Three years ago, Ray Gillenwater was the youngest executive at Blackberry, a 27-year-old making $US500,000 a year in total compensation. But he quit to bootstrap a startup called SpeakUp.
SpeakUp is a cool concept, born out the frustration he had at BlackBerry.
SpeakUp is a way for employees to share their insight and ideas with managers and allow other employees to weigh in. Employees can post a solution to a problem and other employees can vote it up, comment, vote it down, or ask questions Quora-style. This can be done named or anonymously.
“Most companies are bad at upward communication. A lot are good at top-to-bottom style communication, the kind the military invented, but very rarely is a company good at extracting insight from employees who know the company and its customers best,” Gillenwater told Business Insider.
“Speak-up is all about constructive input. Managers don’t even see problems, only the best solutions to problems. It’s not a bitch-fest. The idea is to make things better for everyone,” he explains.
The idea came to him two times.
The first was when he was a sales manager for Blackberry in Indonesia. He was about to sign a $US40 million purchase order for the newest phone at the time, the Black Pearl, and as he was looking for the product materials, “I realised that there was no marketing plan to launch this product,” he said.
No marketing plan in the region meant that people wouldn’t actually learn about it and then go out and buy it. And that meant “I wouldn’t be able to get partners to sign on for the next product. Being the person that I am (I don’t have respect for things like politics), I went straight to boss’s boss, tracked down the senior VP of the region while he was at the airport, and told him we needed a marketing plan right away.”
He agreed, and with his support, a marketing plan was created pronto. But it made Gillenwater wonder how many other employees noticed things and never spoke up, especially if they had to leapfrog their superiors.
“Not everyone was willing to risk their jobs the way I am. How do you get people to focus on business, not on the politics or their own job preservation?”
The second time the idea came to him was when he had just been promoted to be the top guy, the general manager of BlackBerry’s Australia and New Zealand region. He hadn’t lived there, didn’t know the people, and didn’t know BlackBerry’s strengths and weaknesses there. So he met with employees and business partners.
He asked a friend of his who worked for a management consultant firm, “Is there some kind of tool to help me capture all of this team input so we can use it?”
“When it became clear to me that I needed to leave BlackBerry, they were going to delay the BlackBerry 10, again, I decided it was time for me to go,” he says.
A few months later, he turned to his friend, Keith Barney for help. Barney was known as a musician in Orange County, California’s punk scene, but for his day job he worked as a graphic designer. The two became co-founders and SpeakUp was born.
“I put in 350,00 of my own money to get started,” Gillenwater says. “We raised $US350,000 from angels, including the guy at the airport I tracked down, who is now a firm believer in me, and also some guys at Apple, Samsung, and in the HR business.”
SpeakUp officially came out of stealth in September as both a website and an app. Flash forward to February. Gillenwater just turned 30, and SpeakUp now has 400 companies in 380 cities worldwide signed on through its freemium model, he says.
One thing about SpeakUp, he warns. It’s not for every company.
“We are sure not for everyone. One of them is BlackBerry. We aren’t for companies that don’t really care what employees are thinking, who want you to keep your head down and just work,” he says. “But there are a lot of companies that encourage employees to speak up and want to make it safe for them to do so.”
Now they can.