“We thought a great idea turned into a business right away, and we learned over 16 years, that is not the case,” recounts Laird Hedlund Nossuli, CEO of iEmergent, as she began to relate the Startup Story begun by her late father Dennis Hedlund in 2000. Hedlund, a man of keen insight and intellectual curiosity, had the visionary idea to apply sophisticated forecasting techniques to the mortgage industry. He created a tool that would identify where the market opportunities would develop, allowing banks and other mortgage lenders to train their resources on those tracts.
While moving from an idea, to a consulting firm, to a product and then to a hybrid between a product and a consulting firm, Laird had played an on again off again role in the family business. She assumed the mantel of CEO and brought her husband Bernard Nossuli into the company as COO when her father unexpectedly passed in March of this year.
The two shared the stage as they fielded questions from Mike Colwell, Executive Director of Square One DSM, and the gathered audience at the September edition of Startup Stories.
The initial success of the tools, securing 15 of the largest 25 mortgage businesses as clients in fairly short order, also showed them that continuing as a consultancy was going to become unwieldy. With that, they began the somewhat unusual transition from consultant to product. “It really is a progression,” explains Laird. “We really had to wean ourselves, as well as our clients, away from thinking of us as a consultant that would solve their problem,” said Laird. The unforeseen challenge was the gap between iEmergent’s understanding of their highly powerful and totally unique tools, and the client’s abilities to put them to use without coaching. As a result, they have settled into a paradigm where they will likely always be something of a hybrid consultant and product.
“Our sales cycle is arduously long, it can take anywhere from a year to 24 months,” shared Bernard of one of their leading challenges. Particularly as they came to understand larger institutions were their sweet spot for potential sales, the levels of approval needed and the meetings required become extensive and highly time consuming. “It’s just a numbers game, you have to keep doing it,” added Laird of the need to continuously make contacts and follow up, something she readily admits is not her favorite role.
To help the protracted sales process along, iEmergent has made its first out of the family hire, a Chief Growth Officer, or as Bernard quickly translates; a salesperson. This too has brought challenges. With such an extended sales cycle, the leadership cannot wait two years to evaluate the effectiveness of the newly commissioned position. “We have installed Insightly, a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) tool, to track his contacts and touches,” explains Bernard of their efforts to apply a metric to such a prolonged process.
As sales and marketing are complimentary, iEmergent, with their partners Far Reach, a Cedar Falls marketing firm, work hard to position the iEmergent story favorably within the relevant trade publications. Because they are literally pioneers in bringing big data to mortgage forecasting, they have earned considerable print media coverage precisely where they need it. “To sell the product, we have to sell the data, and to sell the data, we have to sell the approach,” offers Laird. She explained that right now, their marketing is really all about educating the banking industry to the possibilities of accurately forecasting mortgage sales even before explaining the iEmergent toolkit.
“We are still married,” responded Bernard with a smile to Colwell’s question of what it is like to work closely in a startup environment with your spouse. “Being a family, I think you have to do an even better job of having people work on what they are good at,” added Laird, offering that perhaps compromise comes quicker when something more than the company is at stake.
Still, what for years had been a family enterprise is now poised to expand beyond the family and some additional structure seems in order. “We’ve actually hired an executive analyst to help with some structure,” notes Bernard. He also acknowledges that company mission and vision can no longer be an understanding shared by a husband and wife who work well together, but must become readily communicable to an expanding team.
Sixteen years out from a visionary’s epiphany, evolving from a think tank, to a consultancy, and ultimately to a product that has pioneered big data’s expanding role in the mortgage industry, as well as in a larger sense community development, iEmergent continues to quietly be one of Des Moines’ best Startup Stories.