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Founded in 2012, Washington Avenue-based Enliven is a project-based tech startup that tackles client challenges with creative software marrying a polished UX with creative, behind-the-scenes tech solutions.
“Our business philosophy is centered around people, not just technology,” says co-founder and CEO Cuong Dang. “Our job is to thoroughly understand our client’s business goals so we’re able to build the perfect software application to improve efficiency, productivity, and ultimately improve their bottom line.”
One of the tricky things about mastering software design is that the better it works—and the more enjoyable it is to work it—the less noticeable it should be for the user. “While technical execution is very important—and we’re very good at it—to meaningfully solve business problems with software, we relentlessly focus on a great user experience,” adds Dang. “We do it this way so people will enjoy their work more and the software can simply fade in the background.”
It’s no surprise, then, that “Enliven” comes from this approach. “The name ‘Enliven’ comes from our mission to make software more lively and exciting for people to use. We had seen firsthand how companies build strong enterprise software, with a terrible user experience,” says Dang, adding that he’d felt in 2012 that St. Louis lacked companies delivering great UX alongside awesome tech solutions. “We wanted to create a company that not only solves business challenges, but does it in a way that focuses on the joy of using software for our clients and their customers.”
Dang immigrated from Vietnam in 2002 to finish his bachelor’s degree at Maryville University, after which he planned to head off to Europe. As fate would have it, though, he wound up popping in and out of St. Louis between stints on the coasts, eventually getting a job at a STL-based tech firm, where he grew his skills and distinguished himself in the field. Always present was an entrepreneurial itch.
A Natural Fit
Both Dang and his business partner, co-founder and CTO Ian Robinson, knew that St. Louis was a natural fit for getting Enliven off the ground. “This city in particular provides opportunities for us to stand out among the competitors as a software consultancy with a strong focus on the user experience perspective,” says Dang.
Today, Enliven remains a small team—just nine employees—but that means that when clients come calling, they get the full benefit of the entire team’s collective brainpower, instead of just one or two people dedicated to their account.
The personal approach extends to Enliven’s emphasis on developing long-term client relationships—and fostering positive, work-life-balance-friendly relationships with their own staff. Being in the heart of Downtown grows both of those objectives, bringing a staunchly, proudly human side to the tech world of things.
“It’s a great location for our team,” says Dang. “We love being in the mix Downtown and able to walk or bike to restaurants, food trucks, the gym, the library and parks. Plus, we have company parking that our employees can use after hours as well, so we always have a spot for the game or to go to the City Museum. Additionally, our clients and partners really enjoy the excuse to come Downtown and visit. We’re proud to have put together a really awesome office space where they get to have a great city experience.”
One of Enliven’s primary specialities is building new digital services for clients—particularly large companies. “If a business finds an opportunity to provide a new service to their customers or clients and capture new revenue, where do they start? How do they approach it from concept to launch? How do they measure their success? How do they determine their timeline?” says Dang. “One might say the answer is to head over to their IT team and kick off a new project, but most IT teams aren’t structured to have the talent or experience of tackling it as a startup. Launching a new digital service is a completely different dynamic—we solve that by being the enterprise’s startup team for hire.”
Dang believes that as a startup, Enliven offers clients agility and innovative thinking that larger companies inherently don’t—can’t—have. “So what are the things that make a startup so powerful?” he asks. “They are hungry to solve big problems’ they get people’ they get business’ they don’t operate under corporate bureaucracy’ they focus on validating concepts and realizing results’ and because the business people are the tech people, they can execute with much less overhead. That’s what we offer our clients and partners.”
One of Enliven’s biggest challenges was that this is the first startup either co-founder had ever launched. Robinson and Dang, who both come from entrepreneurial families, conceived Enliven as an outlet for them to grow professionally and personally—and fill that niche they both saw in St. Louis’ tech scene. Enliven gave them the opportunity to have the satisfying experience of building something of their own from the ground up—”a challenging but very rewarding experience,” Dang says.
“The only experience we had were the textbook and courses from college on how to build and run a business. But while theory is nice, you can’t beat the real-world experience,” says Dang. “We knew the steps and mostly followed them; but as the company grew, we learned there are many unknowns and challenges that can only be overcome by experiencing them firsthand.”
Another challenge was defining exactly who they would be—a must in a competitive industry. “Our team has so many technical capabilities beyond what we typically offer, and no two projects are the same,” Dang explains. “But deciding on a single focus is hard. As a business, we have limited resources: people, finances, time. We had to make the hard choice and go with it. From the beginning we were a software consultancy; today, we’re a tech/startup team for hire. ”
In the last year, Dang says, Enliven has partnered with big companies like Monsanto, RGA, and Crowe Horwath. “We are always excited to be a partner, instead of just a service provider; we offer more than software, and take the time to develop a true collaborative effort between our organization and our client’s,” he says.
One of Dang’s favorite projects has been with Crowe Horwath, a company in the auditing industry. “We partnered with their healthcare auditors to develop an amazing digital service that helps hospitals ensure compliance with a particularly tricky government program,” he says. “The reason it’s amazing is because it empowers hospitals to save money, reduce risk, and ultimately, help more people.”
Next up is a pro-bono project for the Heart Center at the St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “This summer, we’ll launch a ‘care team kiosk’ that will allow patients’ families to better familiarize themselves with the physicians, nurses and other specialists that make up their care team,” says Dang. “By empowering the patient’s families with this knowledge, we hope to increase their ability to effectively advocate for their child’s care.”
Outside of work, Dang, who immigrated from Vietnam, supports fellow immigrant entrepreneurs in St. Louis as an ambassador to the St. Louis Mosaic Project, which “connects foreign-born entrepreneurs to jobs, people, and resources to start and grow their own businesses,” Dang says. He met executive director Betsy Cohen a few years after Enliven got going and was impressed by the work the organization was doing. The Mosaic Project is backed by the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership.
In his other role as Vice President of the Asian American Chamber of Commerce, Dang also leads trade missions to Vietnam alongside Mizzou, WashU, Enterprise Holdings, and other small business owners based in the city. The result? Opportunities for St. Louis companies to network with business owners in Asia to further economic development in both regions.
“Our vision is to continue to help companies solve their business challenges and open new opportunities,” says Dang. “In the future, Enliven will become more of a product incubator, working on different digital product ideas to solve real-world problems in the industries we feel excited about. In this role, we’ll have the opportunity to build products, experiment with and explore interesting topics, and focus on the challenging things in our world.”