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Waterloo startup's app brings employee know-how to front office

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Clockwise from right: Dave Rhinehart, Nicole Forsyth, Trace Steffen, Angie Steffen, Kenny Stevenson and Alyx Sandbothe take part in a discussion at HowFactory in Waterloo.

WATERLOO | A Waterloo startup is focused on minding other people’s business.

The startup is software and service company HowFactory, and it helps corporate clients -- often manufacturers -- streamline the way they document their standard operating procedures and employee training guides.

HowFactory saw a market for such streamlining procedures after co-founders Trace Steffen and Kenny Stevenson had noticed binders and filing cabinets that were bulging with procedural guides. The pair developed a cloud-based application that could eliminate the stacks of paper documents.

HowFactory came out of the Iowa Startup Accelerator -- a 90-day program that matches tech startups with funding and guidance and propels them toward launch -- last fall and incorporated a short time later.

The company launched formally at TechCrunch Disrupt NY, one of the world’s major technology conferences for startups, May 4-6 in New York.

The company’s primary service is a web app that allows companies to document Standard Operating Procedures, work instructions, and training.

It got plenty of notice at TechCrunch, where it qualified for the event’s Startup Battlefield, pitching against other new enterprises from around the world.

“Everyone wanted to be in the slot we were in, out of 20 companies out of 250 startups trying to get attention there,” Steffen said. “We told our story well and, especially after we pitched, there was a buzz about this scrappy team from Iowa.”

Past winners at TechCrunch include Dropbox, Mint and Yammer.

“In the history of TechCrunch, a little over 500 companies have gone through it; this is a mainstay thing,” Stevenson said. “Those companies have raised $4 billion in capital.”

The new company won a $50,000 investment after their pitch at TechCrunch.

“Pretty clearly, we were doing things right,” Steffen said.

Stevenson noted that only one of every 10 startups will last more than two or three years and getting attention at an event like TechCrunch puts a stamp of validation on HowFactory’s prospects.

“To get on that floor, you have to be something that’s really great,” he said.

The company attracted instant attention, Stevenson said.

“We had a 1,000 percent increase in our web traffic after the first day of the event and tripled the number of signups for our beta (test platform). We got feedback from investors and people in the industry and financial, technology and manufacturing organizations that said what we’re doing is perfect and they want to use it.”

Stevenson and Steffen combine years of expertise in the field. Both have experience training employees across an array of sectors. Steffen, the company’s CEO, previously had launched a company that helped manufacturers upgrade processes and training information. He also worked at one time for the University of Northern Iowa's Waste Reduction Center. Stevenson, the chief operating officer, used to work for a consulting firm that did industrial training. 

Product still remained behind expertise, though, Stevenson said.

“Everything we were using were archaic tools like Excel and Microsoft Word, and they’d put it all in a binder,” Stevenson said of his own experience. “They’d have 60 binders on the floor and there was no communication pathway to workers on the floor.”

The pair met at a trade show and discussed the possibilities. Stevenson believed so much in the concept of developing a web app for training employees, he moved from Florida to Iowa in the middle of winter last year to work with Steffen on the nascent project.

Another partner, Nicole Forsythe, a former librarian trained in software development and another expert on training, soon joined up.

HowFactory notes that manufacturers often train employees on the job, but the nature of the work often calls for visual learning tools, such as videos and schematics that are annotated with instructions.

HowFactory’s web app also allows workers to add their own input into the system and features technologies like speech-to-text and drag-and-drop and also lets employees collaborate on procedures. It also provides management with a front-line view of workers’ actual experience with specific equipment, Steffen said.

The software also allows users to upload PDFs, user manuals, blueprints and other schematics to add to the documentation.

“We are just simplifying to an amazing degree how you create, use and update SOPs, work instructions and training," Steffen said. "It’s easy to add assets to them. You can put a video on paper. We’re creating a communication system in there so front line workers can share know-how and can improve documentation in real time. And then, that’s distributed across the network. Your vendors can contribute to the knowledge base, as well.”

It’s not simply like uploading a binder of procedures, Steffen said.

“We’re taking a new look at how we manage know-how inside companies,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story should have reported that Trace Steffen, CEO of Waterloo startup HowFactory, had previously worked at the University of Northern Iowa's Waste Reduction Center. The story erroneously said HowFactory co-founder Kenny Stevenson had worked at the Waste Reduction Center. 


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