I had the pleasure of interviewing James and AlexAnndra Ontra, an entrepreneurial brother-sister duo that founded the presentation management company, Shufflrr. James and Alex believe presentations are critical communications to the enterprise. Their company adds strategy to presentation workflow – from creation, to use and re-use, distributing, updating, sharing, presenting, broadcasting, tracking and reporting of presentations.
“Your clients will take you in one direction and since they are paying, they have a lot of influence. But sometimes tending to their immediate wants will take resources away from the long-term goals. You have to prioritize to do both, and communicate to your clients how your vision can benefit them in the long run.”
James has been working on multimedia presentation technology since the early 1990s. His first application was a CD-rom catalog (CD-log) for furniture manufacturers. From there, he led sales for iXL’s Pitchman laptop sales presentation technology, only to spin that division out in 2000 as its own company, Iguana Interactive. When the dotcom bust zapped cash flow and forced Iguana to shut down, James swapped his employment contract for the Iguana IP and partnered with AlexAnndra to found Ontra Presentations – now Shufflrr. James is the visionary for Presentation Management as an enterprise communication strategy and the Shufflrr platform.
AlexAnndra started her career working in advertising at DDB, Lowe & Partners and a few other smaller shops. She loved the creative energy and fast pace of the ad business but saw a bigger opportunity in digital presentations. So, she joined Iguana Interactive as the general manager where she applied her account management skills to create and execute presentation solutions for her clients. Today at Shufflrr, she is in charge of operations as President of the company.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
AlexAnndra: I was recently talking with someone I met online, describing what I did for a living. He responded back saying that he remembered a guy named James who was doing something similar 20 years ago. I was like, “…umm… yeah, that’s my brother.”
James: Funny in a cringe-worthy sort of way. We had been working on ABC television’s sales presentations for a couple years when we were invited to a sales meeting. When the topic turned to presentations, one of ABC’s salespeople tossed a DVD on the conference table and complained, “My grandmother makes better family reunion DVDs than our sales presentations.” Today it is funny, but that was eye-opening and helped reshape everything I knew about digital presentations.
Are you working on any meaningful non-profit projects? How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
AlexAnndra: I serve as President of the Board of Dances Patrelle, a small ballet company based in New York. In the past few years, we’ve presented Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth and The Yorkville Nutcracker. All productions feature children and give them the experience of dancing alongside renowned professionals. I apply what I’ve learned through running my own company directly to the organization. There’s never enough money so it’s about doing more with less.
James: My wife and I volunteer in leadership roles for West Side Soccer League (www.YouthSoccer.nyc) in New York City. The league started with a few people who asked the city parks, “If we set up goals, put down lines, fill in the holes and cut the grass, could we use the field every week?” Today, 4,000 kids play soccer every week through WSSL’s programs and fields across New York City.
Can you tell me a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?
When the SVP of a large media company logged onto Shufflrr for the first time he exclaimed, “I found files that I didn’t know we had!” The mid-level manager that implemented Shufflrr quickly became the company’s “resident Shufflrr presentation expert,” leading to her participation in more senior level meetings and soon thereafter, a promotion. Shufflrr is a new skill and way of thinking – people who adapt it for their companies are viewed as forward-thinking innovators.
What are 5 things you wish someone had told you when you first started out and why? Please share a story or example for each.
Cash flow is everything – Everyone talks about great strategy and being “disruptive,” but if you can’t pay your bills, you are toast. None of that matters.
Listen to your gut – Most people will see the downsides of starting and growing a business or point out another company that they think is doing the same thing. An MBA will give you a thorough analysis complete with a 20 page spreadsheet as to why your business is a bad idea. And if you can be that easily dissuaded, then you don’t have the stomach to run your own business. With your start-up, you are seeing something that others can’t and won’t. So you have to go with your gut.
Balance client’s short-term needs with your long-term vision – Your clients will take you in one direction and since they are paying, they have a lot of influence. But sometimes tending to their immediate wants will take resources away from the long-term goals. You have to prioritize to do both, and communicate to your clients how your vision can benefit them in the long run.
Customers are the best investors – I can get ten clients in the time it takes me to get one investor. Customers will tell you what the market requires because they will pay for what they need and want. If they are not willing to pay for it, then it’s probably not that important. And in a customer funded business, the founders get to keep their equity.
You can learn what you don’t know – If you wait until you are an “expert” before starting a business, you will never get started. And no matter how well educated you may be, there will be a million different things that take you by surprise. So when that happens, do the research, ask someone else, and if need be, hire someone with a skill that you lack. Open your mind, educate yourself and work through it. Learning is the most important thing you can do for your business (and for yourself). You can learn as you go.