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14805 Detroit Ave., Suite 320
Lakewood, OH 44107

John Knific of DecisionDesk

Meet John Knific, founder of DecisionDesk, an application manager for performing arts students.

What is DecisionDesk? 

DecisionDesk is an applicant tracking system that simplifies incredibly complicated admissions and recruitment processes. We specialize in handling multimedia for video interviews, auditions and portfolio submissions. Our application manager is already used by over 100 universities and 50,000 college applicants. We manage the largest network of performing arts opportunities – over 200 – in facilitating auditions for 17 of the top 30 conservatories in the U.S.

How did you come up with the idea?

My co-founder and I were both music majors and active performers while studying at Case Western Reserve University. The company grew out of an ePortfolio service we started on campus that allows students to upload and share materials they were working on. We shopped the technology to several regional universities, including the Cleveland Institute of Music, Oberlin College, and Baldwin Wallace University. A ubiquitous pain point was the inability to process and distribute multimedia in the admissions process. As students, we also identified how terribly cumbersome the admissions and audition process was. It involves paper portfolios, burning and mailing dozens of DVDs, and expensive travel. We quickly packaged our technology as an applicant tracking system and launched 12 Beta Universities in 2010. Our clients loved it. We had 100-percent buy in our following year, and we moved forward under the new name DecisionDesk.

What was the biggest surprise in starting your business?

There are constant surprises. It's true that entrepreneurship is a game of execution, not ideas. You have a lot of romantic notions of having a startup as a college founder. We've learned that it takes a special fit and adaptable excellence to excel in a startup environment. We had some rough hires in our initial period of scaling, picking talent with a laundry list of credentials without completely understanding the organizational fit. As Thomas Edison put it, "Vision without execution is hallucination."

Where did you find your first employee?

Luckily, our third co-founder and CTO Eric Neuman is an incredibly talented software developer. We met at Case. Eric was the guy on campus from San Francisco who roller bladed to class, had a wrist strap for his PDA (personal digital assistant), and worked at NASA over the summer writing code for drones. In a team of three, you need a hustler for sales, hipster for design, and a hacker for coding. He was our hacker. As a result, our team of three was able to crank out the first version of DecisionDesk completely in-house. After a huge growth in clients and funding, we quickly scaled the team from three to eight employees in 2011, then again from eight to sixteen employees in 2012.

What does a typical day in your business look like?

I can tell you we're not a punch in at 8 a.m., punch out at 5 p.m. kind of company. There is work happening around the clock in both our Cleveland and New York office. We build our product in iterative cycles and constantly infuse data from the market place. We're lean in that regard, always pushing and getting feedback from our current and prospective customer. Our sales and business development teams develop campaigns around these cycles. I spend most of my day overseeing these campaigns, keeping a constant eye on cash, identifying needed talent, and always zooming out to make sure we're pointing the company in the right direction.

What are some of the advantages to doing business in Ohio?

In my experience as the CEO of a high-growth technology startup, there are a number of advantages to doing business in Oho. Costs of doing business are lower than most major cities, and there is great access to talent through the large network of universities in the state. There has also been a huge push over the past few years to seed more software as a service company, increasing access to capital and mentorship for idea stage companies.

What resources or organizations in Ohio did you take advantage of and how did they help?

We've benefited greatly from Ohio's entrepreneurial ecosystem. Right out of college, DecisionDesk won a variety of idea stage competitions and grants unique to the region. This includes LaunchTown, Civic Innovation Lab, GLIDE Innovation Fund, and COSE Arts Entrepreneur Award. Shortly after, the North Coast Angel Fund engaged DecisionDesk and helped us raise over $1,000,000 in equity through their network. The State of Ohio recently provided DecisionDesk with an Innovation Ohio Fund Loan of $750,000, allowing us to invest heavily in scaling our product and engineering team. In addition to this tremendous access to seed stage capital, we've built a powerful network of mentors and advisors that now extends well outside of the region. Fundable, an investor crowd-sourcing platform based in Columbus, helped us push that last portion of our angel round. We filled over $250,000 of it within two weeks as a result.

Can you share a funny or amazing entrepreneurial experience with our readers?

Very, very early on, Marc and I were coming up with an idea for a music social network – an idea fueled by beer and conversation more than market research. I took the idea to Ed Caner, who was forming the entrepreneurship program at Case. He told me the idea didn't seem to solve a real problem, but we should consider bundling it in a way to sell to schools. I left that meeting thinking, "Selling to schools, how would we do that? I don't think that's the right route."
So much for that assessment!

What inspires you?

Great artists and entrepreneurs working together. The cross section of beautiful design, real market need, and effective execution.

What founders do you admire and why?

When I was asked this question as a music student, I always tipped my hat to the jazz greats. Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, etcetera. The people I really wanted to be like were the modern performers who found a whole new voice and interpretation to the genre, and made it accessible to today's audience.

I'm going to go with a similar answer. Jobs and Gates are the archetypes of entrepreneurship, but Jack Dorsey is more accessible. He's taken two modern, complex problems and made brilliantly simple solutions. One for communication (Twitter), the other for payments (Square). Now he's throwing his hat into the ring of healthcare IT, or so the rumors say.
Mikkel Svane is proving that enterprise customer service software doesn't have to suck at ZenDesk. In fact, it can be awesome, and they're about to do $70 million in revenue having started in 2007.

What’s next for you?

We're out of the validation phase and on to growth and scaling. There's a whole new set of challenges and opportunities that accompany this phase of our company. We're aggressively bringing on the talent needed to become the best talent screening application possible.
Interview by Joe Baur

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