Category Archives: Start-up culture

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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The Exit: Valley Bank

Let’s be honest: I write more about music than I do about start-ups. But when I DO write about start-ups, I generally confine my meandering discourse to tech start-ups.

However, I’m as interested in Roanoke business generally as I am in the particulars of our burgeoning tech scene, so when a different kind of “start-up” takes off, I think it is worthy of attention.

Enter Valley Bank. Founded in 1995, Valley Bank has been a runaway success here in Roanoke, often with double digit growth, year-over-year. And that has been a real boon to us all, because local banks and banking local are vital to organic growth in small markets like Roanoke. However, that kind of macroeconomic crap is not the point of this post.

Let’s talk instead about Valley Bank’s “exit strategy.”

Like many tech start-ups, Valley Bank built a small, loyal, local following, and when a bigger bank came calling with a cash offer, they sold out. I got a form letter last week from Ellis Gutshal, Valley’s president, saying that the long-planned merger is now official.

This is the start-up dream, right? Build something great and let somebody else scale it for you, taking a fat payday.

I can’t say I blame them, but at the same time, local banks occupy a place of public trust that I feel Valley has broken in this case. Personally, I went with Valley because I liked their community focus, and I have no confidence at all that their purchaser, BNC Bancorp, will give shit one about Roanoke. They are based in High Point, NC. Valley Bank is probably a write-off for them. And I feel a little bit betrayed, and disappointed in myself that I didn’t pick Hometown Bank instead.

Banks matter in tangible ways in the lives of individuals that tech companies, even big ones, just do not. Think about it: Facebook buys Oculus, and nothing changes for anyone other than the employees of Oculus; but a local bank like Valley gets bought out, and suddenly it is a little bit harder for all of us in Roanoke to get a mortgage. Whether the issue is a home loan or a business loan, they’ll say their underwriting will stay in-house and all decisions will be local, but that will NOT be true. Instead of a personal banking relationship, Valley’s customers will be dealing with the local representatives of far away shot calllers.

I kinda think that sucks.

HA HA! Business! - HA HA! Business!  Ha Ha! Business

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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