Chris Whitlow | Crain's Orlando

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Chris Whitlow

Background:  

Edukate is a financial wellness platform that empowers an employer’s workforce to become financially savvy, using interactive learning tools and gamification. The Orlando-based startup engages employees about boosting their financial wellness while providing analytics to help employers understand and address their employees' financial issues.

The Mistake:

Thinking your solution is the solution to everybody’s problem. The ideas I originally brought to the marketplace were not the ones that the marketplace was willing to accept at that time.

My background was in the traditional corporate world. I worked for two investment banks. As an entrepreneur at heart, I was constantly trying to solve the business problems that we came across in some new way. We were managing retirement plans for folks, and we were trying to figure out how we could effectively deliver better education and communication to individual employees so they would participate in their retirement more effectively.

The old solution of doing that was an individual person going to a company and meeting with an employee one-on-one. But as I saw all the technology around me changing our world, I felt the solution — especially the scalability of one or two people to come in and meet with thousands of people — had to introduce technology.

When I brought that to the market — when I left my job and was really working on this — the initial concepts were well-received by the industry. They really liked the idea that we would take this [simple] concept and bring it into the cloud and teach people online as an effective supplement to the education that was taking place.

But what I didn’t really think about was the mechanics behind it, the economics behind it, and how everybody who did my job didn’t do it the same way I did it. They did it their own way. They cared about their own things and their clients cared about things that were slightly different from the things I cared about.

We went on a very long journey of trial and error to try and figure out the solution. What are the mechanics behind how a customer would use our solution so that it could be effective?

We went on a very long journey of trial and error to try and figure out the solution.

The Lesson:

At that point, there are two things you can do. One is that you can change your product and move toward what the market perceives as the solution. And you can do that wholeheartedly. And in our case, we would have had a completely different product.

Or two, you can kind of be what Steve Jobs had done and say, “I know the world needs an iPhone, so I’m gonna go ahead and build the iPhone anyway, and when the marketplace catches up to that, when we release it and give it to them and it’s functional, then they’ll start to adopt it.”

And the challenge with going in that direction is that you have to have the staying power and you have to have a little bit of luck. You have to have a heck of a lot of perseverance in order to continue to build on something that isn't particularly getting the traction that you would like for it to have.

You have a choice to make: Either follow the market, follow what the customers are saying and start to build your product their way. Or you can continue to persevere and build the product toward what you would have it be.

So Edukate today [focuses] on holistic employee wellness. We teach employees how to save for retirement but also how to budget today, how to take care of a loved one or how to start a family. So, we’ve mimicked what the industry wanted without deviating away from the original idea and plan.

Today, I’m a lot more careful in understanding who we work with and I really focus on telling people that you should be solving the problem that you were meant to solve — meaning that no one else should be able to solve this problem like you. And if you’re working on that idea, then you’re working on the right idea.

Follow Edukate on Twitter at @teamedukate.

Photo courtesy of Chris Whitlow

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