An Interview with Philip Tompkins

A couple of days ago, I noticed some intense tweets from the CEO and founder of local start-up, We Evolve Us (WEU). After a few messages back and forth, I asked if I could ask a few detailed questions via email. What follows is an unedited version of that conversation.

But to supply some context for those coming to this subject without knowing any of the backstory, WEU is a two-year old, bootstrapped, Roanoke-based “social network” (social network being in quotes because: 1. it is bit more ambitious than the average social network and 2. as you are about to read, the project has changed a bit over the course of the last year).

I wrote about these guys a year ago, and you can find that story in the archives here. Without further ado, let’s jump into this pretty illuminating – and, ultimately, sort of depressing – interview regarding the future of Roanoke’s most ambitious start-up.

Question: You said on Twitter that the build for We Evolve Us is almost over. How do you define the product at this point? What is the “elevator pitch”?

Answer: First off, I really want to say that building We Evolve Us is never really over. We built WEU to be an evolving platform that is able to adapt and change with the need of its users. I fully anticipate, that there are a lot of things we’re still missing from the business platform, but we are now at the point where we’re ready start opening it up to businesses. Elevator Pitch: We Evolve Us is collaboration software to plan, track, and organize the projects you’re working on, so you can focus on the things that matter. There are 2 main parts: The community platform is a localized social project collaboration web/mobile/desktop apps for sharing what you’re passionate about, making things happen, and improving your community you live in. The business platform is a “white-label” version of the product that we’ll be evolving around our business customers, instead of city based its structured around each companies individual organizational structure. Leadership in the organization can push out strategic goals or initiatives to the different departments and divisions within the app and data/metrics/reports aggregate up the chain for an at a glance look at progress and key players who’re driving results.

Q: Maybe I’m incorrect, but it sounds like the business platform is substantially different than the social platform. Isn’t there a risk of confusing your users? Have you really built 2 different tools under one umbrella? In which case, wouldn’t it make sense to spin one off?

A: We are actually spinning off the B2B platform as a separate product, but there is still some tie in to the community funding pool for the B2C side of the house. Each company will have their own private company branded site, apps, database(potentially even their own server and network if they want to pay for that), and specific features tied into their existing business applications. Each will be separate from other all of the other business customers and the community platform. Where the tie in happens, is with the community funding pool. We’ll be taking a portion of our revenue from our business clients and be putting that into the city pools for the cities they’re based in. We’ll probably also be adding a “this community funding pool is sponsored by: Business A, Business B(from out B2B product) and Subscriber A, Subscriber B, etc.(from the community side)” section, to give our business and premium customers some recognition for their support in the community.

Q: A year ago, I said your idea was “Facebook and Kickstarter had a baby,” or something to that effect. How has the site evolved in a year?

A: It’s evolved pretty significantly in the last year. We’ve built out a ton of user requested features and the tried out a handful of different ways to monetize the community platform, a few of which were the crowdfunding, community funding pool, and the subscription model. It’s really become/becoming a more robust and comprehensive project and people management solution.

Q: What are some of the features of the site? What, if anything, are you doing that others aren’t?

A: Community funding pool is definitely a unique on I haven’t seen any others trying that yet. The structure of the platform (cities for B2C or company org chart for B2B) is really unique as well, we really built the platform around the way people currently work in the real world without tech and then added the pieces to capture all of that data and allow for real time collaboration. A lot of the individual features (like chat, drag and drop task mgmt., volunteer mgmt, events, brainstorming, etc.) exist in other apps and product, but no one is really brought them all together for a complete solution to getting things accomplished.

Q: Speaking of “others”: who is your competition? If someone is thinking of using WEU, what are the other platforms they are likely comparing you against?

A: Slack, Trello, Basecamp, Wrike, crowdfunding platforms, local and enterprise social networks, and a handful of others in various spaces. We don’t have any real direct competitors yet because we’re essentially brining the best from all of these part together into one place but I have no doubt there will be once we start to really take off and people realize what a tools like this is capable of.

