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College of Information and Communications

  • Jonah Rotholz sits at a desk

iSchool Innovators: Jonah Rotholz

Jonah Rotholz is a 2020 information science alumnus who made headlines last year after he and advertising major Nick Jeffcoat won the undergraduate division of The Proving Ground, an annual startup competition hosted by the Darla Moore School of Business. Below, he shares how his major prepared him to become an entrepreneur and offers advice to students hoping to follow in his footsteps.

Talk a little bit about your company, J&R Informatics. What do you do? What was the inspiration for the business?
Talking about the company is the easy part — we collect data and build products for the solar industry that make finding customers cheaper and faster. In a nutshell, my role is to build those products. I also handle most communications, whether with clients, partners or media (like I’m doing here!). Talking about inspiration is a bit trickier — I’d been in the solar industry for a while, both as a sales rep and an operations manager, and was constantly exploring ways to do solar better. I’d drawn up plans for a “solar company in a box” and explored lead generation via social media data collection, but the approach at J&R didn’t emerge until Nick and I sat down in a coffee shop to explore a fundamentally different customer acquisition process. 

What was your experience like at The Proving Ground?
Great and unusual — it wasn’t until after quarantine started that the competition actually happened, so instead of being in an amphitheater, Nick and I were seated at my parents dining table with a jury-rigged presentation setup consisting of four laptops, microphones and a 360 camera. The experience itself was awesome. There are some really talented folks out there building new things, and it was great seeing everyone present. 

What advice would you give to other information science students looking to compete at The Proving Ground?
Implement now. Build a rough version as quickly as you possibly can. If your product is a software platform, learn or Adobe XD. If your product is physical, learn CAD and get a mockup 3D printed. Everything I just mentioned is free or close to it, and believe me, if you think you’re short on time now, it won’t be any easier later. 

Has information science aided you in the process of starting your company? How so?
I chose information science because the work I was doing in Dr. Kitzie's Social Informatics class lined up perfectly with what I was doing as an operations manager, specifically, evaluating and replacing a CRM system used by solar sales reps. It was my experience in information science that lead me to work with the Social Media Insights Lab, which in turn was the catalyst for that aforementioned meeting with Nick. So although it’s not like “I read this journal article and a light bulb went off,” there was something of a causal chain. 

Any specific courses, experiences or skills gained from time in the iSchool that have helped you in building your company?
Social Informatics, the Social Media Insights Lab, and a few professors in particular come to mind (you know who you are!). 

What advice would you give to information science students looking to start their own company?
People say to “follow your passions,” but that’s more of a motivational quote than actual advice. To anyone asking for advice on starting a company I’d have a few questions: 

- Out of everything you know, what do you know the most about? 
- What’s the biggest problem with it? 
- How many other people also have that problem? 

In my case, the answers to those questions were “solar,” “customer acquisition costs,” and “basically everyone in the industry selling to residential homeowners, and quite a few in the C&I space.” You need to have a solid answer to all those questions before starting a company. 

What’s something people might not realize about information science?
It’s both technical and holistic, meaning that you’re going to learn about technologies and you’re going to learn about people. If you’re not willing to engage with the material (i.e., actually read and discuss it) you’ll miss the holistic part, and if you’re not willing to develop your skills outside of the classroom (e.g., internships, pet projects, additional coding work) you’ll miss the technical part. Put differently, you get out of it what you put into it. 

What’s next for you?
Right now I’m building a front-end (e.g. mobile app) to integrate with the database we put together last year — once that’s live, things will get very interesting. I’m also continuing to consult for existing partners on their customer acquisition, including a meeting in Sumter later this week with the owner of a fairly massive commercial building. There’s no better way to validate one’s data and predictions than seeing how they stack up against real-world installs. 

And where can we follow your journey? Social media, LinkedIn, website, etc.?
I find social media to be a lose-lose proposition unless you’re building a D2C business, which I’m not. If people spent one-tenth of their social media time writing code, designing UX or just honestly trying to learn more about a particular industry, we’d have a lot more people starting companies. We’ve tested our system with companies doing $15 million-plus per year in revenue, and none of them cared that we don’t have a LinkedIn presence. “But how did they hear about you?” I picked up the phone and called them. 

If you’re curious about what we’re doing, just shoot me an email. If you’re in the solar industry and will benefit from what we’re building, don’t worry — I’ll be in touch.

Elle Boyle

Elle Boyle

Elle Boyle is a social media intern for the College of Information and Communications. She is a junior information science major with a minor in applied computing. Upon graduation, Elle plans to pursue a career in technology. 

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