Interview with Ellen Craw from Ilium Software

I’ve met Ellen Craw at the SIC 2007 conference in Denver. She’s General Manager at Ilium Software. Ilium makes award winning programs for Windows Mobile and Palm handhelds and smartphones, and Windows desktop PCs. I didn’t get the chance to interview her at the conference, so I’m doing it now.

Cristian: Hi Ellen, I’m glad that we can finally make the interview! I have several questions about yourself, Ilium Software and your entrepreneurship experience. Let’s start with a few words on Ilium Software – what does it do?

Ellen: Hi Cristian, and happy new year! Ilium Software makes and sells programs – primarily information managers – for Windows Mobile and Palm smartphones and PDAs, as well as for Windows desktops.

Cristian: What’s the most successful software you offer?

Ellen: eWallet – our password and secure information manager – has been our most successful title to date.

Cristian: Ilium Software had 2 applications listed on the “10+ applications for getting down to business with Windows Mobile 6 – published on the Tech Republic blog”. Which applications were listed and what’s special about them?

Ellen: eWallet, our password and secure information manager, and Keep Track, a simple receipt and transaction manager. I think what’s special about both of them as that they’re easy to use and robust, but still very functional. They’re very specific programs – eWallet manages passwords, credit cards and other confidential information, and Keep Track records and organizes financial transactions like ATM withdrawals and credit card and phone purchases. Because both were designed for mobile devices, they’re compact, fast, and usable on small screens.

Cristian: What’s your success recipe?

Ellen: I think it’s a lot of things. Listening to our users. Providing great support, by phone as well as email. I get very frustrated by bad support, and am committed to fighting the bad support trend. Not releasing products or upgrades until they’re ready – robust, tested and finalized. Remaining flexible in a quickly changing market.

Cristian: You used to work for big companies like Comshare, Inc or ProQuest (UMI) then, back in 1997 switched over Ilium Software – a much smaller company. Why?

Ellen: I was very frustrated by the restrictions of bigger companies. Bigger companies always seem to get in their own way – putting processes into place that prevent them doing what they should be. I wanted to see if I could support myself without being part of something that continually frustrated me.

Cristian: A lot of entrepreneurs fear that a smaller business, does not offer them the same kind of security that a big corporation can offer. How did this work in your case, and what would you advice any entrepreneur that fears the lack of security?

Ellen: I was fortunate in that I had no dependents, so wasn’t risking anyone’s future except my own. When I started Ilium Software, back in 1997, the job market was great, my skills were reasonable, and I was pretty confident at that point that I could get another job very easily if I decided to. That was over 10 years ago, and I haven’t decided to yet. I guess I’d advise other people to have a financial safety net – at least a year’s worth of income – before leaving a secure job. But it’s definitely a risk and very scary.

Cristian: You seem to be very attached on your team. How important are the relationships with the team members for a small business?

Ellen: They’re critical. A small business can not afford the kind of infighting and politics that a bigger company might be able to.

Cristian: Your current position is “General Manager”. What are you supposed to do? How is your typical work day?

Ellen: General Manager is a great job for me because I like doing a lot of different things. I deal with our distributors and other partners, manage our marketing, write specs, suggest new products, pick vendors, and track market changes. I also deal with most of the unexpected emergencies – anywhere from our web host changing something to needing a new office.

Cristian: When we discussed at SIC, you where very proud of your team. Ken, Julie, Dan, Sheri, Matt, Marc, Kevin, Lee. Can you tell us few words on each?

Ellen: It’s hard to limit myself to a few words on each, but I’ll try. Ken is our CEO and handles all of our business processes, as well as nearly all of our IT. Dan is the other founder, as well as one of our developers, along with Matt and Sheri. Julie manages our releases and website, Kevin and Lee do all of our technical support and product QA. Doing both lets them be very knowledgeable about the products, which lets them provide great support. Marc is our product manager, and is in charge of all the details of our software, from the high-level direction to the details.

I’m proud to say that all of our development and support is done inhouse – we don’t outsource any of it. If you call in to ask a question about our software, you’ll always talk to someone who knows what they’re talking about, and if they have a question, they can go right to the developer and find the answer.

Cristian: Ok, so Ilium it’s not founded by a single person, but by a group of people. How did you met and decided to start a business?

Ellen: We all worked together at Comshare, so we already knew, liked and trusted each other. Dan and I started the company together, and then brought in Ken as soon as we were able, as we knew he’d be a great CEO.

Cristian: So, you are in a way big happy family that founded a company. How do you take decisions? What happens if you don’t agree?

Ellen: Like with most groups, we talk about things until we have a consensus. We don’t agree on everything, but we all respect each others’ points of view.

Cristian: How do you get most of your customers?

Ellen: Various places – online and magazine articles, blogs, search engines, distributor sites, word of mouth – there’s not one central place where most of them come from.

Cristian: Ilium Software is winning a lot of prizes and recognition in the Mobile Software industry. Is it the design? Is it the feature set? Ease of use? Or?

Ellen: I think it’s a combination of factors. Ease of use is critical, especially on a mobile device. All of our products are designed specifically for mobile devices, and we try to keep them as streamlined and simple – but still functional – as possible. We’re very careful to not add too many features that aren’t useful, while continuing to add the ones that are. Our software’s very robust – we test everything very carefully and thoroughly before we release it. Our team is very stable, and I think that having the same people develop, test and support the software over a long term really makes a difference to its quality.

Cristian: Back in 2006 you started Bits du Jour, a site offering a discounted software a day, which you sold in 2007. How and why did you started Bits du Jour in the first place?

Ellen: I was a huge fan of woot.com, with their one deal a day approach to selling hardware. One day I thought about how useful it would be if there was a similar site for software – somewhere that companies like Ilium could sell products for a very limited time at a big discount. The more I thought about that, the more I liked the idea, and since it didn’t exist anywhere, I started it myself.

Cristian: If you were to start all over again, what would you do differently?

Ellen: I’d have much better internal infrastructure right from the beginning. Our user management process is very secure, but it’s not nearly as automated as it could – and should – be.

PS1: just tested out that their NewsBreak product and it’s an wonderful software that helps you read RSS Feeds on your Windows Mobile Pocket PC or Smartphone. So you can have the Entrepeneur-interviews feed with you all the time on your PDA and get the latest interviews!

PS2: they also have a blog: Ilium Software Blog where you can the feeling about what they managed to create as a team, a company, the entrepreneurship side and the products.