Jay Polaki believes human resources services should be a click away.
"Outside of work, we get things at the click of a button," said Polaki, Founder and CEO of HR Geckos. "Human resources services are simply unavailable in that click-friendly manner."
A 20-year human resources (HR) industry veteran, Polaki set out to change the industry in 2019. She launched her company as HR Godzilla, determined to "break down all the silos in HR," she said, but changed the name to HR Geckos to reflect her company's goal to transform HR, to be agile and adapt like a gecko.
Then, COVID-19 happened.
"The pandemic threw a huge wrench in all of our plans," she explained. "We had to step back and see how to move forward."
In addition, her Dayton, Md.-based company had started building its product based on customer discovery conducted before the pandemic. The world of work had changed tremendously.
Polaki talked with TEDCO's Assistant Director of Entrepreneur & Ecosystem Empowerment (E3), Elizabeth (Lisa) Dorsey, who recommended I-Corps. Soon after, HR Geckos enrolled in the April 2022 UMD I-Corps cohort.
"The first I-Corps short course taught me what customer discovery really is," Polaki explained. "Anything you do as an entrepreneur is usually based on your experience. When I built HR Geckos, it was based on my pain points as an HR professional and those of HR colleagues I had talked to in my network. Through I-Corps, I learned to also talk to stakeholders in the ecosystem outside of the HR space. The program offers a strategic approach to doing it, and our instructors provide a template. Nobody does that unless you are in a structured MBA program. As an entrepreneur trying to blaze your path, you do not get the insight that I-Corps provides unless you are in a structured program."
I-Corps also gave Polaki a path of what she should do and in what order.
"It helped me energize my product team," she said. "We built an entirely new module based on the customer discovery we did with I-Corps."
This past summer, the NSF I-Corps Hub: Mid-Atlantic Region offered its I-Corps Next program for the first time. HR Geckos joined the cohort.
I-Corps NEXT was offered exclusively to I-Corps teams that previously completed a regional I-Corps short course. Through I-Corps NEXT, participants dove deeper into building and refining their business models and engaged in further customer discovery. I-Corps mentors guided teams through the four-week, five-class course.
"Through I-Corps NEXT, my business model canvas exploded," said Polaki. "I learned I can add many more and different canvases for different partnerships, channels, and revenue models. It helped the growth of my company."
Polaki came away with a firm--but constantly evolving--vision of her company.
"HR Geckos is a platform for the "now" of work," she explained. "We are trying to make work better every day, both for employers and employees. Our mission is to create better workplaces through innovative technology, so employers and employees thrive.
"Not only do we automate HR processes and have a chatbot to resolve issues faster, but we also provide a unified hub for all people management systems and workflows that exist in a company. In addition, we integrate with all platforms and software providers within a company's tech stack.
"No current platforms provide a single sign-on to access all systems in the HR tech stack of a company. We do. We can onboard employees from day zero. We make processes less complex for new hires and the HR team. We increase and boost employee engagement that we are all striving for today, in the days of the Great Resignation."
One week after completing I-Corps NEXT, HR Geckos was accepted into TEDCO's VenturePath accelerator. Soon following, the company was invited to the Conscious Venture Lab Startup Accelerator.
Now, the two-person company, with a separate development center in India, is going to market with additional plans to raise a $1 million pre-seed investment round by spring 2023.
"This is not just a product we have built out of our hat," said Polaki. "We have the right strategy to go to market and are investment-ready as well."
But the I-Corps journey, she said, continues.
"Every month, I hound both of the "Glens" and Jainaba," said Polaki. "Glenn Watson is on my board of advisors now. He's just super in terms of financial acumen and giving me an investment perspective. Glen Helman helps me hone my pitch. He knows how to tell a story! Jainaba Ceesay is always very supportive and asks me how I am doing. Dan Kunitz and Edmund Pendleton always make time for me. They never say "no." They always say "yes."
"This was not just a summer program I attended. It is a lifelong journey, and I have made lifelong relationships. I am wedded to this program forever. As an entrepreneur, I will always be engaging in customer discovery.
"I keep telling everyone they need to advertise this program to the skies. It's a wonderful initiative that everyone should go through if they're entrepreneurs. It shaped the trajectory of my company in more ways than I can imagine."