After the Star Tank event a couple of weeks ago at the Grandin CoLab, I tracked down one of the most interesting presenters, a fellow named David Conner, and pestered him for an interview. What made David stand out from the pack of other presenters was that his product, Voxxel, had actually been created, as opposed to most of the other presenters whose ideas existed as yet only in their heads.
Voxxel is sort of a training/coaching application for vocal impersonations. For instance, if you are trying to nail your Christopher Walken impersonation, it matches your voice against a clip of Walken speaking and tells you how close you are. You can demo the product at the site here, but David does ask that you have a bit of patience if you run into any UI issues, as he is continually updating the product and is specifically working on some big items this week.
As for David: he is 29 and a Roanoke native, having graduated from Salem High School in 2004. He did start out at Virginia Tech in the computer science program, but left after a couple of years. He describes himself as a basically self-taught programmer, though he was quick to give credit to all those he has worked with over the years as being very helpful to his development. After a short stint working in Denver, he is back in town and working on Voxxel more or less full time. If you wish to bother him like I did, or just want to learn even more about Voxxel, you can find him on Twitter using the handle @dcunit3d.
Anyway, I harassed this poor guy into spilling his secrets. I submitted a bunch of questions to him in an email, and several days later, he wrote back with some thoughtful answers:
Are you from Roanoke, and if not, what brought you to town?
I’m a Roanoke native and I’ve lived in the area for most of my life.
Are you a full-time developer, or is this a “side” gig/hobby?
Right now, I’m technically self-employed, but mostly focused on Voxxel. I’m pretty picky as to which technologies I work with. Since I’ve starting making my idea public, I want to continue focusing on it solely for now.
Is Voxxel your first finished product? If not, what else have you done?
I originally got into Ruby development back in 2007 when I created a song request app for my family’s roller skating rink. The app was a hit with the kids, but I didn’t know much about deploying apps. I just put it together because it was fun to work on and I was tired of taking song requests with pen and paper.
I wanted to launch it as a product marketed towards skating rinks specifically, but I had no idea how to put together a business model and I didn’t know where to turn for advice. I spent a lot of time in the past few years working on a startup for music producers called Oscillate, but I never got it off the ground. I originally had the idea in late 2011 and the product would allow music producers to collaborate on tracks they were making. It was originally geared to be the Github for music producers, but I pivoted later on to make Oscillate a kind of app store to find new sounds for hardware and software instruments.
The level of commitment for getting a startup off the ground is staggering, especially if you’re working a full-time job and don’t have funding. In the past, getting a prototype together has been the main impediment to getting funded. Most important is to have something to show prospective investors that they can use. If you’re working 40+ hours per week and putting together an app, there’s not much time left for much else.
Do you have a team, or did you create Voxxel on your own?
No, at the moment, I’m the sole founder. I’m actively searching for a CTO and in particular, cofounders who have experience with IP licensing and rights publishing. I have lots of technical experience, but I’m looking for a CTO to help offload this, so I can holistically focus on other aspects of the business. I’m a fairly good programmer, but I’m looking for someone who can rapidly prototype mobile and web interfaces for the Voxxel UI.
Did you develop Voxxel from scratch? Is it patented? Will you be patenting it?
Yes, but for now our demo is limited to the web, with a mobile friendly layout. I was planning on using the Ionic framework for the mobile apps, but for technical reasons, I’m going to have to develop native Android and iOS apps.
Some of our voice processing may be patentable, but for now, we haven’t done the research for patenting our IP. I’ll need to spend some time digging around on the USPTO website to identify what is patentable as well as what IP our software depends on, if any. Getting patents is a very expensive process and from what I’ve heard can require $2000+ to follow through with and that doesn’t guarantee you’ll get it. Provisional patents are much more reasonable. About $200, I think.
Would you say Voxxel is your “life’s work”? By that I mean, do you intend/hope to make a career on this? If not, what are your goals for the product?
Definitely, if I can get the runway I need to launch Voxxel. I have several goals for the project. I’m always going for more than two birds with one stone. If we launch and Voxxel is a hit, that’s great. If not, I’ve built a fun app that I can use to market my dev skills. But mainly, I just want an app that helps me improve my impersonations.
How much further development is needed? Is it completed?
There’s a few months of work left before Voxxel can officially launch. We need to develop native apps for iOS and Android, as well as the API backend. On top of that, the backend will need a lot of technical work to process the user’s vocal samples, which involves machine learning.
If Voxxel isn’t your one big idea, have you already moved on to the next one? What is that next move?
I have a ton of startup ideas, but most of them require significant upfront investment and technical skill to move forward. I’ve got a log of ideas for biotechnology and bioinformatics, but they require a lot of skills I don’t have.
Voxxel is great because it doesn’t require investment to get started! Those ideas are becoming rarer as more apps get built out.
What is your opinion of the Roanoke “start up scene”? Is there one? Do you have local collaborators/friends who also are building or have built businesses and applications here locally?
I just moved back from Denver, CO about a year ago and I’ve been blown away by all the developments in the Roanoke startup scene. The CoLab is a great facility that is really building up our community. The best part about our startup community is that it encourages entrepreneurs and developers to connect and learn. Everyone exchanges great ideas and grows their network. The community has something to offer everyone, whether you’ve got a great startup idea or you’re working a more corporate job. Innovation is everywhere these days.
I’m planning on producing some custom content for Voxxel, so I’m very excited to hear about CoLab Oration Studios! It’s another great resource for entrepreneurs here.
I miss some of the more niche tech meetups that Denver had to offer, like Cassandra and Neo4J. Our local .NET meetup group recently presented on Neo4J. Last year, I started a Ruby meetup and an AngularJS meetup. I spent a lot of time marketing it and our first few events pulled in quite a few developers, but I got busy with work and we stopped meeting.
I know you pitched at Star Tank…are you actively seeking investors to bring Voxxel out on your own? If you do get funding, would you stay in Roanoke? Have you identified enough local talent in order to build a business here?
I’m not actively seeking investors at the moment. I want to build up my user base and develop my app further beforehand.
I’m planning on staying in Roanoke for six months at least, but because of my app’s focus on the entertainment industry, the ideal location would be NYC or LA.
Totally understand that Voxxel is likely your baby and that takes most of your focus. However, I happen to know of other local people who want to start a tech company but who do not have the technical chops themselves to get it off the ground. Would you be open to joining another start-up?
Voxxel is definitely my baby lol. I’m just focused on Voxxel for the moment. But, I’d love to connect with entrepreneurs in the area to exchange advice on technology and business strategy.
Did you see any of the other presentations at Star Tank? What did you think of them?
I actually had to run to work at the Skate Center as soon as my presentation was over. I wish I had been able to hear more of the pitches.
Where did you come up with the idea?
I was watching Parks and Rec on Hulu one night a few months ago, impersonating the characters on screen — but not very well. I found myself wanting an app to improve accents and impersonations, but I couldn’t find anything like it. Since we all sound different to others than we do to ourselves, I wanted an app that could provide me with unbiased feedback.
…and there ends the interview! A first for Grandin Republic, and I’m going to give myself a ton of credit and say I’m pretty much the world’s best email interviewer. Suck it, Anderson Cooper.