I’m Chris Rochester. I’m starting my second year at Kellogg in the fall. And I’m the co-founder of Ribbon.
How are you doing today?
Doing pretty well. Just keeping busy. It’s been a fast five weeks.
Yeah, you’re nearly done. How are you feeling about that?
It kind of ebbs and flows. For the first couple of weeks there was a lot of programming to get some of the infrastructure in place. I think now we’ve really ramped up. We’re getting in front of a lot more potential customers. I wish we’d been in this position a couple of weeks ago, but I’m excited about where we are now and the next couple weeks we have left.
What is Ribbon? Can you tell me more about it?
Sure, so Ribbon is an employee appreciation platform. What we’re trying to do is help managers provide their employees with more impactful recognition. We believe to provide that recognition, you need to personalize it. We use a unique onboarding process to better understand employees’ personal interests and career aspirations. Then we use that to distill key insights and provide personalized recognition recommendations to their managers.
What inspired you to create Ribbon?
Well, it kind of started as a different product. I had been working with another Kellogg student on a more personal gifting experience product. A few years ago I was working crazy, crazy hours at this job and my girlfriend at the time – luckily, she’s now my wife – her birthday was coming up. I was like “I’ve gotta get her a card, gotta get her a card, gotta get her a card,” but I just never got away from my desk. Then suddenly I found myself rushing to the airport to meet her for a trip we were taking without a card in hand. And that almost ended our relationship. I was thinking back on this and a light went off in my head. The intention was there, I wanted to get her something nice, but there were enough hurdles that it just didn’t happen. I was looking for a solution that would give me a little more ease with gifting.
As my cofounder and I started working on this project in Kellogg, we were doing all these customer interviews and the thing that kept coming up was that people had received a lot of bad recognition and gifts at their jobs. It was impersonal: like a bottle of wine for a person who doesn’t drink or a Starbucks gift card for someone who doesn’t like coffee. We realized that there were people receiving recognition that actually had a negative effect on them rather than a positive effect. There were so many managers who wanted to do something nice for their employees, but weren’t sure how so they defaulted to these generic options. Ribbon is the solution to that.
So currently, what is Ribbon? A software? A training? An experience?
It’s a combination of things. Down the line, we want it to be software based. Right now, we have an onboarding survey, then we pull out key attributes of an employee and we match that to gifts and experiences that would be positive. From there, if a manager has someone they want to recognize, we will provide them with a curated list of three or four ideas we think would be most impactful for the employee.
What has been the biggest challenge in getting Ribbon off the ground?
I think the biggest challenge has been finding our audience. In early conversations with HR managers, there was a lot of interest in the product and verbal validation. But when it came time to convert [to customers rather than advisors], we realized interest and adoption were two very different things. We’ve done a lot of work to think about what companies or customers would really be excited and willing to purchase our product. We’ve really been narrowing our scope in order to find meaningful partnerships.
How have you been testing your product?
We ran our first pilot right before Wildfire. It was a great experience. It was a lot of logistics and figuring things out on the fly, but at the end of the day the reception we got from the manager who tested the product was really amazing. He had a group of MBA interns that he wanted to recognize and thank for their time, so we helped curate gifts for each of them. The best thing about that was that he sent me a picture of all of his interns opening their up gifts the day after I delivered them and they all seemed so happy. Really, what we’re trying to do is make sure employees feel valued and known in the workplace – so seeing that process play out and succeed was really important to us.
Do you imagine that delivery and personal curation of gifts will be a long-term part of Ribbon or was that just part of this testing period?
I think we would like to operationalize it a little better. Right now, we want to have control over the whole Ribbon experience from start to finish. In the future, I think there are many potential partners who could help us facilitate that gift-delivery side of things. We want this product to be a beautiful offering and we want managers to feel really proud of the gifts they’re giving, so we’re playing a heavier role to ensure that.
Have you had any really impactful mentors during this process?
Yeah, one of the great things about being a student at Kellogg is that there are lots of great resources through classes and professors. I think one person in particular who has had a lot of impact on us is a professor I had last quarter named Rick Desai. He teaches New Venture Development, which is part of a sequence in Kellogg that teaches you how to think about a new idea, validate it in the market, and launch it. In the development phase Rick really accelerated our process with Ribbon. He made us think about the marketing from the beginning and test all of our assumptions. I don’t think I’d be so confident in Wildfire if it weren’t for his class.
How has Wildfire helped you succeed?
As a student, it’s hard to balance personal life, working on a startup, and classes all at once. Having the opportunity to invest more time and fully immerse myself in the business is amazing. Unfortunately I’m still finding that there still aren’t enough hours in the day, even with a team of interns. There’s just so much we need to get done, especially with the summer coming to an end and knowing that I’ll be back in classes soon. I’ve learned so much in the last five weeks and had such an awesome team. There’s been a lot of shared knowledge during the program. The speakers have given me so many ideas about things to try and not to try. I’m excited for the weeks that are left.
This article is part of an ongoing series highlighting the startup teams admitted to Wildfire, The Garage’s Summer Pre-Accelerator Program. For more information about Wildfire, click here.