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StartItUp Conference: Connor Ford 2016

(8-bit graphic flame on screen moving)

Good morning everybody. Like Dr. Boling said, my name is Chase Cole and it's good to see everyone out from all the different campuses. I'm from the Dahlonega campus and this morning I have the pleasure of introducing Mr. Connor Ford. Conner is the cofounder and visionary of the Spirit App LLC, which is a mobile application that engages students outside the classroom. Connor also enjoys using his talents and innovation to help nonprofits and in the past has been heavily involved with Soccer in the Streets, which is a nonprofit that helps at risk children in Atlanta by connecting with them through soccer and helping in that way. Connor is also a freshman at the Georgia Institute of Technology and I'm not sure if he's gonna tell the story or not but he was telling me earlier that Georgia Tech actually begged him to come there, so that's pretty impressive. So not only is he a young entrepreneur who was begged by the Georgia Institute of Technology to come study there. Connor also is passionate about creating technology solutions for helping people's daily lives. And so please join me in giving a warm welcome to Mr. Connor Ford.

Oh I got it, thanks. Good morning. Alright, it's my first time doing something like this and I've always wanted to do it. I know it's really over used, but I'm gonna say again Good morning!

[Audience Members] Good morning! Alright, that was well worth the wait, thank you. So, my name's Connor ford. I'm a first year student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, go Jackets. I'm also the, there we go, got a few. I'm also the co-founder of a company called spirit. By the way, we have absolutely nothing to do with Spirit Airlines, we're not gonna leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere, don't worry about that. I was born in a town called Warrington, England. It's a small town in between Manchester and Liverpool, it's kinda just near Whales. So I grew up with plenty of football, and that's the football that you play with your feet, by the way, not the American football. So, any Liverpool fans here by any chance? Ah, come on. Alright, Man U fans, other team? Alright, that's good 'cause we don't like them so we're not gonna like them, good. I've always kinda been a tinkerer when I grew up I was always kind of that nerdy kid who was taking their Christmas presents apart to my parents' dismay, making robots and making little machines. Actually I've got a picture here of I think this was my sister's first day of school. There we go. So as you can see the cuteness kinda went downhill from there but it's alright, it's alright. So yeah, my parents actually used to tell me that instead of watching TV I kinda used to go behind the TV and look at all the wires and see how they were wired up. Speaking of wires, they actually used to take them away from me and kinda put them on top of the wardrobe instead of giving me timeouts. So that's how nerdy of a kid I was. I kinda had like this giant box of cables and I was always making things from them. So 2006 my family moved to Roswell, Georgia from England. We then had a quick stopover in Woodstock and then after that we ended up in Alpharetta, which is where we are now. Well I live down obviously near Georgia Tech but they're still up there in Alpharetta. I was attending a school there at the time called Mount Pisgah Christian School. It's a K through 12 school up in Johns Creek and that's where I came up with the idea for Spirit. So Spirit is an app which was originally developed for high schools but we've kind of expanded into all of K through 12. We've got fraternities, we've got sororities on board, 501's, different sports organizations. We've actually been approached by an HOA who have asked if they could use Spirit with their neighborhood before. So what kind of started off as a really targeted product has kind of expanded into a bunch of other markets too. So what is Spirit? Now I'm gonna give you a really quick overview since I'm going to be talking about it a lot in some of the features throughout this. So, this is Spirit. Actually I think there are some students here from Lambert High School so they might recognize this if they're in the back. But what happens is is student's gonna open the app. They can see everything going on around their school, they can see scores, what's going on nearby them. They might see future events, whatever is going on. This can be a baseball game, it can be a football match, drama play, whatever it might be. They can click down and get a little more information so if they wanna see where the event is, they want to RSVP, add it to their calendar they can do that and the good thing about this as well with location, so it tells you where it is, it's not gonna tell you kinda the address it's gonna tell you exactly where it is. It's gonna pinpoint it. So my sister had a cross country race 'cause for some reason she likes running for 20 miles in a circle until she can't feel her legs anymore. Hey, some people like it. And it told me exactly where the start line was 'cause it was a 50-acre park, I had no clue where to go, but it tells me exactly where that is. But the fun really starts when you actually get to the event. So when you get to the event you're gonna check in on your phone and you actually get points for attending. Now obviously there are a bunch of clever algorithms to kinda make sure that you're not sitting at home on the couch saying, "Yeah, I'm at the football game, "I want some points." It's gonna make sure you're actually there. It can see if your friends are there and even take a survey and get a map of the venue. So you've got