Interview with Ollie Gardener, Co-Founder of Noddlepod

Find out how her career as a learning and development manager inspired Ollie Gardener to create Noddlepod, a social learning tool that is simple to use and flexible enough to fit any workflow.

What’s your career background?

I started out in my career  as a learning and development manager in a number of large, international corporations. During that time I worked with leadership development programmes and talent development with a focus on knowledge sharing, with companies who had headquarters in New Zealand, Norway and the UK.

I was particularly curious about how to enable collaboration and learning across cultural divides, but I quickly realised that cultural divides can exist within an organisation too.

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I learned that many organisations struggle to get knowledge to flow across the hall, from one department to another, let alone across countries. I became interested in the triggers for good collaboration and social learning, and the role technology could play to help bridge some of these challenges.

Where did the idea for Noddlepod come from?

In community building you are often taught to work towards an activity level where the community starts running itself. Lots of activity means the community is doing well and is delivering value to its members.

While this is true to some extent, it is only part of the picture. As the activity (and potential value) of the group goes up, the time it takes to keep up with the community and find that value (cost of meaningful participation) goes up too. Before you know it, the activity level you worked so hard to build up is the cause of the community’s decline.

I started experimenting with ways of ensuring that the “signal to noise” ratio would stay intact even as the community and its activity levels grew. My husband is a systems architect and helped me write some simple scripts to test some of my ideas. Small tweaks had a tremendous impact, not just on activity levels but also the feedback we received about the value of the community.

It made me wonder what else could be done to increase the value of community participation and why nobody else was doing this.

How did you move from idea to actual business?

As the idea started to take shape I applied for a grant to help validate the business idea and establish a small company. With the grant approved I quit my job and started working on developing and honing the idea full time. I was reliant on my husband’s skills to make the business work, and while the grant covered many of our initial costs, it could not be used for salaries.

Needing a way to finance our own living costs and for both of us to work on the idea, we rented out our home and moved somewhere we could live off the rent.

We packed everything in the car and lived in Croatia and Spain while we built the application and our market presence. As our customer base grew we decided to move to the UK to seek investment.

What’s your USP?

No other social platform provides such easy access to the knowledge and insights shared within the community, allowing members to build on the collective wisdom of the group.

Content is organised and notifications are personalised to ensure the user finds what is relevant to them with minimal time spent. The result is productive communities that can easily access relevant activity whether it was shared 6 minutes or 6 months ago.

Who’s your target audience?

Noddlepod is used in a variety of contexts where trusted groups need to collaborate and to share knowledge and resources with each other. It really is a great platform for making leadership development programmes more collaborative and tapping into the knowledge and experience of the participants.

We have a partner programme with consultants which offers complimentary services in this market, which has allowed us to scale a very personal approach to customer service.

Additionally, Noddlepod has become very popular with membership organisations and non-profit organisations as a platform to encourage knowledge sharing and communication between their members and associates. A prime example of this is Transform International, an American based NGO supporting locally run aid projects internationally.

How do you spread the word about what you do?

Networking was instrumental at the beginning. In the earlier stages of setting up a business, your customers buy into the idea and what you stand for, as much as the product you have to offer.

As the product strengthens and starts speaking for itself, word of mouth and referrals have taken over. We’ve found that being proactive and approachable on social media makes a big difference in building a relationship based on an initial recommendation.

What’s been your most successful marketing strategy?

In terms of landing customers, nothing has ever beaten the power of personal relationships and network building. Over time, we have tried many approaches such as  stands at conferences, and pursued different content and social marketing strategies using various channels – each with varying degrees of success. In my experience the channel you choose to generate leads is less important.

What matters is that you have the time and arena in which to quickly establish a connection with the leads that come through, and it’s vital to get a real understanding of their needs.

I find it more effective to network at conferences than to gather business cards at a stand. I blog and share articles on social media, but it is in through the discussions that this content generates that relationships are forged.

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

Finding a way to finance the early stages of developing our business was a massive challenge at the time. With only a concept and some sketches to show for, we weren’t able  to get a loan, and investors would have wanted a large chunk of the company which we weren’t willing to sacrifice.

We knew the importance of taking our time, releasing early and often, and getting regular feedback from customers. As a husband and wife team we couldn’t both work on the business the way things were, nor could we make progress without both of us committing to the project.

The solution was to rent out our house in Norway and to move somewhere with lower living costs. We lived in Croatia and Spain before moving to the UK. This was not only great fun but also instrumental in allowing us experiment, to scrap versions that didn’t work and to listen to the advice of our earlier customers and partners.

What are your three top pieces of advice for someone wanting to do something similar?

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” –Henry Ford’.

The balancing act between being true to your vision and following customer demand doesn’t stop and can provide some real headaches for an entrepreneur. My first piece of advice is to find the customers who buy into you and your vision early on. Involve them in any way you can to help you build your business as well as your product.

Secondly, you get so much advice and information as an entrepreneur. It is all well meaning, but much of it conflicting or misaligned with your vision. Learn to seek out second opinions and the views of fellow entrepreneurs. Listen to your instincts and keep things simple whenever possible. Make sure the advice you follow is aligned with where you want to go!

Finally, make sure you surround yourself with people that have fun together, that are happy to disagree and to question each others views, but who have the same overall vision. It is a rollercoaster ride best enjoyed in company!

You can find out more about Noddlepod on their website