to American colleges and universities.”
Stonehill moved to New York and founded a company that was “formalizing what I was otherwise doing informally,” she says. She quickly realized the traditional one-on-one service based model wasn’t sustainable for the long term. “There was only one of me, there was only one of my other various consultants and there was a capped number of students we could really work with in a year.” In addition, she says, “the students we were working with, regardless of where they were from in the world, were encountering the same pain points and challenges throughout the preparation and application process.” It was then she realized she had an opportunity to take her company to the next level. To make the business scaleable and to overcome what she describes as the “meager” profit margins of the traditional consulting model, Stonehill turned to IT. She sketched out the idea for her new system and hired an outside development agency to work on a prototype. Eventually, she recognized the need for a technical co-founder. Friends introduced her to Hywel Carver, a software engineer who had studied at Cambridge, and the two immediately hit it off. Stonehill returned to London and, with Carver’s help, rewrote the platform from the ground up.
Today, BridgeU allows users to complete a personal profile—just like on a dating site. Based on answers to a series of questions, the system then matches students with appropriate universities in the States. From there, the software teaches students how to communicate their strengths and develop a winning application. It even provides testing, essay and post-submission support. Within just a few months of its launch, BridgeU is already serving several thousand students in nearly 90 countries. In fact, Stonehill’s company is well positioned to take advantage of the higher education preparation space—a market that is expected to grow to $100 billion by 2017. “It is my goal to be a very disruptive, large player in this industry,” she says confidently as she now talks about the technology driving her enterprise.
Another leader who is using technology to reinvent a low-tech industry is 1-800-Got-Junk? founder and CEO, Brian Scudamore. After what he describes as an “awful” moving experience a couple of years ago, Scudamore realized he was just the guy to revolutionize the entire moving industry. “I thought, ‘this business shouldn’t be this difficult,’” he says. “I set out with a vision to completely turn the industry upside down on its head.”
The result is You Move Me, a high-tech take on the traditional family movers’ model. You Move Me takes advantage of his trash-hauling company’s existing infrastructure—a framework honed and perfected over more than two decades. “The technological platform allowed us to launch 25 franchise partners literally overnight across Canada and the United States,” says Scudamore. Customers enter a set of pre-defined criteria such as their address, the square footage of their home and whether or not there are elevators or stairs and You Move Me’s online booking system returns an instant, accurate quote for the move. “Just as someone might go into Uber and be able to have a vehicle dispatched to them right away, we’re the same,” says Scudamore. The movers even use the system to provide customers whose coffee makers have already been packed with specialty hot beverages. Plus, at the end of your move, You Move Me will give you a housewarming plant with a thank you card. What other tech company does that?
In 2014 (the company’s first full calendar year), You Move Me is on track for revenue of $14 million dollars. Scudamore expects his new venture to surpass 1-800-Got-Junk?’s $150 million annual revenue in just five years—something that took that company 25 years to achieve. That definitely calls for a Grande cappuccino with extra chocolate sprinkles.
How important is IT at the world’s largest online mortgage retailer? “I think technology is everything,” says Quicken Loans’ CIO Linglong He. “Sometimes we tell people we are a technology company that does marketing extremely well,” she says. He started with Quicken Loans as a developer in 1996 and rose to her current position in 2010. Today, she oversees a team of more than 1,100 IT professionals who work with over 200 platforms.
Quicken Loans is huge—the company did $3.6 billion in sales in 2013—but, unlike other large businesses that have found it difficult to adapt to new technologies, under He’s stewardship, Quicken Loans has continued to innovate. Recently, the company implemented a platform known as EPIC (Evaluates Prioritizes Integrates Calculates), which streamlines and automates workflow, tasks and processing. The system allowed the company to nearly double its loan-servicing portfolio from $80 billion in 2012 to $150 billion in 2014.
One way the Detroit-based business continues to innovate is by embedding business analysts with the IT team. These 100 or so “Mousetrappers” (so called because their goal is to build a better mousetrap) help the development team by suggesting ways to improve efficiency and streamline processes.
Another way He keeps things fresh is something she calls “Bullet Time,” a four-hour window during the workweek in which developers can devote their energy to outside projects. “Every Monday afternoon, the entire technology team can work on whatever they want to work on,” she says. “They are not going to work on a to-do list from their leaders. We try to reserve time for our team members to have the freedom to explore and to prototype cutting-edge technology.” That’s not just building a better mousetrap, that’s redefining the whole concept of mousetrap innovation.
Forget the clichés. The ideas for the next big life-changing technologies—the ones that help you to decide which school to apply to, assist your move to a new city for that dream job, or allow you to secure financing for your first home—will come out of the minds of hardworking individuals with real-world experience … not from baby-faced programmers with Dorito-stained fingers and sketchy social skills. That’s IT you can bank on.
Michael Kerr is an award-winning business and technology writer based in Portland, Oregon.
Related Business Solution: IT Consulting Services
This blog was originally posted on Forbes.com