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An Interview Tom O'Dea of Rocket Whale

An Interview Tom O'Dea of Rocket Whale

by Matt Chanoff

Posted on 20 December 2016

It wasn’t until the Rocket Whale team had been out of Flashpoint for months that things started to gel.
“We went into Flashpoint with a digital employee handbook product and a desire to help companies improve their leadership, company culture, and/or governance,” says cofounder Tom O’Dea. “We really worked hard on the DPIs. We talked to almost five hundred people and tried all sorts of ideas and features but couldn’t get traction, couldn’t find anything specific that customers cared about.”

As the team approached demo day, they still hadn’t found anything meaningful so they pitched what they knew - a very generic problem they thought existed in HR.

“We kept at it in HR for a little while but, looking back, we were burned out. What we learned hadn’t really sunk in and in retrospect, we needed a break. We ended up gravitating towards a sales or marketing platform based on a tool we built during Flashpoint to help us get DPIs. We’re engineers and that area just seemed safer; it was an area where our customers were judged by clear-cut metrics - marketing dollars in, sales out. We thought that if we could find a reliable way to improve that equation, we could sell.”

Sam Duvall, the other co-founder, was going to become a new father, and the team decided to lay low. They ended up ditching the sales and marketing product (it turns out, the simplistic nature by which sales and marketing software customers judge success attracts a lot of competition) and continued fitfully, selling web software design & development services.

About a year after their time at Flashpoint had ended, the things they had learned from all those discussions, and the framework Flashpoint had provided, began to come together.

“We never gave up. We really believe that the only way a company comes to an end is when the founders quit, and we didn’t quit.”

“I started to focus again on Blissbook, our employee handbook software,” says O’Dea, “We had an object, a piece of software. But it wasn’t really a product; it wasn’t a meaningful thing in customer terms.” O’Dea distinguishes between an object and a product, “Any piece of software or physical device is an object, but objects have an almost infinite variety of characteristics or features. A pen is a pen, but it can be a paintbrush for an artist, a drumstick for a musician, or a weapon for Matt Damon. It’s only from the perspective of the mindset of the customer that the characteristics of an object come into focus.” As the customers - HR leaders - came into focus for O’Dea, the electronic employee handbook product did too.

“An HR manager has a role-to-role conflict. On one hand, they’re cops - their job involves rule setting, disciplinary actions, lay-offs, firings. They have to protect their company. But on the other hand, they’re at the center of attracting and retaining employees. The company has to be a welcoming, supportive place for the kinds of people they need.”

“We weren’t actively selling Blissbook, but a potential customer reached out to us, and Sam and I decided to pitch them using this way of thinking about their situation. They bought.”

Understanding this conflict put the employee handbook in sharp relief, and once Tom and Sam connected potential features to it, what to actually build became clear.

“We decided to run with it and the product has been growing ever since.”

Rocket Whale is still operating in a low-key way. The two founders live in different cities and both have young families. But sales have gone up more than 10x from $13,000 in 2015. The sales pipeline is full, and the companies in it are getting larger and larger.

By exposing and selling directly to a role-to-role conflict in their customers, Rocket Whale found authentic demand.