Category Archives: Roanoke Start-ups

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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A Victory Lap for Noke Codes

Noke Codes worked.

I wish I could gush about all the awesome projects, but…I don’t have access to any of them, so I really can’t speak about them. I received a recap newsletter/email from the organizers, but there weren’t any links to the projects themselves.

So, here is the recap:

Noke Codes was a Great Success!

We kicked off the main event around 5 O’clock Friday evening. We had roughly 25 volunteer technologists who showed up to devote their time to bettering their community. It was just incredible to see these talented individuals form teams and take on the varied projects of area nonprofits and civic organizations. These teams worked through the night creating solutions to the technical problems of these impactful organizations.

Our extraordinary volunteers wound up taking on 6 of the 7 possible projects! Here are how things stand at the moment:

City of Roanoke Library: The Library team worked closely with Nathan Flinchum to create an application that allows people to find historic photographs that are close their current location. This project was pretty much wrapped up during the event and should be available to the public soon!

Council of Community Services: The CCS team wound up creating 2 possibilities for job boards and calendars that the Council can choose from. Conversations are now ongoing about handing these projects over the Council and they should be functional in the near future.

Healthy Roanoke Valley: Unfortunately we did not have a team take on this project. However, we are now working on several avenues that would allow this project to be undertaken quite soon. We welcome any suggestions you might have.

LEAP for Local Food: The LEAP team created a fantastic platform for sharing real time information about the location of LEAP’s new mobile market and other food trucks in Roanoke. This project is close to completion and the developers and LEAP are meeting to discuss how to finalize the project.

Ride Solutions: The team on this project went through many different iterations of what might work, but the concept of real time changes to bus route maps turned out to be a little more difficult than originally thought. However, this team wound up making significant progress and has expressed some interest in continuing to work on the project. As far as we can tell, the kind of automatically updating maps this team was working on would have been a first of its kind project in the country.

Roanoke Outside: This team completed a tremendous amount of work and have a functional prototype of an app for local hiking trails. It would provide hikers with all kinds of information that would make their trip on our iconic trails safer. Expect to see this project available to the public soon!

Williamson Road Business Association: The team working on this created a fantastic directory of businesses on the Williamson Road corridor but were not satisfied with the design of it. They are continuing work on it and will have a fantastic new resource for that area available soon.

The Inaugural Noke Codes event was a huge success! The response we got from our talented volunteers was tremendous. The community response was also great. We believe that each of these projects will be impacting the community for years to come. Now we are looking into the future and see tremendous possibilities for how Noke Codes might continue to exert a positive influence on the Roanoke Community.

Ok, back to me. As you can see, they actually pulled it off. 7 initial projects; 6 teams; 5 products; 24 hours. That is actually really impressive. And to think, a month before the event they weren’t entirely sure anyone would show up.

I hope to get some feedback from the organizations for which these products were built on the efficacy of the final products. As yet, I don’t even know if the products were handed off to the participating organizations. But even if they end up in the garbage, I think the output was noteworthy and reflects well on the tech community here in the ol’ Roanoke Valley (and Blacksburg…some of the participants drove up from down south to join the fun).

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Noke Codes Approaches…

It has been a hard summer for me, blogging-wise. Apologies to my regular readers (e.g. Mom and Dad. Hi guys!).

But Noke Codes is coming up this Friday, and it seems like it might just be a success. This is news, as I predicted something short of success (e.g. failure, as a result of indifference). Just check out their sponsors…impressive.

So kudos, y’all.

And I promise I’ll report back after the hackathon with a post-event recap smackdown extravaganza. It will be on point and legit. You’ve been warned.

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Agora! gora! gora!

I had hoped that posting last week, if only briefly, about my summertime sadness would shock/shame me into getting off my duff and writing again. Can’t say that worked.

But like Gibreel Farishta, I’m trying to heed the call! (Am I using that reference correctly? Probably not. I just read The Satanic Verses, and while not all of the subtext was lost on me – all those issues of faith, family, and identity – it was frankly the overt, on-the-page story that sort of threw me. What do I know about the history of India, or Islamic folklore? Bubkis, that’s what. My man Salman Rushdie could have helped this young brother out with a bit more explanation, but the entire history of a religion would have been a stretch for any novelist to integrate…or it would have been Infinite Jest, which is easily the most brilliant novel ever written that features one hundred pages of footnotes [technically, endnotes. And how fucking annoying was that, having to flip to the back of the book constantly? Seriously, Wallace’s genius is truly undeniable, but if you can’t integrate that shit into the believable world of your novel, isn’t that a fatal flaw? Or was I supposed to skip that shit, DAVE? But then, I’ve always been drawn to the minimalism of Hemingway, or the lean black prose of Cormac McCarthy {who has himself been accused of being overwrought. Why? Because you have to consult a dictionary multiple times during the course of one of his chapters?}]).

