Entrepreneur Spotlight: Kristi Zuhlke (CEO & Co-Founder, KnowledgeHound) | The Garage Group

Entrepreneur Spotlight: Kristi Zuhlke (CEO & Co-Founder, KnowledgeHound)

After spending six years in a Consumer Market Knowledge role at P&G, Kristi Zuhlke branched out to co-found KnowledgeHound, a Chicago, IL startup with a mission to build the largest database of consumer survey data in the world. Here’s what Kristi is working on, plus how the lessons she learned from the corporate world are helping her startup business grow today.

What inspired you to start KnowledgeHound? I worked at Procter & Gamble for six years, and there were many frustrating times when I couldn’t quickly answer a question about our consumer that I was sure we had somewhere within the company. I went out to the marketplace to see what solutions existed, and there was nothing. There were companies doing document repositories and search for market research, but they were really focused on searching text and delivering full documents. As Consumer Insight Managers, what we really needed were datapoints and insights.

Also, the market research industry has been given quite a lot of criticism for its lack of innovation. As Insight Managers, we rarely had great software tools that were easy to implement and utilize. Sales used Saleforce and the marketing department used Hootsuite, but why had no one innovated in market research? The market was in need, and there is no one better to create a solution for a need than someone who once lived the pain.

What big problems are you trying to solve for at KnowledgeHound? What is your mission? Today, as a brand or a business, it takes days, weeks and sometimes months to get to an answer about our consumers. With today’s technology and access to data, there is no reason why it should take this long. We are also spending millions of dollars investing in consumer research, only to save the resulting data on unsearchable share drives and hard drives, wasting important assets because we can’t access them.

Our mission is to cure corporate amnesia and give companies right time insights so they can make better, faster business decisions.

Now that you’ve transitioned to the startup world from a more corporate environment, what do you wish you’d known in your old role that you know now? How would you have approached your job and/or business challenges differently? I wish I would have networked more outside of my organization and especially with local entrepreneurs and startups. I think this would have helped me in two ways. First, it would have given me energy and inspiration to come to work excited. Getting out of your box can really energize you. Secondly, I could have been aware of many more tools that I could have piloted to see if they helped my business.

What is one thing you didn’t expect about the startup world? I didn’t expect people to be so helpful. The startup community really needs significant support since there are so many unknowns. I wasn’t expecting people to be mean, but I definitely wasn’t expecting people to be as generous with their network, introducing me to people who could help in numerous ways from recruiting, to sales, to raising money. It’s so refreshing that the startup community wants to help each other, and there are few politics among peer to peer startups. We want to help each other.

What are some lessons you learned from the corporate world that you’ve applied to KnowledgeHound? The first lesson I have applied is, “consumer is boss.” P&G taught me this. I keep the consumer at the front of our product decisions. Often, you see startups (and large corporations, too) make the mistake of dreaming of an idea, building it and then finding out that the consumer never wanted it to begin with. This problem has been so prevalent among startups that entire books have been written about how to validate your ideas with your consumer, the most famous likely being The Lean Startup.

The second lesson is that people matter. You must hire leaders. If you can’t hire a leader, then don’t make the hire. In a startup, everyone has to be self-motivated and take initiative. There are many hats to wear and so many problems to solve. Your startup will have a much greater chance of succeeding if you only hire leaders.

Thirdly, focus is critical. There are so many shiny objects that distract you. We could build this or that… but having focus is key. As a leader, communicating quarterly goals is important for the company.

What do you personally do to get and stay inspired? I talk about the problem I am trying to solve and connect regularly with consumers. Knowing how big of a problem I am solving really helps keep me motivated, and meeting with my consumer gives me new ideas all the time.

Who are some of your biggest mentors or role models in the innovation space? I have so many mentors; I need to in order to grow with my company. I connect with local mentors often for coffee to stay inspired, and I watch how they help their companies innovate. A couple of my favorites are Michelle Hayward, CEO of Blue Dog Design (an innovation design company) and Bill Furlong, CEO of SquareStack and former VP of Business Development for Bizo (recently sold to LinkedIn).

How have you fostered disruptive innovation at KnowledgeHound? We really understand our consumer need inside and out and then put extremely creative and technical minds into the same room to solve those needs. Being able to dig into a consumer need with zero constraints really helps. When you are tied to an already existing business model or old code base, this hamstrings innovation. When you are starting from scratch, you get to be creative and approach problems from very different angles.

What else are you working on at KnowledgeHound that you’re excited about? So much innovation is happening here at KnowledgeHound! We are innovation machines. We don’t want to give away too much, but we are excited to be fundamentally changing how insight organizations activate research inside their organizations. Stay tuned!

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