Anna Haney wants to buy a ball pit.
Well, before that, she wants to build Noviqu, her startup. The Moberly-based company makes software designed to help manufacturers track information about safety, maintenance and training. Noviqu counts Unilever, the Durham Company and Everlast among its early customers.
But Haney said a ball pit — yes, that sphere-filled staple of Chuck E. Cheeses and McDonald’s PlayPlaces everywhere — is part of the plan if Noviqu achieves everything she has in mind. That offers a sense of Haney and the company she is trying to create: “A kick-ass team of people who care about the industry, who care about each other and are all rowing the boat in the same direction.”
Haney founded Noviqu in 2017 with her now-husband, Chad Haney, and Austin Gardner. Before that, the trio had worked together on Tin Can Technologies, a Columbia-based software services business.
While working with one of Tin Can’s clients, they saw the need for a product like Noviqu. Ultimately, they decided to give up the relative security of running Tin Can in favor of building a product and trying to grow a scalable company.
Haney said Noviqu’s software provides a “cohesive tool” for managers and employees to access and input data about all the functions of their facilities. That includes safety reporting, maintenance scheduling and logging, and employee training. The software lets managers customize the metrics they see, and it offers games and challenges to help keep employees engaged.
We visited with Haney about the decision to start the company, the realities of working with her spouse and the costs and benefits of running a startup in small-town Missouri.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Missouri Business Alert: What would you say have been some of the biggest adjustments in the switch from your old business to the startup?
Anna Haney: The biggest and probably most glaring is sales. And it’s something that, I’ll be honest, I don’t have figured out yet. But when we did services at Tin Can, we didn’t have to do any marketing, and we didn’t have to do any selling of ourselves. We always had enough people coming to us for work that we just kept running, essentially. And then as soon as we started Noviqu, it was like, “OK, great, how do we get customers? Oh, we have to sell things? Great. How do we do that?” And so it’s been starting from scratch, really, to try to figure that out.
MBA: Who do you view as Noviqu’s primary competition, and what you are doing that they cannot match?
AH: We have quite a bit of competition in a few different places. I would say probably one of our biggest competitors, really, is the mentality of “It’s always been this way, so why change it?” or “We’re not going to be able to change it because this is how we do it.” That’s probably, honestly, our biggest competition. I know it’s kind of a cop-out answer. Yes, there are software companies out there that do safety, and do maintenance, and do training. There’s not a lot out there that do all of the same things we do and that focus really on process management. But the largest issue we run into is definitely “We’re not interested in changing our ways.”
MBA: In startup circles, how often have you encountered the question “Why Moberly, Missouri?”
AH: Pretty much all the time. Every day. Every time I talk to somebody new. We get it a lot, and the short answer is family — we moved here because of kids. The long answer is also this became a good community for us. The (Moberly Area Economic Development Corp.) has been wonderful at helping us find space. They’ve introduced us to customers, like Everlast. The community’s been really great. And so while most the community I would say probably doesn’t know we exist, the ones that do are always really helpful.
MBA: Beyond the EDC, are there other advantages to the environment there as far as growing an early-stage business?
AH: I will say not as many people stop by. You know, when we were in Columbia, a lot of people stopped by just to chat and talk to us and ask us for advice or opinions. And since we’re not as well known around here, we don’t get that as much, which is sort of nice. And then, you know, it keeps us humble, being in a town where most people don’t raise money or don’t know what being a startup is. It can cause confusion, but it keeps us to the point where we’re just like, “Yeah, we’re hustling just like everybody else. We’re working just like everybody else.”
MBA: What would you say are the biggest Moberly-specific challenges you have encountered?
AH: You know, I think we’ve worried about talent. We’ve worried about being able to hire people. But every time we’ve tried to hire, we’ve found that diamond in the rough that they weren’t doing anything before, they were a stay-at-home mom or they’re a school teacher, but they’re looking for a change. And getting somebody on board that has excitement and passion and just nothing but energy is something that I don’t know we always had in Columbia or anywhere else that we’ve ever been. People come on board, and they’re like, “Yeah, cool a startup.” But here it’s like, “You guys are doing something completely different than any other company in town. You are building something different than anybody else in town. I want to be a part of that.” And that kind of energy, we’ve never seen anywhere but here.
MBA: What advice would you give to other people who are sizing up the possibility of going to work with a significant other or trying to make a family business work?
AH: They either have to be insane or be really aware. There is no in-between. I would say when Chad and I first started a business as a couple, we were just insane and not so aware of our actions and our emotions and how that affected each other at business. But over time, we’ve just essentially become acutely aware to what we’re saying, how we’re saying it, how it affects each other as well as the employees. We work a lot better now together than we used to, but it’s still not perfect. I mean, it’s a struggle every day. You just have to know that’s something and know that it’s worth it because it makes our relationship and our bond that much stronger.
MBA: As a startup founder, what keeps you up at night?
AH: I don’t know why I didn’t expect you to ask me that question. That’s a question I actually ask when I’m interviewing potential customers. Everything keeps me up at night. You know, a lot lately I’ve been trying to focus on what it means to be a better leader, and I focus a lot at night on my shortcomings. So I focus a lot on what I can do better as a leader and how I can build a better company and community and culture within my company. As a startup founder everyone always is worried about money. But, you know, money aside — because I don’t like to talk about money — making sure that I’m building a company of people that are empowered to do what they think is best for us and give them the power to do that is definitely something that keeps me up at night.
MBA: If you allow yourself to step back and imagine five years down the road, if all goes to plan, what would success look like for Noviqu?
AH: Internal or external? Because that is a different answer.
MBA: Let’s hear both.
AH: Externally, success for Noviqu, to me, is we’ve built a business and a product that enhances the lives of our customers, that allows them to do more of the things they love and less of the things they don’t love. So externally, we want to make sure that what we have is helping. And helping employees just do better at what they do. Internally, Noviqu in five years looks like a kick-ass team of people who care about the industry, who care about each other and are all rowing the boat in the same direction.
MBA: Are there specifics in terms of location or size that you think of when you envision these things?
AH: That’s a great question. I don’t know that I have, like, a perfect number of people. You know, we’d love to grow and double or triple in the next year, two years, etc. But really it’s not so much the size; it’s the energy that comes out of them. But I will say I know in the future I want a ball pit. A ball pit would be good.
MBA: That’s a good goal to have.
AH: We went to a manufacturer recently that had essentially a meeting room ball pit, and I was like, “I have to have this.”
MBA: Gotta get that ball pit money, huh?
AH: Yep. I gotta get that ball pit money.