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 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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Filed under Roanoke Start-ups, Start-up culture, Start-up Funding

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