Q: I’m not personally familiar with all those competitors cited, but I know Slack. Their market penetration is impressive, at least on the business side…I’m unaware of them vying for a separate social foothold, beyond making an office environment more social and team focused. Assume a level playing field: how do you beat Slack? How would you pitch WEU to a company currently using Slack in order to persuade them to switch?

A: We really have a different approach than a lot of them, I see our ability to grow and capture the market as a result of us becoming a close part of the communities that support us. Early business customers will get a really tailored solution to their business as we start to figure out what they most need to be effective and efficient. Afterward, what we learned/built/evolved will be applied to the core business platform and to the community platform as features seem relevant. Each business customer will raise the available funding for community projects and will get as close to advertising as we’re willing to get at this point on the community platform. Pretty soon after we’ve gotten a handful of businesses on-boarded you’ll start to see community projects and events developing a lot faster since the funding will be readily available to project creators and the community to vote on which projects they want to see funded.

Q: You’ll notice in that last question I abbreviated your site’s name to WEU. That is because “We Evolve Us” is a mouthful to either say or type. This might be a dickish question, and I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but have you considered a shorter name? (My own humble proposal: Weevo. That’s how I think of the name of the site in my own head.)

A: Yeah we have definitely thought about the name a lot and we own the domain weu.io and may eventually set things up on that to solve the problem you mentioned. Most of the time I just refer to it as WEU (pronounced “we-you”). I’m still a fan of the name because it puts the ownership on every user to make the platform and long-term the world what we want it to be.

Q: What funding model are you considering at this point? Are you looking for investors? Subscriptions?

A: We knew we would have to start off with bootstrapping to build the initial product. It was just way too ambitious of a project in the beginning for most investors (and unfortunately users) to be able to wrap their head around before it was actually built. I remember when I first realized this, I was talking to a few local investors and they told me it was a great concept but didn’t think it was focused enough and doubted our ability to actually build/deliver it. Now that the B2C and B2B products are finally built and we’ve got a clear path to revenue, and we’re looking for investors so that we can pull the current team on “full-time” so that as we start to onboard businesses we’ll be able to iterate quickly and deliver amazing support as we adapt the platform around their needs. If we can’t find funding here in Roanoke for the next stage of our company, I know there are a lot of other cities across the country that are hungry for tech startups and feel confident that we can find the investment we need. If I have to go on a city to city cross-country road trip pitching businesses and investors in every city along the way, I will. We also are in the process of onboarding our new Chief Sales Officer, which rounds out the team and fills in the last of the gaps we needed to really be ready to scale and grow quickly. If we pick up enough sales soon we may even be able to skip the seed round entirely.

Q: Sounds like you are throwing down the gauntlet: WEU gets local funding soon, or the team is leaving for another city with a better start-up culture. Is that accurate?

A: Unfortunately, yes. We are at the point now where we need seed funding and the whole team without day jobs to really be able to scale and execute on the next phase of our plan. If Roanoke is unable to provide the initial capital we need to scale then I have to look at other options. Roanoke is my home and I want to build my company and create jobs here, but at the end of the day I’ve already got an amazing team with me that have been pouring there lives into building this, and there is not chance in hell that I will let them down. I will do what I have to do. I know Roanoke has expressed a lot of interest in attracting and building tech companies in the area and there are a few things coming down the pipe in a year or two, but that unfortunately doesn’t match up with our timeline at the moment, and I’m not one to wait around. We’re ready to grow now and so we’ll either find the resources we need to grow and scale here or elsewhere but they are definitely out there and we will definitely find them soon.

So. That ends the interview. And it might soon be the end of WEU calling Roanoke home. Which is a freaking bummer, man. But you can’t exactly blame Philip and his team from actually trying to get this product to market after spending two years building it. They need money to keep going, and they are going to look beyond our lil’ valley if they can’t make this shizz happen here.

What the frig are you gonna do, amiright? Gee whiz.

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Well, hello there!

It has quote unquote been awhile.

