Nick Stokman and Sean Higgins are a couple of 24-year-old accounting graduates of the University of St. Thomas who concluded early that they didn’t want to be accountants.
Stokman, who won an academic accounting award for his prowess while a student, recalls a painful internship at Travelers in St. Paul. He was working on corporate tax returns.
“It’s a conservative insurance company and totally different from my personality,” said Stokman, who can be irreverent and off the wall. “And I had to learn this accounting software. And clicking on the ‘help’ thing to learn this or that was totally useless. Things that can be super simple to understand can be really complicated in text.
“And I’d go to my manager, and he said that the hardest part of bringing on new people was answering the same questions.”
Stokman had an idea for a company in 2012 that, after two years of development with client companies and collaborators, launched commercial operations in January as Ilos Videos.
Ilos makes software and provides support to a growing list of 30 companies in North America and the United Kingdom who want customized videos demonstrating routine tasks such as how to put a new record in or add a personal contact into Salesforce.com, how to change account information or pay bills, or how to use the software used by ResDiary on priority seating for customers in 3,000 restaurants.
Ilos employs 12 full- and part-time employees and will post revenue under $500,000 this year, Higgins said.
“We have 20,000 users, including some free users, and people use Ilos to create short videos of ‘frequently asked questions,’ ” he said. “We make software that enables clients to communicate the things they know to employees to vendors and users of their products.
“One of our customers is Atterro [Human Capital Group]. They use Ilos software for bringing on new employees. Lots of employees. And each person needs to know about timecards, expense reports, how to file for time off.”
Stokman, also a software jockey, is a self-described ADHD kid, who also was dyslexic and couldn’t read until he was 12.
He also is a genial guy who can be obsessive about work. His greatest joy, he said, is helping people, including spending weeks with his physician dad on medical-volunteer missions when he was young. Stokman was a youth entrepreneur who earned college tuition working obsessively on his own lawn service, starting when he was in high school.
And he also spearheaded a $100,000 fundraiser for a skateboard park in his hometown of Crosby, Minn. That helped settle friction between kids who wanted a place to practice and authorities who didn’t want them on private property or in the street.
“Nick is brilliant and all over the walls, the ceiling, everywhere,” said Higgins, who earned an MBA and is the calm, plain-talking face of this outfit. “He’s come to me with entrepreneurial ideas over the years. I’ve shot some down. Nick has lots of ideas. Ilos was a good one. My goal is to harness the power of Nick.”
Higgins said when Stokman told him about his idea for Ilos, he headed to Google to look for companies doing the same thing.
“We saw a lot of gaps. We didn’t see one player doing specifically what we wanted to do. It’s not YouTube, and it’s not editing software. We thought we could develop a ‘lightweight video functionality’ without big production costs in a corporate studio. But software that could enable you to communicate tasks and processes faster than anything available.”
Ilos, a Greek word Stokman and Higgins interpret as “search” as a definition, was born in their apartments.
In recent years, they would rent short-term space at cooperative-workspace Coco in downtown to impress prospective partners and clients for meetings. Several months ago the company, with revenue starting to flow, leased unfinished space in a refurbished St. Paul Lowertown warehouse. The employees work from folding chairs and tables. Frisbees and Nerf balls often sail through the air.
“We don’t have a lot of overhead,” said Higgins, including minuscule salaries so far. “We’re reinvesting in the business, and we won’t break even until next year.”
The company has raised about $500,000 in equity and is owned largely by employees, individual “angel” investors who take stakes in promising upstarts, and the Norris Institute at the University of St. Thomas. Mike Moore, who runs the Norris Institute, which invests in young, innovative concerns said Norris has a stake of about $100,000 in Ilos.
Moore said he found that Ilos customers “saw this as away to cut training time and reduce expenses.
“It applies to any kind of organization,” Moore said. “We have faculty who use it for courses for students they know will have problems with certain parts of the curriculum. Rather than talking them through again and again … here’s the software.”