Understand your customer: You have to have a clear understanding of who your customer is and the value you add for them. This can take some time to master but will be instrumental in your company’s growth.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Black Men In Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nick Freeman.
Nick is Co-Founder and President at Innovare — Social Innovation Partners, an all-in-one data, strategy, and project management app that helps education and nonprofit leaders make data-driven decisions to maximize their social impact. Since launching in 2017, the company has worked with more than 60 clients in the U.S. and Latin America. A private sector transplant, Education Pioneers and Surge Institute alumnus, and currently a student at UPenn’s Program for Social Innovation Design, Nick is a self-proclaimed data geek and proud Chicago native.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Ibegan my career in the financial industry, but quickly realized that I had no desire to fit into the “good ol’ boys club” culture that permeated the industry at the time. I decided to transition into the education sector, and began working at Chicago Public Schools (CPS) as a data strategist. When I initially joined, I thought I had a clear picture of what I was getting into. I had gone to public school, completed internships in CPS, and had family working in the district at various levels. However, once I started my role analyzing school performance data across the district, I was shocked to see the inequities that exist across communities and groups in the public school system. I became passionate about working to eradicate those inequities, and I’ve taken that passion to work with me at Innovare today. I want to be sure that education and non-profit leaders are equipped with the technology that supports all of their data, strategy, and project management needs to ensure they are able to fully serve their community stakeholders at their maximum potential.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
When we initially started Innovare, I never imagined that we would be working internationally. Traveling has always been a passion of mine — there has always been something about visiting new countries and learning new cultures that gives me a sense of fulfillment. I’ll never forget my experience when we first expanded internationally and traveled Mexico City for a project. It was my first time in Mexico City, and I was able to mix in plenty of fun on the work trip. It was such a beautiful city with so much history and fantastic food! But, what I will remember the most is the culture, and how I never got the feeling that I was being seen as an “other.” There seemed to be this intentionality about recognizing and affirming individuals for who they were. The ability to walk into a work environment and not have to worry about a label being put on you right when you walk in the door was quite refreshing. It was such a different experience than what I had become accustomed to working here in the U.S.. I wish this was a more common practice here. We would be so much better off if we could recognize the value in our differences.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Looking back on it I can laugh, but it wasn’t very funny to us at the time. Very early on we learned the lesson of not doing work without a contract. There was a project that I was super excited about and I was eager to get started. Unfortunately, I got started a bit too early. I ended up building out some great data visualizations and was ready to roll them out, only to come to find out that the partner wasn’t going to move forward with the project. Now I can laugh at how so little meant so much to us back then, and how I never imagined that we would be able to grow to where we are today. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself to relax a little bit, that these learning experiences are going to prepare me for the more difficult challenges to come.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Early on in our venture we were getting constant feedback that others did not understand the problem we were solving, or that we weren’t as effective at articulating it. My co-founders and I spent countless hours refining our messaging, which became a bit exhausting and frustrating. I knew that our approach was a novel one, so seeing that others weren’t “getting it” affected me, but I never thought about giving up. What kept me going was my team, and the fact that all of us were driven to continue on despite seeing that our idea wasn’t fully understood by everyone. I thought, “Well, our clients get it, so let’s keep going!”
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am lucky enough to have had the privilege of a great support network throughout my life, but this one is simple for me; it has to be my parents. Growing up in a multiracial home with a white mother and a black father, I was raised with a unique perspective. They are two of the hardest working people I have ever met, and I can’t imagine the struggle they went through as a multiracial couple in the 1970’s. In addition to working full-time jobs and raising four children, they took the time to run the neighborhood baseball league and lead other community efforts. They both came from humble beginnings, but they created an environment that provided all the necessities for my siblings and me to thrive in a community. As a black man in today’s society, I have my own struggles to deal with. But still, to this day, I use my parent’s stories and drive to help me persevere through the obstacles and challenges that present themselves daily.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection.” — George Orwell
Growing up in the U.S., I was brought up with a very perfectionist mindset, especially being a Black man. There was never any room for error, whether it was in school, sports, or speaking to a police officer. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized that my quest for perfection had hindered me from taking risks and leaving my comfort zone. This quote speaks to me and the unlearning that I had to do in order to reject perfectionism and become comfortable with failure. By ridding myself of a perfectionist mindset, I allowed myself to follow my passion and work more authentically, which has led me to where I am today.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
I believe the issue is clear. The United States was built with a lens of white supremacy, and structural racism is rooted in its core. At the same time, access to information and data is greater than ever before, so what we are seeing is the polarization of our society like never before. We need to dismantle all of the systems and structures that continue to perpetuate racism and inequality. This is one of the most important times in our society, and we can’t have people that are opting out of this conversation. You’re either actively working with or against structural racism, and I know that when I look back on this time in the future, I will be proud of the side that I chose.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
It’s essential to have a diverse executive team to ensure that you have various perspectives at the decision-making table. In this day and age, as we design solutions for diverse communities and stakeholders, we have to be sure that we are building from an empathetic perspective. Now more than ever and rightfully so, society is becoming hyper aware of the demographic makeup of organizations. Being intentional about inclusivity and diversity in the workplace is essential; it not only makes business sense in light of changing demographics, but it is the right thing to prioritize.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. It’s hard to be satisfied with the status quo regarding Black Men In Tech in Tech leadership. What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
We need to get rid of the unconscious bias that exists in the tech industry, particularly the one that deems black founders and leaders as less “investable” than their white peers. The data is clear as day; less than 1% of VC funded startups are led by Black founders, PoC, or women. We need the industry to stop shying away from its white supremacist norms and for its leaders to ask themselves hard questions. “Why does our fund look predominantly white? Where are the black founders? Why don’t we know them? It is us? Yes!” Bottom line, we need venture capitalists, funds, and accelerators to practice what they preach and seek out, respect the capacity of, and invest in Black founders and other marginalized groups.