points. What do you need now? You need prizes right, competition. So all these points kind of add up throughout the year. They're gonna have a competition on an individual basis, a competition on a team basis. So in most schools they tend to do freshman versus sophomores versus juniors versus seniors and they kind of compete for big prizes. Some of the prizes we've seen before, actually the most extravagant one I've ever seen was a trip up to the North Georgia Mountains. A school actually took the winning grade and took them to, it's called Sharptop Cove if any of you know what that is, and they took them there for a day to just enjoy themselves because that grade went to the most amount of events in the year. We've seen some other prizes like food trucks on campus. We've seen Six Flags season pass given away to the students who got the most amount of points. So we've had some really great prizes from some of our schools. And some of the sororities and the fraternities as well, most of the time they'll just kinda let them live in the house. So if they get a certain amount of points through Spirit from attending their socials or chapter meetings then they get to live in the big house. So, we'll move on. So of course on top of that too we've got a bunch of communication tools. So schools, instead of sending out emails they can send messages out to everyone. The whole school they can send out push notifications, desktop notifications, text messages, emails. It kinda gives students exactly what they want where they wanna get messages on their phone and not in their inbox. An organization can even actually see how many people have opened a message. So no longer is it, "Well, I didn't see that email." We can say, "Well actually you opened it 20 minutes ago "and you're late." So they can do that. So with all this information there's obviously a lot of data. So we provide tools to the organization, they can see exactly what students are showing up to their events. They can see who's RSVPing ahead of time. They can even see when students are showing up. So this event looks like we had a lot of people come up at the beginning and then a little bump halfway through the event. So it gives administrators a lot of tools. It also gives them a lot of promotional tools so instead of worrying about promoting the event, So for example if I'm a drama teacher. I just wanna put on the best play I can. I don't wanna have to focus on promoting the event, I don't wanna have to focus on communicating with people, I just wanna make this a great play. But today they're expected to do so much more than just put on the play, they wear a lot of hats. So this kinda helps them, takes away a few of those responsibilities so they can make sure they have a great show. So, there's this company down in Alpharetta called Boosterthon. They organize kinda fun runs and fundraisers for elementary schools and they actually did a video series this year which is on helping elementary school kids to make a difference in the world. So I was part of this series. I was the Write a Plan stage and I thought it was kinda interesting during filming that what they're actually doing is they're really teaching these kids, elementary school age, how to start a business. So they had five different steps. They've got Find a Need, they've got, there's that not handsome face, there we go. We've got Write a Plan. We've got Rally a Team, Launch it Now, and then Grit it Out. So they're kind of the five steps they had. But first, why would you wanna start a business? Personally I think that starting a business has been one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had really. It's great to be able to start off with an idea and kind of grow it into something which is amazing. And having the people around you, having your team, it's just great building something. Instead of just kind of following directions you get to build something up. So let's kinda go through some of these different points and I'll show you how I started Spirit through these points. So Find a Need. First you gotta think about the idea. The best companies always come about from those who experience the problem first hand. So I was speaking to an angel investor friend of mine and he actually said that he prefers to invest in companies where the founders experience the problem first hand. They know exactly what the pain point of the customer is and I'm sure plenty of you have had a pretty good, you know you've gone through a problem and you thought, "Hey, that might be an idea for a business," right? So when I was coming up with the idea for Spirit I was experiencing a lot of problems with my school. My school had way too many different ways of getting in touch with us so they were posting on Facebook, they were wasting their time making posters, they had over 45 different Twitter accounts which were were supposed to follow for some reason, and then they were trying to send out emails too. And I say trying because they didn't really do too well when it came to sending out emails. Each student had their own email address and getting a teenager to check a school email address, even their personal address, it's tricky. So they actually once sent out an email, and I've tried really hard to find this email but unfortunately I couldn't find it, they once sent out an email to the whole school saying the first 10 kids, because this is how desperate they were, the first 10 kids who can come to the front office and can show us that you've read this email we're gonna give you a $5 Starbucks gift card. I mean, you bet I was the first person there, but it just shows how desperate it was for the school to get in touch with their students. There were definitely a lot of problems from the student