Wow, it’s a book report, y’all!

So. Agora. Here’s the deal: I want to help spread the word, but I really haven’t formed an opinion yet. Ya dig? I don’t want to go off half-cocked, but if I don’t, I might never get fully-cocked. Heh.

Lemme just fill you in real quick, and let’s agree to circle back to this topic at some point in the near future.

Agora is a civic-engagement, democracy-hacking startup. They are trying to become THE online townhall. What is an online townhall? I believe the idea is that it will be like a city council meeting that you can attend remotely, from your home, while you are making dinner or sitting on the toilet. Because you need more options for toilet reading material, naturally.

*Stop right there: this is a necessary thing to have — thhe online townhall, that is, not the toilet reading material. But like the fire department, you probably hope you’ll never need to use it. Can you build a business on such an idea?*

If you’ve ever read the comments on a news site, or YouTube, you know people want to connect. Mostly, they seem to want to connect like assholes. There is, in other words, clearly a market for “engagement.” However, I wonder how much of that engagement is driven purely by the opportunity to unleash that inner asshole, which is why I truly question the central organizing principal of Agora: it is NOT, repeat NOT, anonymous. They have designed the site around a 10-point identity verification algorithm.

Totally makes sense, if you think of Agora as an actual, legitimate, useful tool for governing. But if you are trying to get buy-in to grow your user base, I just don’t know that there is enough of a market among the currently marginalized members of our society who would seek to do anything other than call city council members a bunch of twat waffles.

Why am I talking about this? Well, Agora was born out of Harvard’s Innovation Lab, but they are launching in Roanoke. Yeah. Harvard kids are launching their startup here. Far out, right? We can’t convince the Virginia Tech startup crowd to stay here in the Valley, and yet Harvard has targeted us as superterrific and dopetastic. So SUCK IT, you stuck up Blacksburg meanies.

And Agora has apparently put in real time connecting with local government here in order to make this dream a reality, because as much as you need community participation, it would all be for naught if local government didn’t agree to join the conversation.

And…I guess I’m done. That is the basic info. As I said, I don’t know how I feel about all of this yet, other than to say it is awesome to have these peeps trying something new, and trying it here.

Let’s put a pin in it and come back later to discuss.

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Periscope Isn’t airbnb, Or: Don’t Suck

Can we all agree that Periscope is a sad train wreck? I think we can.**

I was on vacation last week. I checked Twitter on Wednesday, saw that CoLab had tweeted that they were broadcasting XpoWednesday LIVE! on Periscope, and didn’t consider for even one second wasting data clicking the link.

No reflection on CoLab or XpoWednesday…it is just that watching anything on Periscope is boring and painful. Meerkat isn’t any better. The technology promises to put you LIVE! in the experience, but it doesn’t and can’t.

The problem is one of curation. A live feed is inherently boring.

Consider this anecdote about airbnb: when they first launched, they had real trouble attracting users. And what they realized after soliciting feedback is that the site was unappealing because all the posts of available lodgings featured poor quality cell phone photos. So, they took a chance and hired professional photographers to go around and photograph available places. A few multi-billion dollar valuations later, that gamble seems to have paid off.

At the time, though, hiring professional photographers could have appeared like throwing good money after bad. Which is to say, airbnb sucked and pouring more money into that “bad” idea was sort of crazy. Yet, it worked. Not because the concept or technology got better, but because the content did.

The analog to Periscope? Actually, there isn’t one. Sorry, Periscope, your technology isn’t worthwhile. Because what is needed to save Periscope is an editing suite to merge multiple live streams into one coherent whole. We call that “television.” And while live streaming is cheap and boring, live television is compelling but hella expensive, y’all. That expense doesn’t come in to the equation because of the technology, it is because you need talented professionals to do the editing, in real time. Talented professionals are precisely the people cut out of amateur live streaming.

So why this discussion? Because I think it illustrates a really simple, basic (and you would think obvious) truth of the new online economy we find ourselves navigating like Vasco da Gama, with confidence and purpose yet without certainty as to exactly where it is we are going to end up. If you want to make it, your content MUST be either wanted or needed, and it must be good.

It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that Periscope does such a bad job providing a good version of something people want (a live experience) given its association with Twitter, considering Twitter’s bad job of providing a good version of something people need (a real-time news outlet).

“Need” is an elastic term, but think about IMDb. IMDb is the gold standard, a site everyone uses and treats practically like a like a public utility. You’ve got a question about who was in a movie? You go to IMDb. You don’t go anywhere else. Ever. They are accurate and reliable and everyone knows where to go. Easy. They provide exactly the service you need for the specific purpose for which they exist.