What can I say? I’ve been in the gym getting ripped and eating mountains of tapenade on Triscuits.

But since it has been quote unquote awhile, I thought I’d pop in and say:

“Sup?”

And also this:

“I don’t know anything about art.”

By that I mean quote unquote fine art, but I had me some time tonight and I popped into a museum and got some feels around this painting:

  

Seems dumb to look at a bad photo of a painting. So here’s a close-up:

  
It’s just lovely how sad she looks, shielding her eyes from the sun with her hat. It couldn’t be more real or vivid to me. And she’ll always be that young and beautiful on that museum wall, forever, posing in the grass on a summer day for her goofy painter boyfriend.

She’s probably been dead for a hundred years.

  
That’s ART, y’all.

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Engagement: A Philosophical Problem in the Age of Social Media

First, let me say this. My enthusiasm for writing about tech waned a bit when a piece of garbage killed two innocent people and made me watch it, unwittingly, live on Twitter. So I stopped posting.

Maybe I’m back. Maybe I’m not.

I’ve been thinking, though. 

We have a problem with “engagement,” in an epistemological sense.

The only metrics we have to measure this ephemeral concept in the face of the imponderable information glut known as the Internet are clicks and page views. But those don’t give any insight into the process of constructing meaning, the incorporation of information and platforms into our daily lives. They are mindless, meaningless measurements. The fascination with big data seems willfully oblivious to the fact that “data” fails to capture the ultimate fact that real people are actually living their lives inside social media.

This is not trivial. How then can we come at the issue of measuring meaningful engagement in such a way as to render actionable insight?

Consider this example. Let’s say I have 400 followers on Twitter. 20 of them are close friends with whom I share a history of inside jokes, one of which involves a reference to Lumburg from the movie “Office Space.” I post a meme to Twitter with Lumburg saying, “That would be great.” Only those 20 close friends would get the reference is specifically about my boss.

With me so far?

Ok, that leaves 380 other followers who might potentially see the tweet. Of those, many are likely to have seen the movie, and they might enjoy the meme on its own humorous terms; they know the movie and think it is funny. The remaining followers who haven’t seen the movie don’t get anything of value from the tweet: they don’t know the inside joke, nor the broader funny reference to the movie.

Now let’s look at the numbers. After I post the tweet with the meme, I check the “engagement” numbers and see that the post has been viewed 10 times after an hour.

What impact have I had? What meaning have I imparted?

It is possible that all 10 views were the intended audience, my close friends, and they all laughed and had a gay ol’ time. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that those 10 views were people who hadn’t even seen the movie and were left scratching their heads for two seconds before moving on to the next confusing string of 140 characters.

The problem is the undifferentiated nature of these engagements.

In turn, this leads to a back door discussion of content creation, which, on Twitter, often takes the form of a reply tweet. If one of my friends replies to my tweet and says, “You killed it, bro! Grandin Republic, you are the funniest human being I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing,” well then, I can fairly accurately gauge the impact of my post. Retweets are less helpful, and a Like even less so, but they nevertheless imbue the engagement with some modicum of value in the form of feedback; I know the tweet was more than merely seen, I know it was appreciated (somehow…but how, exactly) and by whom.

But again, that is a sidebar. There is obvious content in a conversation. Yet so little of the social media chatter announces itself in such a helpful way means that such an example is not instructive.

No, the issue is not learning when you’ve properly engaged your audience, but rather if you even have at all.

This is the nature of all communication, and it’s corollary, miscommunication. Yet social media clouds the issue, obfuscating the nature of understanding with cloak of “engagement.” WE CAN ALLOW OURSELVES TO BELIEVE WE ARE CONNECTING EVEN WHEN WE ARE NOT.

This is true for interpersonal communication, but my point here is that it is also true for our local start-up community. The risk of self-delusion is high.

And so let’s talk about self-delusion in our next installment, shall we? I’m tired of typing on my dang phone (pardon any typos), plus it is 4:20, so…you know that means…

Almost time for Xpo Wednesday, y’all.