side but there were also problems from the organization side too. So if I'm a school that didn't know what their students liked, they didn't know how many students were coming to events, they didn't really know what was going on in the mind of a student. I mean one day they came over the PA system and they said we wanna have this fantastic event. It's gonna be a gingerbread painting event, you know gingerbread house, like making gingerbread houses event for NAHS and we're really gonna support the art program. We just need five people to RSVP. And they came over and they said and the website to RSVP is www.evite.com/x1379241 and no one got it. So they had to unfortunately cancel that event but it just shows how much of a problem they were having. They also had a point system. So students would go to events and they get points for attending that event, sound familiar? But the problem was they were adding all of this up by hand. So you'd go to that event, they had someone with an Excel spreadsheet with a list of every single student in the school, and someone kinda had to stand at the front of the stands and say okay Johnny's here, Alex is here, and most of the time this was students doing this so they kinda said my friend is here, this is here, because they wanted that retreat up to the mountains at the end of the year. So it was an absolute mess, that was the problem. So what Spirit was gonna be at first is it was really just gonna be an app to help my school. I didn't really look around too much to see if it could help other schools until a little later on and then I went to some of the local schools in the area and it turns out some of them were actually doing similar systems and they were having similar problems to what my school was going through. I joined student government too so I kind of got the point of view of what was going on from the administration's point of view and again realized it was just a mess. So I decided I wanted to make something out of this. This was my sophomore year I started making it for the school and then it was about my junior year when I decided that hey, this could be something for everyone. So then I decided to write a plan for it. I did a lot of research. I had to kinda write out a business plan, decide what people, what investors would like to see, and I didn't really know too much at the time about how to start a business. So went ahead and I spoke to a lot of my family members. I had some people in the tech space who really helped me out and I managed to write a plan. Which was pretty hard for me because as tinkerers go we don't really like writing things down until last minute when we've taken something apart and it's in a million pieces on the floor and we have no clue how to put it back together. So that's the only time I've really written a plan. So after that if you're not really good at planning and having structure and you are trying to start something I'd honestly recommend trying to find a partner who is good at writing down and planning things. Or else you're gonna kinda run into some problems. And again, don't keep it to yourself. Kinda share it with people in your networks, share it with family members, 'cause they most of the time will know the ins and outs of starting up a business. So, in my case I shared it will my grandfather and again some people from the tech space. Most of the time these people are honestly very willing to help. I'm not sure how it is in other industries. I'm sure in something like the paper industry it's pretty cutthroat but in the tech space it's really, really people are really open to helping. So the next thing I had to do was kinda gather a team together. Now unfortunately I was kinda starting off on my own when I had to do the original kind of bit to programming Spirit. I was kinda the main developer to start off with but then after that we decided when we were gonna bring it out to a kinda bigger audience that what we were gonna do was hire a developer to help us out with some of the programming. Now this is really why I cannot stress enough the importance of having a good team because they can really make or break what you wanna do. So we were speaking to a friend of ours who was actually a developer. He had a development firm over in the UK and he looked at what we had at the moment and he said okay we can do this, we can do this, we can really improve your product. But since he was kind of a family friend we looked at it and said, okay we'll trust him. He knows what he's doing. We didn't really vet his firm too much. We thought, what could go wrong? Unfortunately, quite a large sum of money later, we had to throw everything away that was done by him and his firm. So again, I'd really stress making sure that you vet these people 'cause I had to go back and rewrite every single line of code. And if you look at the Spirit code base today it's actually over 600,000 lines of code and I had to rewrite that myself, which was not fun. So again with your team, it's not just the people who are working with you but it's also your support group. So I am actually on the board of a network called GATN, the Greater Alpharetta Tech Network, and that network has kind of really helped me with finding people who can help me with Spirit. So I've met new customers through networking with those groups, I've met new supporters who have put me in articles and things. I actually wouldn't be at this event today if it wasn't for knowing Ruben through the Greater Alpharetta Tech Network. So he's really the reason, sorry, so that networking is really the reason that Spirit has done so well today. Because without all that networking, again I would have probably still been with one customer when we first started off. When we first