“Being an executive isn’t about making decisions. It’s about galvanizing people to action,” James Elste said emphatically, halfway through his Whiskey Wednesday interview. The apex of the Whiskey Wednesday interviews rightly concludes with James Elste, inqiri’s CEO and Founder. In 2011, after a long career in cyber-security, Elste began letting a particular idea percolate. That idea was how collective intelligence could affect decision-making.
“The idea for inqiri started when I was doing some work on cyber security. In essence, what you see as a cyber-security professional are lots and lots of bad decisions,” Elste said. “Collective intelligence is a very powerful, emergent property of groups working together, and as I started working with this, I realized you could actually apply this not only to trying to solve cyber security issues, but effectively to decision-making in general.”
Now, two years later, Elste has built the inqiri solution with his technical dream team—Travis Schwieger, Patrick Lee, Seth Voltz, and Torin Emard. He stands by his product, using the inqiri solution to help with company decisions, but also by his word, that the job of the executive is to galvanize his team to action, not simply to make decisions. Elste’s Whiskey Wednesday interview is about success, failure, and the future of business in the age of inqiri.
After an extensive career in the information technology industry, why did you decide to start inqiri?
I’ve spent a lot of my career working around very large corporate and public sector organizations, for example, the State of Nevada and IGT. In a consulting capacity I’ve worked with companies from Fortune 10 to Fortune 1000. There’s something very compelling about the entrepreneurial environment. There’s a very distinct difference between the motivation of people who work in start-ups and the type of motivation you find in corporate environments. At this stage in my career, I felt comfortable working on a start-up idea that I was enthusiastic about and really wanted to try to see made into reality and liked the sort of more direct motivation that comes from working on something that you’re intimately involved in.
How will you know when inqiri is successful?
I like the notion of ‘when will we know it’s a success’ because it’s not really timeline driven. As an entrepreneur you want everything yesterday, you want stuff to happen really quickly. I think there’s a couple of what I would call ‘milestones’ that will be compelling milestones for us. They will be indicators that we are making the progress we need, that we’re moving towards success. I hope success isn’t a destination but is a progressive journey. Once I achieve today’s milestones, I hope I set new ones for tomorrow. The big milestones I’m looking for are inqiri at scale. The inqiri process is a process that is based on this notion of collective intelligence and it really only starts to manifest itself when you have 50 plus people participating in the inqiri.
The feedback that we’ve received at this stage is so enthusiastic and what we’re doing to start garnering our first clients, to actually start achieving those revenue objectives, leads me to believe that we will see not only success, but exceptional success from a revenue perspective. People that we’re talking to about this are looking at what we’re doing and saying that it’s a unique offering in the market, that no one else is doing this, that it’s extremely powerful and it’s extremely compelling.
It’s also a matter of reaching sustainability. We want to get to a point where not only are the solutions validated by participation and use of the solution, but actually get to a point where we’ve developed enough sustainability in the organization that we can invest in building out the different elements of inqiri that we haven’t quite yet built or touched on. There’s a lot of things that we can do that we really haven’t even started doing, really it’s just on the drawing board. So that will be a great milestone as well.
Everyone in the start-up community talks about exit strategies. I think it’s a little bit of an oxymoron. You can’t build a good company if what you’re thinking about is how to exit that company. So we’re really focused on building a good company.
What about the possibility of failure?
I think it’s always a consideration. Ninety-nine percent of start-ups fail. That’s a real statistic. That is the reality of small start-ups: most of them fail. I don’t think we sit around and spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about, ‘Well, what if we fail?’ because we’re really focused on what we can do to make ourselves successful. I guess I would say we don’t spend a lot of time talking about failure; we spend a lot of time talking about the things we think will make us successful. We don’t ignore the reality of failure, we just focus on doing the things we think are productive or otherwise are going to help make us successful.
What does a business look like in the age of inqiri?
So I think there’s a couple of things. Number one is you are going to try to increase the transparency of the decisions that are being made in a company. Companies are going to move away from a lot of big decisions being made in small groups that are cloistered away and nobody knows what’s going on but everyone has to wait for that momentous moment when they are told about the strategy. The people that are impacted by the decisions are going to be engaged. This is particularly compelling in an inqiri model where you can actually transcend the boundaries of an organization — you can engage your suppliers or customers in that decision-making. Companies are right now trying to figure out, ‘What exactly do my customers want?’ So the more you have that transparency and that interaction, the better you are able to serve the ultimate consumer of your products.
Why is building inqiri in Reno and fostering the start-up community here important?
It would be easier for inqiri to pack up our shop and move to San Francisco or Silicon Valley. There would be many, many advantages to doing that. But I don’t live in San Francisco or Silicon Valley. I like Reno. Reno’s home. I think there’s something compelling about the energy that start-ups in Reno have. We know we’re at a disadvantage. Everyone that you ask in Reno would basically tell you the same thing: “Well it would be easier if I just moved to Silicon Valley.” That’s where all the venture capital is, that’s where all the talent is, you know, it just would be easier for me to start a business there. But the enthusiasm here is extremely compelling. That is intrinsically motivating to me. It is something that I want to be part of; fostering the start-up community here in Reno.