Meet Jon Stahl, founder of LeanDog
, a downtown company with 50 employees that helps clients create continual improvement cultures. The studio side of LeanDog designs and delivers high quality software with a core focus on the user experience. LeanDog also fosters an entrepreneurial spirit and offers a dedicated service to specifically help startups. On the community development side, LeanDog is trying to help Cleveland solve a transportation problem with the Cleveland SkyLift
How did you come to be an entrepreneur?
I have always had multiple businesses. I grew up in Pittsburgh and earned degrees in computer science and economics from Ohio State. I moved to Cleveland as a software developer and went back to Pittsburgh for a startup and then back to Cleveland to work for another startup.
I became the owner of two rental properties, one of which I built myself with the help of my friends. My wife and I designed and launched a company that manufactures a powder-coated steel product used to measure snow depth. The company continues to sell products to a nationwide customer base.
After starting LeanDog, I sought out a partner to buy our boat as a commercial real estate business and we are now looking to expand on that.
What was LeanDog's first project?
We started helping a company in Wooster, Ohio, transform their company to follow agile values and principles. Once we had five people working there, we quit our day jobs to pursue this full time.
How have things changed from that first project to where you are today?
We are more selective in the clients and projects we take on. We now seek out customers who really want to change their culture and/or design to deliver great products. We look for engagements that excite us and our customers are proud to tell their story of working with us. Customers now look to us for design work, not just programming work.
What is the biggest struggle you had to overcome and how did you overcome it?
When we started, we were geeks without a marketing plan, so we missed a lot of paychecks until we started speaking at conferences and building up our brand. We share everything we know and that draws our customers in to want to work with us. We practice what we preach: transparency and collaboration.
You have a unique workspace – working on a barge. How does that environment translate into the work you do?
Our boat was a steamship built in 1892. It has an amazing history of being repurposed and redesigned to keep up with the times. Since we help transform company cultures and design innovative products, we teach our customers to open their minds to the possibilities and aim high. That is why we are on a boat. As soon as you step on board, you realize how different we are.
How did you come up with the idea for Cleveland SkyLift?
We want Cleveland to have a vibrant lakefront. Our journey began by proposing the idea of a truly unique floating, mixed-use, creative community on Lake Erie in the heart of downtown. However, we needed to wait for the current waterfront plan to unfold and the logistics problems to be solved. We also want Cleveland to have something iconic that we are known for.
In April of 2013, we were speaking with Will Friedman, CEO of the Port of Cleveland
about our floating village idea and he mentioned ski lifts. We called a friend that worked at a ski resort in Utah and within two days were talking with cable car manufacturers. We are aiming for a dozen stations, but just need to get the first two off the ground.
What’s the latest news on SkyLift?
We are now pursuing two options: East Bank of the Flats
to Wendy Park
and an area on the west end of Mall C down to the Rock Hall
and Science Center
We are considering converting to a non-profit and are working to engage a project management firm to represent us. We are currently working with various government organizations. We are not giving up, so stay tuned!
How does SkyLift fit in to LeanDog’s endeavors?
We can apply our design and software skills to create an amazing in-flight experience. We want to build a digital entertainment experience, where fun and culture meet. Each car will be equipped with multilingual digital devices, ensuring that each flight is informative, rewarding and engaging. As passengers travel, they will get to learn about the city, the businesses and landmarks.
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs in starting their businesses?
Work in small increments, test your hypotheses frequently and surround yourself with people who are different from you. Learn how to do retrospectives and adapt.
If you could go back in time and give your 10-year-old self advice, what would you say?
Don’t be afraid to reach for the outrageous. It’s amazing what people will do if you have the courage to ask.
Can you share a funny or amazing entrepreneurial experience with our readers?
We pride ourselves in our desire to think outside normal boundaries. As such it was decided from the beginning that no LeanDogger would park inside the parking space lines in our parking lot. When first time visitors board our boat after parking, they almost always express confusion over the “smash up derby” look. To us, it is how we roll – we don’t want to always conform to be inside the lines.