Compare that to Periscope. Why would you open Periscope? That is not a rhetorical question. You go to IMDb with a purpose in mind. You go to Facebook with a purpose (baby pictures and vacation pictures, amiright?). You go to Reddit with a purpose (kill time/learn weird shit). And then you visit those 10 different sites you check because they feature your other interests (ESPN for sports, Car and Driver if you are into cars, whatever…you know what your interests are).

Ok, so, why would you use Periscope? The promise is compelling live content — in a nutshell, whatever you click on should be interesting. However, the reality is almost NOTHING on Periscope is interesting, and even those events that could be interesting are poorly shot and have bad sound quality.

Some people might say YouTube started out with bad quality content and turned out pretty okay, and they’d be right, but the technology already existed before the site launched to create good content, e.g. editing software. You can’t make live content “good” in the moment without a trained team of editing professionals. You know, like tv.

A really interesting comparison is to Twitch. Twitch is also a live streaming platform, but with a built-in content advantage: video games. There are millions of gamers around the globe, whereas all the streamers on Periscope who broadcast the contents of their refrigerators (really, that is a thing) have no built in audience at all.

Nobody wants this product.

And that is why I wanted to write about it. Sadly, there are a number of start-ups locally that are facing this problem. There isn’t any need to name names. But there is a need for soul searching. These local guys don’t have API problems or UI problems, they have “why?” problems. “Why would anyone visit your site or use your service?” is a much more clarifying question for a start-up than “Is there an unmet need?” Even if you are correct that there really is a need, that doesn’t mean the product you hope to build is going to properly address it.

Took me almost a thousand words to come around to the point…maybe I’m a bit too polite. I don’t want to just come out and say, “hey bro, everything you’ve been working on is kinda shitty.” So I’ve illustrated the point with a big dumb startup far away from us. The idea that if you build something “cool” people will show up just isn’t true; there are simply too many options out there. Cool is a starting point, not a destination.

**So, in an interesting twist, just an hour after I originally posted this, I got some feedback from a regular reader letting me know that she sometimes enjoys watching the occasional stream on Periscope, specifically from people working in television and radio. Let me therefore slightly revise my thesis: Periscope can be used to some decent effect by media professionals, especially when supplementing their other media efforts, like a radio host broadcasting what is going on live in studio. It can be done. However, that isn’t the norm and is in fact a very small, very specific subset of streams.

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Filed under Blacksburg Start-ups, Pointless musings, Roanoke Start-ups

A Few Thoughts On Noke Codes

Noke Codes. Yeah. It is time to address this joint.

But why has it taken so long? I’ll tell ya, having a job is real drag, man. I really thought by now Barack Obama would have read this blog and come to my house and said, “Guy, I’ve read every single one of your posts about bands that nobody likes or has heard of, and WE NEED YOU. I want you to take this salary from the American people of one billion dollars so that you can write full time, hombre. This is important.”

RIGHT?

Anyway, Noke Codes.

Noke Codes is an effort by a group of local guys to accomplish several goals at once via a civic hackathon.

Let us first to be dispensing with the notion that hacking is bad. It can be, but it isn’t necessarily so. Kinda like how not all rectangles are squares, dig?

What then is a hackathon? It is a weekend-long sprint to a build a solution to a vexing IT problem. And a CIVIC hackathon is just applying that method to a community or societal issue.

The goals for Noke Codes (in no particular order): bring together the local tech community in a sort of nerd mixer; help local organizations that need tech help; and throw a bitchin’ local party. Being local is very, very hip right now. And Noke Codes ain’t nothin’ if not hip.

This is the kind of event that will either be Ground Zero of a Roanoke Revolution!, or a friggin’ train wreck. I don’t know which, but there doesn’t seem to me to be the possibility of a middle ground here. Either folks will come out and be astounded at the opportunity and talent that exists here, or nobody will show up.

Behind the scenes, the organizers are putting in the work to ensure that the infrastructure is in place to make this work, and they are partnering with CoLab not only for space but also for help in spreading the word. So, I think if people show up, it will work. But will anybody show up?

StartUp Weekend didn’t work here. That was almost two years ago, and I think our start-up scene is accelerating daily, but still…StartUp Weekend pretty much works everywhere. It is a franchise. And Roanoke loves franchises. Hello, Mission BBQ!

Noke Codes is a project worth supporting. There is no downside. But like most things, people will stand on the sideline until they see it is a success, and then NEXT year, it will be well attended. If they make it to next year. But if you are reading this, you are the type of person who is needed THIS year so that they can make it to next year.

So get involved, yo! Now is the time. YES! WE! CAN!

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Meet VOXXEL founder, David Conner

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.

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