What's New in Business: Baloonr helps good ideas at work float to the top

Anonymity puts project contributors more at ease

CINCINNATI -- If you have ever sat through a brainstorming session with a good idea but were afraid to bring it up, or if you have ever sought ideas from employees but couldn’t get anyone to participate, then you’ve been in the kind of situation Baloonr was created to deal with.

The Web-based app created by two Cincinnati residents is a kind of electronic suggestion box, designed to help the best ideas rise to the top.

How does it work?

Typically, it starts with someone in an organization or business hearing about Baloonr and championing it to others within the group, co-founder Amanda Greenberg said.

That champion will devise a question, such as, “How can we improve productivity in our Cincinnati office,” set that question up at baloonr.com, and invite others in the group to weigh in.

Ideas are then kicked around, discussed and finally voted on.

The app keeps the identities of the participants anonymous, Greenberg said, which helps ensure that “whether an idea comes from the CEO or someone who’s a really junior employee, that idea is heard on the same, level playing field.”

Once the idea is adopted, however, the person who came up with it can reveal his or her identity to get credit for it.

Who created it?

Greenberg and her husband, Noah Bornstein. They grew up together in Oxford, Ohio, the children of professors at Miami University. They were married in 2009.

Why did they create it?

Before co-creating Baloonr, Greenberg worked as a public-health communications and policy consultant in Washington, D.C., where she managed projects for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her work involved gathering information from groups so that she could create proposals.

She typically did this by sending a group email asking for suggestions or through an in-person group brainstorming session. She found the response rate to both techniques was very low. Instead of participating in the group email, individuals would send emails directly to her — and these always had the best ideas. When she asked the emailers why they didn’t speak up before the group, she said, they replied that they were too intimidated by senior leadership.

That’s when she looked at the latest research about collaboration and data collection, she said, and found that “current tools don’t follow those best practices.” She and her husband, who was working as a political Web designer and consultant, started Baloonr in 2013 at the Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science innovation center, Project Olympus. They began working full-time on it in September 2014 when they participated in Dreamit, a business accelerator in Philadelphia.

Last April, they participated in the Innovation Xchange in Cincinnati, an annual gathering of 25 innovative companies sponsored by local business accelerator Cintrifuse, and settled in Cincinnati. Since then, they have been running Baloonr from their homes, from coffee shops and from Cintrifuse’s offices in Over-the-Rhine.

Who are Baloonr’s customers?

They include some big names such as Procter & Gamble, Walt Disney Co. and Microsoft. One enthusiastic customer is Martin Schray, who has used the app in his roles as a senior technical evangelist at Microsoft and as a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology and DePaul University.

The app “does a great job of integrating the science of effective brainstorming into a Web application that is easy to use,” he said. “From my experience, Baloonr dramatically increases the number and quality of the ideas you receive.”

The company makes money by charging a subscription fee to use the app, Greenberg said, and it began receiving revenue only in August of last year.

What’s next?

Raising capital. The company is in the midst of a $500,000 raise, with about 50 percent of that committed by angel investors from all over the United States.

What’s it like to be a first-time entrepreneur?

“It’s definitely a roller coaster,” Greenberg said. “The highs are unlike any other highs, and the lows are unlike any other lows, but it’s been great. I can’t imagine doing anything else. We’re so passionate about our mission and vision, and that makes it easy to grow.”

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