We’d now love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
Our organization empowers leaders in education to use data strategically in order to create a sustainable impact on students and communities. Our app organizes usually-siloed data into a visual dashboard that leaders use to develop smart strategies and manage the projects in their organization. By seeing their performance data in real-time, organizations can measure the success they are having and maximize their social impact. We have been around since 2017 and work with small and large organizations across the US and Mexico, and we are continuing to grow fast. We are especially proud to be a tech company led by people of color and people who can relate to the impact that technology can have on under-resourced communities.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes Innovare stand out is the diversity and experience of our founding team. I founded Innovare along with AJ DeLeon, a former CPS colleague, and his brother Fernando, an engineer and former Googler. As people of color, we’ve all witnessed or personally experienced the disparities that exist in education, healthcare, and other areas of society. When I say we’re passionate about our mission, it’s because we genuinely care about helping the organizations we work with maximize their impact on the communities they serve. One of the most exciting projects I support is an organization in Washington D.C. named Bright Beginnings that works at the intersection of self-sufficiency and early childhood. This partnership has hit close to home for me. My mom’s whole career was spent in early childhood, and it has been a great experience to connect and share with her something that she is so knowledgeable and passionate about along my career path. It is good to see my work and my ingenuity align with my background and that of my family.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’m very excited because we are beginning to build out the machine learning and AI capabilities of our all in one data, strategy and project management app Inno™. Soon we will be able to push relevant content and suggest strategies to our partners based on their interests, needs, and performance. We see this as a way to break down silos that exist in the educational ecosystem by suggesting proven strategies through our app. Education and nonprofit leaders will no longer need to recreate the wheel every time they go through the strategic planning and third-party-vendor selection process.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
I think the most useful approach would be to reimagine how you look at partnerships. I would advise folks who get “stuck” to reach out to mission-aligned peers to assess the possibility of designing go-to-market strategies in tandem. At our company, we see partnerships as critical to growth, so we are very intentional about looking for other businesses who can generate leads for us and to whom we can be helpful. So far, our partnerships have resulted in an increase in revenue for us as well as brand awareness, and we are only getting started.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
When I think about creating a high performing sales team, four things come to mind: (1) Hire for skill and, even more importantly, organizational culture fit. (2) Establish a clearly defined sales process. (3) Create effective onboarding and training programs for new team members. (4) Use data and transparency to create a culture of accountability and continuous improvement.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
A strategy that has worked for us has been taking the time to research and understand our ideal customer profile. We understand their goals, their pain points, and how they can use our app Inno™ to turn those into gain points. The better you know who your ideal customer is, the more targeted you can be in attracting them. Another good strategy is building out a referral program. We’ve had great success with word of mouth referrals, and in the education space, leaders love to share tools that have helped them achieve their goals with their friends.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
- Use your product analytics for objective customer experience insights and all product improvements.
- Don’t only gather feedback from your customers, act on it. Show them you were listening by adapting your solutions based on the information they provided to you when you asked for it.
- In addition to supporting your customers in “what” they are trying to achieve, support them with the “why” they are trying to achieve it.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
One of our main priorities is developing the relationships we have with our customers. At our company, we see our clients as partners. We listen to them, we create solutions based on their feedback, and we adjust to their changing needs. It’s like any other relationship, you have to invest in it to get a high return. In order to keep our high renewal rate of 97%, we get to know every customer. We know what type of coffee they drink, what their main concerns are, etc. We really know them. This makes them separating from us more challenging and it creates a relationship that is based on trust. I think just as the HBR article suggests, you have to find the right balance between finding customers who are right for you and that you can be right for. I think if you do that, you will make sure your churn is low and your customer satisfaction index is high.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Have the right team. Having a team from different backgrounds and areas of expertise is one of the most valuable assets.
- Design solutions with empathy and equity at the center. You want to design solutions that incorporate multiple perspectives and are inclusive and equitable in their impact.
- Proximity matters. Build a solution that is about a problem you are proximal to and understand well. If you know nothing about X, don’t build a business around it.
- Understand your customer: You have to have a clear understanding of who your customer is and the value you add for them. This can take some time to master but will be instrumental in your company’s growth.
- Celebrating every milestone. Just like it’s important to celebrate every birthday, I get happy every time we win a new contract or land in a new market. Have fun while you are building your venture or it will not last.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love to see our society remove its desire to label others. We must be more intentional about empathizing and learning from one another, and accepting the fact that we all have the ability to add value in our own ways. In a country like ours, especially right now, we should resist the temptation to essentialize a person. What I mean is, we shouldn’t diminish who a person is or what they bring to a table based on their physical appearance or a socially-constructed label. I want to start a movement in which no one feels the labeling I feel everyday.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
There are so many people out there that I would love to spend time with, but if I could only choose one, right now, it would be Ibram X. Kendi. I really enjoyed his book “How to Be an Antiracist,” and I just watched his TED talk not too long ago. I appreciate his dedication to the movement and would love the opportunity to engage with someone that has that type of energy and passion for the work that we do. I’m sure there would be plenty to learn from him!
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!