An Interview with Ian Natzmer

Ian Natzmer Interview

Ian Natzmer is the founder and CEO of Odeum. He started his career as an English Teacher but wanted to learn how to create technology to improve learning and engagement. So, he returned to school and received a Master’s in Computer Science with an emphasis on Educational Media.

Ian spent the next 10 years in the entertainment games and startups business in southern California where he learned how to assemble and lead talented teams, how to launch a product into the market, and how to build innovative products that customers want to use. Ian’s previous startup, Dark Vale Games, made over $1 million in revenue.

Ian has combined his skills as a teacher, software engineer innovator, and serial startup entrepreneur to create Odeum.

In this interview with Startup Savant, Ian shares his experiences while running a language learning app. He talks about how customer discovery and listening to the pain points of his potential customers are the key to success of Odeum. In all honesty, this is something every entrepreneur should be doing.

His advice to entrepreneurs starting a business:

Find your local resources, apply for the numerous grants available, and find a great advisor.

Read Ian’s entrepreneurial story below and learn how his passion lead him to creating a successful language learning platform. For more info about Odeum, follow them on Twitter!

What motivated you to start Odeum? How did the idea come about?

One of the key ingredients for success is passion. Odeum is a combination of my passion for teaching, software development, and startups. I started my career working with students as an English and Kindergarten teacher. I then went back to school and got a Masters in Computer Science.

I moved to southern California and joined the startup scene for the past 10 years and was on the founding team for the last 3 startups. When I moved back to Michigan to raise my own kids, I founded Odeum to combine my passion for teaching and technology.

Passion is incredibly important – it’s what keeps you going through all the bumps and obstacles that running a startup will throw at you. And if you can infect your team with it, then you can tackle all of the issues that will inadvertently come up.

The idea for Odeum came from playing role-playing games like World of Warcraft where players are immersed into a story driven made up 3D virtual world to take on quests. So many kids are playing World of Warcraft and I thought, “What if students were immersed this way to learn history or a foreign language?”

So instead of battling Orcs, students help Paul Revere alert that the British are coming. Of course, the next step after an idea is to verify it through customer discovery which we did by interviewing over 50 educators.

What do you attribute your success to? Is there a trait you have or a person who helped you along the way?

I think one of the mistakes many entrepreneurs make, myself included many times, is to have an idea you think will revolutionize your industry and build it before asking any potential customers if they would use it. I strongly believe Odeum’s success is built on the customer discovery we conducted early on.

Not just asking if they would use Odeum, but finding what pain point they have and are we solving it? We also talked to school districts to see what the sales cycle is and what the app approval process is like. The people you talk with during customer discovery also become your first customers. When Odeum was ready for initial school trials, we had a pool of teachers already ready to test for customer discovery.

I have been very fortunate to have found Stew Nelson as an advisor whom I meet with every week to discuss changing strategy. Having someone to bounce ideas off of and keep you motivated is especially critical for solo-entrepreneurs. Stew still meets every week with Odeum’s entire executive team.

When starting a business, do you recommend writing a business plan? Any resources or tools that can help new entrepreneurs write one?

There is definitely a process to starting a technology company that begins with customer discovery. Many of the parts of a business plan do need to be defined and you do need a strategy plan. However, as a technology startup you also need to be lean and able to pivot quickly.

At Odeum, we continuously test with teachers after each development iteration and are ready to pivot if needed. Having a business plan document that takes weeks or longer to prepare prevents you from quickly pivoting. A business plan can show investors that you’ve thought through your plans. However, you can accomplish most of this with an effective investor pitch.

I’d strongly recommend after customer discovery for any new entrepreneurs to get pitch coaching. A good pitch coaching team can view your pitch and business plan through the lens of an investor and provide valuable feedback including hooking your investor and keeping them engaged throughout the pitch.

What is unique about your business? Is there a competitive advantage that you have over the rest?

Through customer discovery, we found teachers have a hard time finding apps with content that is aligned to exactly what they are teaching. For example, a Spanish teacher who is teaching a lesson on going shopping might use a slightly different vocabulary set then a “Going Shopping” lesson in an app provides.

This usually means the teacher cannot use the app. We discovered this and so built into Odeum the ability for a teacher to modify and customize any part of the experience. They can even save it back to our library for other teachers to use.

This really goes back to customer discovery and listening to the pain points your potential customers are experiencing.

Have you ever gotten a disappointed client or customer? If so, how did you handle the situation?

With my previous startup, Dark Vale Games, we made purely entertainment games. We setup a forums site so we could get player feedback. I remember that a player started a thread saying they were frustrated they couldn’t play together as a group with his friends.

A number of other players joined in with their frustration. We actually had a feature coming through development to add group play, but instead of just telling them about it I decided to make them feel engaged and have them design the feature.

Looking back, I suppose this is partly customer discovery. The players were then happy because they felt part of the process and ownership in the product.

Did you have a hard time starting your business? How did you handle time and resources constraints?

Starting a business can definitely be challenging and it’s not easy. However, there really is a clear and defined process through customer discovery that can be followed. Finding the pain point, the appropriate solution, and the market opportunity is key.

You also wear many hats in a startup which can help with resource constraints. Knowing your own abilities and weaknesses can help guide where you find additional resources. I am strong on the technical and product side but weaker on the marketing side.

So, I quickly found a partner that can help with marketing. I also earned a specialization on Social Media Marketing from Northwestern University on Coursera to try and overcome my marketing deficiency. Not so I could lead marketing at Odeum but more so I could at least talk with my CMO and understand what he was doing.

When times get tough, what would you say motivates you to keep going? To not hit the snooze button and to keep fighting for your goals.

There are definitely times of doubt – are you building something they will use? Will they pay for it? But then I just go back to my customer discovery and see how strong the pain points were and how Odeum will help.

I’m lucky because I am working in an area where my passions lie. It really helps when you are interested and passionate about what you are doing. Finding that pain point in the domain you care about.

Is there a type of marketing that has worked amazingly for Odeum? If so, how did you stumble upon it?

We found (again, through customer discovery) that teachers form a tight community of sharing what works in the classroom. We found that Twitter can be especially effective with teachers as they are already using it to share with each other. Just as an example, a single teacher who re-tweeted one of our tweets to their group of teachers led to 15 sign-ups on our website.

We’re huge believers of every entrepreneur keeping their business’ finances under control. How do you keep Odeum books in check?

We are milestone driven. So, we look at each milestone and figure out what we need financially to reach that milestone. I’ve been in the situation with previous startups of running out of money and needing to release a product that’s not ready in order to get some revenue in.

You do get an immediate hit of revenue, but with a long term cost of a perception of an incomplete product. So, now we look at our current milestone that increases the value of Odeum and make sure we have the resources to reach that milestone.

What are the three best pieces of advice that you would give to anyone starting a business in Michigan? What do they need to know from the very beginning?

I was very surprised when I moved back to Michigan about the thriving startup community and how willing the community is to help others. There are numerous funds, incubators, and accelerators all with the purpose of helping entrepreneurs. I would highly recommend reaching out to the community.

Here in Ann Arbor, I’ve been very fortunate to get support from Ann Arbor SPARK, our local incubator. I also received investor pitch help from the New Enterprise Forum, User Experience help from the University of Michigan, and an advisor from Eastern Michigan University.

Depending on your area there are a number of resources – you don’t have to do this alone. So, the best advice I can give is to find your local resources, apply for the numerous grants available, and find a great advisor.