In Conversation with Tech Entrepreneurs – See Forge
“You have to nail the problem and you have to understand the customer. It’s something we continually refine and focus.”
The entrepreneur’s first challenge comes before they have a prototype, investor or customer. From the outset they must identify a real problem, one that exists outside of their own imagination and actually needs solving. For James McDonough, founder and CEO of SEE Forge, this is the decisive point on which ideas can succeed or fail. “You have to nail the problem and you have to understand the customer. It’s something that we continually refine and focus.” The judges at OzAPP app awards 2011 were impressed by his team’s ability to do just that. Their product provides tools for the heavy industries to digitise any procedure. It reduces friction and human error, replacing lots of paper and excel based systems.
Their success at the OzAPP app awards provided the team with contacts and advice, and ultimately, the nudge they needed to take the plunge and move to the states. Since then they have refined their product, first in Silicon Valley, the proverbial motherland of digital start-ups. Then, in Houston, Texas, the heart of the oil industry, where the company now focuses its efforts.
“Dive into it, do whatever it takes to make it work”
“The decision to go to the States wasn’t something we’d really thought about until OzApps” says James. “We were so busy getting our product off the ground, doing whatever it takes. And that was why we went. As a start-up you have to dive into it, you have to do whatever it takes to make it work.”
James spent 15 years working on site in heavy industries such as oil and gas and has a truly authentic connection to his customers. “I’ve been working to try and solve these problems for years, I’ve been living them.” It was his understanding of their end user – frontline workers, that prompted the rebranding of the product from SEE Forge to FAT Finger. “These are people who don’t use this kind of technology much, and because of the nature of the work they are often big men, with ‘fat fingers’, who can’t be dealing with little buttons on touch screens. Everything needs to be fluid and simple.”
James had a designer on board from day one and their efforts have been a success. “The FAT Finger thing has really struck a chord with people”, says James. We were SEE Forge for quite a while, but since the product has been renamed I get people at conferences calling out “Hey, you’re the FAT Finger guy”. It was a good feeling when that recognition first happened!”
“Mental conditioning, or mindfulness, is important to deal with the ups and downs.”
An entrepreneur at heart (James has a photo of himself at five in the classic lemonade stand pose) he is also passionate about his product. He believes in it. “As the founder of a start up you are going to have to spend years talking about whatever it is you are doing. You are pitching it over, and over again. If you can’t keep doing that with passion and belief you won’t be able to grind through the hard years.”
“Mental conditioning, or mindfulness, is important to be able to deal with the ups and downs. You also need mental stamina”, says James, “at the same time as signing a new customer we’ll be dealt some kind of really low blow, it is a rollercoaster. And in the b2b world we inhabit many of our first customers are effectively putting their careers on the line taking our product on. They did it because they believed in us. That can be very stressful thing to deal with”.
“Network as much as you can, find mentors and peers.”
Their success at the OzAPP app awards gave them access to a community of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who offered them invaluable help navigating the choppy waters. “The great thing about entrepreneurs is they are willing to share. I have been helped by so many people in the industry, often very successful and well-known people. They have given up their time just to help us, it’s amazing. You have to network as much as you can, find mentors and peers.”
As for the future James is characteristically modest, but optimistic. “We’re still right at the early stages. But we have a big idea which we are continually refining. We focussed it first to the oil and gas industry and now we’re at the stage of focussing on individual business – actual customers. Every day we go into the office with the ambition of making the company grow. Everything we do now, is about that.”