For businesses, staying relevant can mean life or death in the marketplace. But, with a rapidly changing marketplace, it’s often difficult to predict what ideas will stick.

At the 2015 IdeaFestival in Louisville, Kentucky, a panel of experts explored how their organizations stay relevant with customers, employees, and their community.

To open the discussion, Inc. editor Ledbetter asked the three panelists (The Immunity Project CMO and co-founder Naveen Jain, On Second Thought founder Maci Peterson, and Carey Smith, the founder of Big Ass Fans) to share their key metric for measuring relevance:

  • Jain – “Did I talk to my customer today?”
  • Peterson – “How many times were we (the app) used today?”
  • Smith – “What are we going to do in terms of developing new products?”

After establishing baseline metrics, the conversation shifted to focus on the three key areas where businesses must maintain relevance in order to be successful: Customers, talent, and community.


As anyone in business will tell you, customers are the lifeblood of your company. So, remaining relevant to those customers is vital.

The Immunity Project is a nonprofit working on developing a nasal-inhalable, room temperature stable vaccine for HIV. The major challenge that Jain faces is the diversity of customers that his organization interacts with. Their customers include general supporters, people in the HIV/AIDS community, people in the scientific community, and people in the tech community. With that many different constituents, Jain said his main goal is communicating effectively and maintaining relationships with all of those groups.

Peterson’s company, On Second Thought, built an app that allows users to delete SMS messages after they have sent them. And the mobile market she’s in is highly competitive. Users of the app tend to set it as their default SMS app, Peterson said, to have the “texting insurance” it provides. To stay relevant, though, they continually listen to their customers about what they want from the product. To meet the demands through other channels, Peterson has extended the model to other chat apps and social media. The company is also working with mobile banking in places like Kenya to become more of a broad utility for mobile users.

Big Ass Fans, which was founded in 1999, produces just that — big ass fans and other industrial equipment. Smith said that his biggest challenge in staying relevant has been understanding the risks of developing products and moving forward.

Understanding the product development cycle requires a keen eye for changes in what the customers want. By selling directly to customers, Smith said they are able to more quickly see what customers want. The biggest changes that he’s seen in customer need over the past 18 months has been the introduction of IoT smart home products, and they responded by creating an IoT consumer fan.


In addition to remaining relevant to their user base, businesses must also strive to maintain relevance to their employees. For many companies, especially in tech, providing an equity stake in the company has become a useful way to increase employee engagement.

Smith’s company, which is still private, set aside 25% of the company as an equity pool that any employee in the company can buy into. Also, Big Ass Fans provides all employees with a bonus. The bonus was smaller during the recession of 2007-2008, Smith said, but he made the promise that he wouldn’t lay anyone off. He said that has paid off in dividends as the company has experienced massive growth since 2008 and they receive almost 15,000 resumes a year from prospective employees.

When asked why more companies don’t operate this way, Smith responded: “Because they’re lazy, greedy, and maybe not so smart.”

As a smaller startup, On Second Thought is just now hiring the company’s first employee. Peterson said they used the contract-to-hire method, where the employee begins as a contractor for three months and is brought on full time if it is a good fit. It has allowed them to mitigate the risk of hiring someone full time, while being able to offer a stake in the company as well.

While Peterson and Smith may be facing similar issues when it comes to talent, Jain’s relevance challenge for new talent is completely different. As a non-profit, he typically can’t offer an inflated salary so, to attract talent, he has to appeal solely to the mission of the project. He, too, receives many resumes a day from people he said “just want to help.”


Outside of your customers and your talent, staying relevant to your community is also an important aspect of success. How you define the community around your product or service will inform how you can remain relevant.

For Smith, it’s simple. He takes care of the community by paying competitive salaries and offering equity ownership. Additionally, he said, most of their suppliers are within 40 miles of the Big Ass Fans headquarters so he’s supporting the geographic community as well.

Peterson just hired a community manager, an essential employee in helping bring together the plethora of communities that the company is a part of. Peterson said they have five distinct communities — users, team, investors, minority community, and women in tech. For starters, On Second Though focused on developing a brand voice and persona and made sure it was consistent across channels.They engage their communities on social media, and Peterson herself does some work with women in tech initiatives

In the medical space, The Immunity Project remains relevant by remaining as open and transparent as humanly possible for each constituent at the proper time, Jain said. For example, Y Combinator founder Paul Graham was among the early group of people who donated blood for the organization’s experiments and Jain feels that he owes that early group clear communication when new information is available.

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