Ann Arbor’s Kontextual Helps Build Transparent, Metric-Driven Companies

Kurt Skifstad was serving as the entrepreneur-in-residence at RPM Ventures when an angel investor brought a new enterprise technology platform called Kontextual to Skifstad’s attention and asked for his input on whether he thought it was a worthwhile investment.

“What [Kontextual] had was really interesting, but not ready to go to market,” he explains.

Skifstad thought the technology was so promising that he came aboard as Kontextual’s CEO last year, and he now leads the company as it prepares for its official commercial launch next week.

Kontextual, which is based in Ann Arbor, is a cloud- and mobile-based software platform that helps companies become more metric-driven and better able to share important information. It’s the brainchild of Leon Speakers, a local company designing and manufacturing high-end audio equipment.

Noah Kaplan, the owner of Leon Speakers, wanted a better way to communicate with his employees. To achieve this, Kaplan hired a Ruby on Rails consultant in California to build custom software. Other companies found out about the software and started using it, too. Soon, Skifstad says, it became clear that the inter-company communication problem extended far beyond Leon Speakers.

“There’s a lot of data inside companies,” Skifstad says. “The challenge is figuring out what’s important and how to share it with your people. The dirty secret is, even though companies invest millions in business enterprise software, most of the action takes place in emails and spreadsheets.”

Kontextual pulls information out of enterprise data and shares it in a colorful dashboard. Employees can track sales and other actionable metrics in real time using charting tools like graphs, and they can also post notes to one another.

When Skifstad joined the company in 2012, he started exploring Kontextual’s market with the intent of better understanding the value of what the software platform offered. Since then, he’s talked to almost 100 companies and incorporated their feedback into what Kontextual offers.

Skifstad says he had an “a-ha moment” when he saw employee behavior change within an organization to align with the data being shared. With Kontextual, he says, everyone from CEO to line worker can access and use company data to improve job performance. Skifstad says employees experience a morale boost from knowing where they stand and having access to information, and managers can drive collaboration in ways that aren’t usually typical in a siloed organization.

“We’re not trying to build Facebook behind the firewall, and that’s how we differentiate ourselves,” Skifstad says when comparing Kontextual to other enterprise software platform tools on the market such as Yammer. “You can’t drop a social collaboration tool into a company and magically turn the company into a social collaboration culture. That doesn’t work in old school companies.”

Kontextual, which has raised $650,000 so far from the First Step Fund, RPM Ventures, and angel investors and will have six full-time employees by the end of the month, is finishing a late beta launch this week as it gears up for a soft commercial launch on Sept. 1. Skifstad says if all goes well, he expects to scale things quickly during the last quarter of 2013. The original, California-based developer of Kontextual’s platform has officially joined the company to run its tech team.

“So far, the traction has been really interesting and the feedback has been really positive,” he adds.

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