ByTim Harvey, guest writer for the Rockies Venture Club
“Your smartphone is as dumb as a banana when it comes to interaction with local merchants,” says Tom Higley from his co-working space in Denver, Colorado. As CEO of Vokl, he’s ready to change that.
Smartphones are more prevalent than ever, with over 1 billion users worldwide, expected to double in the next few years. Including tablets, the worldwide market for mobile purchases is around $25 billion, and eMarketer says this will jump to $87 billion by 2016. Despite this, many local merchants rely on technology as advanced as the tried-and-true sidewalk sandwich board to attract customers in the area. It’s hard to blame them – these signs are fast, cheap, get attention, and many small business owners don’t know of a better way. They often have a hard time creating professional content online, and when they aren’t able to provide value to their customers this way, they’re missing out. The incredible market opportunity presented by mobile technology poses risks as well – especially to small and medium size companies and local merchants. The businesses that are either not aware of, or not able to capitalize on these global trends are likely to be left in the dust – while the ones that see it coming and can use it to build meaningful content and connections with their customers stand to win big.
Tom Higley has a vision for how these smaller businesses can participate. As a successful serial entrepreneur and 6-year mentor for TechStars, this isn’t the first time he’s planned to change the tech landscape. Vokl is the 6th company where he’s either been a founder or CEO, and throughout his career has raised about $35 million to return over $1 billion to investors. Working closely throughout his career with entrepreneurs like Brad Feld and Raj Bhargava, he has a unique perspective on what growing businesses need and where opportunities are within the marketplace.
Tom’s answer to this problem is an easy-to-use app for businesses to create mobile content their customers appreciate. “The consumer is the center of the value-creation universe,” he says. He believes that giving local businesses the ability to produce and deliver value to their customers will drive consumer engagement, and envisions a world where both the consumer and business could expect mobile interaction with each other. Right now, neither side expects this – and that’s what Tom plans to change.
The first stage of Tom’s plan was to create the Vokl Business app, which has been available on iOS since October 2012. This allows local merchants to easily create and share content through Vokl as well as social media, similar to how Instagram works. It has pre-built templates, and also makes it easy to do things like add text to images, for a caption or a call to action. The next step is for Vokl to release the consumer version of the app, which they expect to do within the next month or so. This will drive communication beyond content creation and consumption – users will be able to see posts businesses they follow in their feed, and they can also interact with the merchant. The last and potentially most valuable phase for Vokl will be leveraging location based content. Geo-tag technology will continue to grow, and although companies like Foursquare have been popular, they really aren’t really geared toward merchants, especially in the minds of users. It’s especially hard for businesses to create content or direct who gets it. “Eventually every place will tell a story, and what is important to me may be different than what is important to you,” Tom says. That’s why it’s so important for a business to be able to tailor their messages quickly and easily. Although the location based technology will be the most challenging piece to develop, he has experience in this area from serving as CEO of Denver-based Local Matters.
Vokl plans to fill a niche in the market that they don’t see anyone else providing. Many business owners haven’t seen much value from directory services, even when they are online. Most small businesses are on Facebook, but they are becoming increasingly annoyed with it. Often, they created a page because it was free and relatively easy to get ‘likes’, but with the implementation of EdgeRank they aren’t able to reach all of their user base they build organically without paying for sponsored posts. Whether or not they see this as a bait & switch from Facebook, many find it frustrating and hard to control.
While Tom was obviously excited about developing the technology, he also has great respect for the rest of his team. He is known for for spotting talent – he hired Niel Robertson (Founder/CEO of Trada) in his early 20‘s at Service Metrics, and they went on to sell the company to Exodus Communications for $280 million in 1999. For Vokl, Tom brought on software and engineering wiz Vasily Vasinov as CTO, after finding him at the top of the CU-Boulder computer science program. Tom also had good things to say about the rest of his team – another developer and what he calls “the best UI designers in Colorado.” He talks of how his team’s experience complements each other, similar to how Steve Jobs likened his recruiting model to what made The Beatles great.
Tom is pitching at the Rockies Venture Club Rockies Venture Club Angel Capital Summit, March 19-20, 2013. The two-day conference is Colorado’s largest angel capital event, and begins with a live interview with TechStars founder David Cohen. In addition to other startup pitches, RVC will feature seminars from local experts, and a keynote speech from Jon Nordmark, co-founder/former CEO of eBags and current CEO of usingmiles.com. After last year’s Angel Capital Summit, RVC investors led $15 million of investment in 24 companies that pitched throughout the year, so this year is sure to have a positive effect on the Colorado entrepreneurial community. The event will be held at DU’s Sturm Hall and more information can be found here.
Tim Harvey is a guest writer for the Rockies Venture Club. His mixed experience with Finance and Neuroscience allows him to fit right in. If you run into him, ask him about his ‘Semester at sea’.