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#Xpo2015, Day Three

Oh, is this post 4 days late? Huh.

Alrighty. As I predicted, Day Three was Xpo’s best day. If you were there, you know what I mean. If you weren’t there, a recap would bore you anyway, so what’s the point? Isn’t all of life meaningless anyway?

Answer: yes. But to quote Wayne Coyne, “You still have to live ’til you die.” And, frankly, I’m pretty excited to see what Ariel Lev will be cooking up for next year. As much fun as Xpo is, and as good as it has been for Roanoke in its own small way, the thing has gotten a bit stale. A weird, eclectic conference can’t become a staid institution and remain relevant.

And another thing: after a year’s worth of Xpo Wednesdays, the “big, real” Xpo felt a bit…remote. Xpo Wednesday is often worthless from an informational standpoint, but it is always cool to see people who care about the community get together for an hour or two, and the fact that we’ve done that on a weekly basis for a year is amazing. It is like church. And Big Real Xpo felt, in comparison, like having an All-Star preacher ascend the pulpit for a special sermon: a cool experience, no doubt, but somewhat distant from daily life because it is actually intended to be separate and distinct. Like when a Mitt Romney or some other such goes a-preachin’ to the Southern Baptist Conference during campaign season.

Does that make sense?

As an aside, I’m not a “churchgoer” any longer, but one of my favorite-ish childhood (church) memories was when all the Christmas-and-Easter Catholics would show up to crowd the pews. It felt so exciting! Standing room only!

And now I’m done talking about that.

If you have been paying attention over the past couple of months, you’ll notice I have not written much or often. I truly, honestly, and sincerely have topics I have been meaning to address, I just haven’t had the time. Or, rather, I’ve filled my free time with other crap. Take heed, though, as I intend to alter that equation. I’M TALKING ABOUT MATH HERE, PEOPLE!

In other words, come back and check us out again reasonably soon. You might find something new.

Goodbye, CityWorksXpo! See ya next year!

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#Xpo2015, Day Two

Here’s your recap: placemaking, gentrification, karaoke. 

I felt the day was a little slow, to be honest. Low key. You spend all day sitting in an uncomfortable banquet chair, you want a bit of voltage in your speakers, y’know?

But last year’s Day Three was the best of the conference, so I’m ready for something special to happen today.

Let’s get to it.

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#Xpo2015, Day One: All Roanoke, All The Time

I overheard someone in the middle of Xpo’s first day ask, “Has Xpo always just been a big commercial for Roanoke?”

Uhm…

Ok ok, the first day was a little bit ‘Noke focused,’ from Sara Wohlford to JD Sutphin to the Starcropolis dude to Mssrs. France & Ireland. But given that Wohlford and Sutphin were the two best speakers of the day, that isn’t such a bad thing.

From the perspective of a Roanoke-based start-up blog, Frank and Erin were best-in-show. Though most people probably think of apps when they hear “start-up,” biotech is pretty dope, too. And since Roanoke has way more doctors than coders, when a couple of research scientists take the stage to say that they left San Fransisco to come here because we have a great ecosystem in which to start a biotech company, that’s pretty exciting.

So that was Day One.

Definitely looking forward to hearing from local technology superstar Dave Epperly today. Not only is he a genius, he is also a sexy, sexy dreamboat. We ❤ Dave.

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And now: #Xpo2015!

So, remember 6 months ago when I doggedly covered #Xperience2015 by stalking randoms on Twitter?

Oh, yeah!, honey…get ready for plenty more of the same. Just as mediocre as ever. But with one MAJOR difference: unlike #Xperience2015, I’ll actually be attending #Xpo2015 myself. IN PERSON. WITH PANTS ON.

And so I’m going to promise you right here, right now, that I’m going to write stuff. And just like all those other times I’ve written that I’m going to write stuff, you can take it to the bank. And when I say, “take it to the bank,” I mean a real dependable institution, like Valley Bank.

See ya tomorrow, Xponauts.

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