ANN ARBOR – Tech veteran Jon Newhard joined conversational AI startup Clinc as the new CEO in July in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
His arrival also came five months after its co-founder and former CEO Jason Mars stepped down over allegations of sexual harassment, verbal abuse and inappropriate conduct.
After Mars' exit gained national attention and the University of Michigan suspended its recruiting relationship with the company, many were left wondering: What’s next for Clinc?
From the onset, it was an intriguing success story. A talented husband and wife team recruited by the University of Michigan’s computer science department launch their conversational AI technology and become the first company in the niche space to raise $52 million in one round of funding.
It’s easy-to-use tech and virtual assistant Finie -- a more conversational version of Apple’s Siri -- is used by some of the world’s largest banks.
Enter Jon Newhard.
He said Clinc’s board was transparent about the nature of Mars' February departure, and, once hired, he spoke to employees from several departments to try and understand what was wrong with company culture.
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“One of the things I was concerned about is that while the tech is really good, is there something wrong with the culture?” said Newhard. "I spent some time talking with folks and they said the culture was good but the leadership was bad.
“I didn’t live through February. I’m trying to be empathetic and I’m trying to write the next chapter. I want to acknowledge the past that happened but this is really about the future.”
When he was recruited, Newhard said Clinc’s investors were open to moving its headquarters out of Ann Arbor.
“Thankfully for me, they found someone local,” said Newhard. “We get to keep not just the tech part of the business, but the core of the business in Ann Arbor.
“I look at Ann Arbor the way I thought about Austin 25 years ago. It’s got all the elements of an amazing tech hub. It’s not going to be Silicon Valley but it can absolutely be an Austin and it can absolutely be a Boston. To be a part of that is very cool.”
Clinc recently finished renovations at its new office space in the former Kiwanis Thrift Sale at 200 South First Street. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is mostly unused, but 20-25% of employees could be back in the office by next week, if they should choose.
Looking ahead, Newhard said he wants to focus on scaling the company and attracting new talent. In September, Clinc hired a Chief Marketing Officer and is looking to hire engineering, accounting, sales, and marketing talent.
When asked if he would like to restore the recruiting relationship with the University of Michigan, he said it is something he would like to do.
“We’d definitely like to re-estsablish it,” he said. “I can’t exactly go to the university and knock on doors because they’re on lock down. (At the same time) we want to make sure that we don’t single-thread it.”
While Clinc has its fair share of U-M alums, Newhard said he wants to “streamline some other spigots of talent” and has plans to hire with diversity in mind. He said they are also looking to hire candidates with years of experience, since Clinc’s workforce is younger than average for a tech company.
He plans to engage local network Shine & Rise that aims to bring more women into the tech workforce in Ann Arbor and Southeast Michigan.
“At the risk of sounding corny about this, I’m at the age where I’ve lost all sense of ‘I’m going to change the world,’" said Newhard. "This is an opportunity to change a little bit of the world to make it a little bit better. We as a team can go do that.”