Ade Olonoh is a Nigerian American entrepreneur and angel investor primarily known as the founder of Formstack and Formspring. Ade currently works as a venture partner at the investment firm Starting Line and plays poker full-time.
Early Life and Schooling
Ade was born in the United States to Nigerian parents, who moved the family back to Nigeria when he was two years old. After ten years of living in Nigeria, Olonoh and his parents moved back to the United States, where he finished middle and high school before attending Anderson University in Anderson, Indiana.
Interestingly, Olonoh’s experience as a programmer and entrepreneur dates from this time period. His personal website describes how he sold his first software app to the school’s baseball coach for the princely sum of $50.
At Anderson, Olonoh double majored in Mathematics and Computer Science. During his time as a university student, Olonoh also constantly worked on software and other projects. One of the things that we really suffered from was that there were a lot of people checking out the product just to check out the product. They weren’t really engaged. In an interview with Andrew Warner of Mixergy, he describes himself as
”[doing] freelance work all throughout college” to make ends meet and earn spending money.
Olonoh’s college years were also when he began seriously considering a career as an entrepreneur and developer instead of pursuing a traditional office job, in part due to the movie Office Space.
“One of my biggest influences was the movie “Office Space.” I just looked at that reality after college and I said you know what, I’m having a lot of fun and I’m able to support myself doing web development, and I don’t want to go work for some large company. (source)”
Although Olonoh is best known for founding Formspring in 2009, his career as a software entrepreneur began almost ten years earlier, while he was still at Anderson University. In his senior year, Olonoh and a group of friends formed a software consulting company called Bottled Software. The company’s first client was the university itself, with Olonoh and the other developers creating a simple content management system to help maintain and update its massive website.
After closing down Bottled Software in 2002 due to slow sales caused by the Dotcom bubble and a move away from websites as big business, Olonoh took a break from entrepreneurship to working in the systems team for Gannett Newspaper Media Company and the Indianapolis Star. Although he started out as just a software developer, Olonoh was quickly promoted to management. Olonoh credits his four years at Gannett with teaching him invaluable insights about managing and leading.
“The most important insight was that as a manager it’s your job to really understand everybody individually. You need to understand where they want to head, what direction they want to go in personally and professionally, and what their goals and objectives are. Then you need to figure out how to align the organization’s or team’s objectives in the same way.”
It was also while he was working for Garnett that Olonoh began work on his major entrepreneurial successes, the social media website Formspring and the web-based form creation website Formstack.
Formstack and Formspring
Olonoh founded Formstack in 2006 with the intent of allowing users to create web-based forms online without the need for additional software. As an early example of “software as a service” or SaaS, Formstack was not without its startup struggles. However, Olonoh says he saw an opportunity to do better than Survey Monkey, the only online form service that existed at the time.
”And saw an opportunity not only to solve that problem that we talked about, where I could just give somebody a tool and they could create their own form without having to code up the HTML or anything like that. And they could do that in a nice, drag-and-drop, kind of slick way. (source)”
While working on Formstack, Olonoh realized that users on other websites were using Formstack’s software to ask people direct questions. He spent “a few months” creating a prototype social media site built around the idea of an “ask me anything” form, then launched the site in 2009 under the name of Formspring.
Formspring was an immediate success, gaining ten million new users in a month and a half. However, the company’s rapid growth led to challenges. Olonoh is candid about his struggles to scale the software and the company and to make sure the site was engaging. Much like his approach to management, Olonoh argues that the best way to create engaging, successful products is to understand what people want.
“One of the things that we really suffered from was that there were a lot of people checking out the product just to check out the product. They weren’t really engaged. I have learned that it really comes down to building a good core product and understanding what it is that people want, in the world, and what people want on the Internet and being able to create that in some fashion. (source)”
In addition to the challenges of its rapid growth, Formspring faced a serious problem with public image after the site made the news a “perfect storm” for cyberbullying in 2010. Here, Olonoh says, one solution was to give users a clearer sense of what the site was for. The Formspring team also worked extensively with experts to create a safer product, both by encouraging positive user behavior and by banning problem users.
During Olonoh’s tenure as founder and CEO, he raised $16 million in funding for Formstack and a further $14 million for Formspring and grew the company’s user base to 30 million active users. In 2014, Olonoh realized he could no longer sustain the company and sold it. Although Olonoh would later work for Formstack again, this marked the end of his role as a company founder. However, it was only the beginning of his career as a software entrepreneur.
Jell and Other Ventures
After selling Formspring, Olonoh went on to create several other software companies. The most prominent of these is Jell, a cloud-based software that allows managers to connect asynchronously with their teams, and Loop, best described as a version of Twitter that requires users to include an animated image with each post.
Loop, which Olonoh started up in 2014, was shut down because it “didn’t get much traction,” Olonoh says. Although the company was unsuccessful, Olonoh doesn’t see it as a failure. In an interview, he says that during his software development days, he constantly had ideas for new products that never went anywhere.
“I would say I have always just been a builder and experimenter, and so if there’s any secret to what success I’ve had, it’s that for everything that you might see on my LinkedIn profile that anybody’s touched there are five other things that I’ve built that nobody’s ever seen. (source)”
Although Jell, which Olonoh founded in 2015, is still active today, he sold the company in 2019, noting that he felt the service needed a team that could “move it forward.” Olonoh actually developed Jell as an internal tool while working for Formstack again from 2015 to 2018 before spinning it into its own service.
In the years since selling Jell and stepping back from Formstack a second time, Olonoh has moved away from software entrepreneurship. Instead, he is an angel investor for venture capital firm Starting Line, a platinum-ranked player in the online computer game Overwatch, and a professional poker player, placing in the top 120 during the 2022 World Series of Poker.
Ade Olonoh discusses his entrepreneurial journey from Formstack to Jell.
Leadership and Awards
Throughout his career in software and leadership, Olonoh has made a habit of focusing on people over profits. As noted above, his management style is one that moves a company forward by understanding the needs of its users as well as the needs of its employees.
“You have to seek out and work harder to make sure that people from underrepresented groups know they’re welcome. (source)”
In 2020, Olonoh was nominated for the Mira award, which highlights angel investors in Indiana.
Olonoh shares his perspective on systemic racism as a black leader and entrepreneur.
Ade Olonoh is part of our Black Founders50 Series. Download the complete 2023 BBVA Founders50 list here.