Luke Thomas took home top honors, and $1,500, Wednesday night at the Startup South Portland final pitch contest with his software startup, Friday Feedback.
Thomas, a South Portland resident, has been quietly working on Friday Feedback for the past year, putting in about 10 hours a week on top of his day job. The software-as-a-service product is an attempt to leverage technology to improve employee engagement, whether that employee is at an office or working remotely, and foster a more positive workplace culture, according to Thomas. He wants to do that by using software to make the best practices of great managers more accessible to all managers.
The solution, at its core, is quite simple: Friday Feedback helps managers gather feedback from their teams by sending a weekly check-in email to employees. Employees can use the automated check-in to share feedback on their week, highlight wins, and send kudos to coworkers. Managers are also able to collect anonymous feedback on a quarterly basis.
Thomas said he already has 1,000 people using Friday Feedback on a weekly basis and that he should be at a $60,000 run rate by the end of the year. (Full disclosure: Friday Feedback is a past sponsor of Maine Startups Insider.)
Adam Nyhan, an attorney with Opticliff Law and one of the judges during the final pitch event, was impressed with the thought Thomas had put into addressing a specific workplace challenge that he himself had faced.
“Luke painted a really clear picture of a recognizable pain point—employers lose real money each year as lousy managers drive away good employees,” Nyhan said. “He mapped that need to the solution that he’s already sold to multiple impressive clients, and he convinced me he’s validated both his market and his product and now is just fine-tuning his growth strategies.”
Martha Bentley, director of innovation infrastructure at the Maine Technology Institute and another judge at the event, said she was impressed with the’ early customer acquisition and retention, not to mention revenue, that Thomas has demonstrated, despite it still being his “side hustle.”
“Many of the judges also expressed interest in becoming customers, a testament to the compelling pitch,” Bentley said.
The event was the culmination of Startup South Portland, an effort to generate more excitement around entrepreneurship in the South Portland area. It featured two previous pitch events where more than a half dozen local business owners pitched their concepts to a panel of judges. Thomas came in second during the initial pitch contest, held in mid September. For winning the final event he received a $1,500 check. Amanda Farrington of Latte Meow, a cat cafe, won second place and $500. Both also won trademark law services from Opticliff Law and a license to Branding Compass for their products.
A startup born from experience
Thomas was inspired to start Friday Feedback after having his own frustrating experiences working under managers who were out of touch, a widespread problem he claims is a leading reason why companies lose good employees.
After graduating from the University of Maine in 2013, Thomas moved to Boston for a job at an early-stage tech company.
“Over a span of a few months, I reported to three different leaders (engineering, marketing, product) and experienced a whirlwind tour of various management styles,” he said. “One style didn’t work so well for me, so I left the company.”
Thomas’ experience is not unique. Roughly half of employees who voluntarily leave a company do so to get away from their boss, according to a study by Gallup that surveyed 7,200 adults. Meanwhile, another Gallup poll revealed that only 32% of employees in the United States were engaged in their jobs.
“As I reflected on the experience, I came to the conclusion that the most important thing a leader could do is ask a few basic questions like, ‘How are things going?’, ‘How can I help?’, and act like they cared,” Thomas said.
He thought at the time about building a tool that would make it easier to share feedback with his manager. At one point, he floated the idea of a basic weekly survey to a friend who was CTO at a startup, and this friend liked the concept and tried a rudimentary version that he said proved valuable. But Thomas sat on the idea.
It wasn’t until he had returned to Maine and was working remotely for another startup—he’s now head of growth at Crystal, a Salesforce Ventures-backed software company based in Nashville—that he started thinking about his survey tool again. He started dabbling. He wrote some code for an early version, and eventually hired a freelance software engineer to fill in some of the gaps. He then emailed everyone he knew to see if they’d be willing to try it and provide him with feedback.
“It looked super ugly, but it ‘worked,'” Thomas said.
He collected feedback from his beta testers, added improvements along the way and eventually started getting inquiries from friends of friends who wanted to give the tool a try. He began charging for the product last summer, and now has 1,000 people using the product.
In such ways are startups born.
Team leaders are the key to building a highly productive and happy workforce, Thomas said, but too often managers don’t do a good job of consistently checking in with their individual team members, and tracking employee engagement. Instead, they push off that task until annual-review time, which is usually too late, Thomas said.
“The annual survey is great at taking a temperature of the organization, but it does absolutely nothing to help improve culture and engagement,” Thomas said. “The best analogy I can think of is someone who hopes to lose weight by stepping on a scale. You need to take action to see improvements.”
Thomas expects to continue growing the business in Maine. He’s recently begun to divert some of the company’s cashflow from product development to sales and marketing. Overall, his goal is to build a product that employees actually want to use, and one that can help managers and executives appreciate culture and measure it in a way similar to how a CFO measures the financial health of a business.
“Software can’t replace the human aspect of leading a team, but it certainly can break many of the barriers that exist,” he says.