started off with that first customer that was actually when we had that kind of bad version of the code which we had to throw away. And again, I met that first customer through networking. So the first customer with the code we had to throw away, the fact that we did have a bit more personal connection with them allowed them to stay on board longer instead of just randomly cold calling someone. So again, it's really important to come up with your support team. So we actually do have a member of the Spirit team here today. He's over there, Clint Winter. Unfortunately, I didn't give him the memo about the dress so he's wearing shorts, but it's all good. Jeff, I've actually gotten a little bit ahead of myself. Let's talk about launching it now, so executing your plan. So you've got everything together, you've got your plan, you've got your team, and you've got the need that you wanna solve. So the next thing to do is launch it. Should be pretty simple to do, but no it's not. So the problem we ran into again was having that bad version of the code but it really took some time to get the company to a place where I was kind of happy with it. And I think today that we still have a lot of work to do. We're kind of moved out of that startup stage now, we're kind of into that growth stage. So it's kind of at a point where we need to get a lot more customers on board really quickly. But getting through that first initial stage really was a challenge because every single company is really gonna face problems. It's important to stick with the plan though that you first created and make little tweaks along the way but it is really important to stick with that plan. So this is something called the Emotional Roller Coaster of an Entrepreneur. I'm sure some of you have seen this already. You kind of start off at the top, you've got all this energy like, "Yes, I just created something fantastic, it's great." And then all of a sudden it's a bit of a downhill because you're thinking, "Okay, I've created something fantastic "but no one is using it and it's just me "and I'm trying to get it out there." So it's kind of a bit of a downhill. Till all of a sudden you get that first customer. And you've got that first customer, you feel fantastic again and you've got all the energy left in the world. You think nothing can stop you until you need more money. Then it goes back down again. So you kinda get more money, maybe you get another customer on which will help pay some of the bills. It's gonna be a lot of ups and downs until you're eventually gonna get to a point where you're looking at the business and you might even be thinking, "Do I wanna keep going with this?" Or do you think it makes sense to stop and do something else? And it's a really hard decision. I actually when we did have that problem with the code I thought, "I don't know if I wanna keep doing this," because I just spent nearly a year. I spent a lot of money and it's not really gone too well. I don't really know what I should do. And I think it's really important, it was actually the same angel investor friend who told me he said don't kinda quit on that first blow. Kinda go a little bit through the roller coaster maybe if it's 10 years down the line you don't have a customer okay then you need to stop. But keep going, kind of persevere, go through and do it. So we stuck with it, we kept going, and now we're luckily we've got about 35 active organizations nationwide. So we're really, really happy about that. Really, really happy about that actually. And that investor friend he actually told me a story as well about a company called Circle. So I don't know how many of you have heard of it. It's actually a Disney product now, that's how well it's done. But it's an internet filtering product. So basically like parental controls and the product actually started off as something completely different aimed at enterprise. So corporations, big companies, Coca Cola. And then they decided that they wanted to switch, just do a total 360 of what they were doing at the moment. So they were making products for corporations and Cisco came out and actually made a competitive product so they thought, okay, we're done for. They lost most of their money. They unfortunately lost most of the original people who founded the company and it was then when they had my friend come on and he kind of took the company, did a reboot, and redesigned it towards families. So now the product is parental controls, like I said, but that took them six years. So after six years they still didn't have a working product, they were out of money, most of their team members had left, but they actually kept through, kept going, and now they're in every single shelf in Target, Walmart, and Best Buy around the country. They're on Amazon and I think they're about to open up in Europe, something like that. But they've really done an amazing job of turning it around after six years. So they stuck through with their plan. Like I said, they did a few tweaks along the way but they really, really went through with it. So power through, don't be afraid of failure. It's a learning experience. We've all got stories of failure. Actually yesterday my mum was telling me about, 'cause I was asking her for different things I might be able to say today, and I was talking to her and she said I remember your first kind of failure. The first one she can remember. I was three years old and I'd gotten in an argument with her over something, I was throwing a temper tantrum, and I decided I wanted to run away from home. 'Cause what three-year-old, they get in a argument with their parents, what are they gonna do? They're gonna leave their only source of food, water, and shelter. Genius, right? Exactly, so I decided to run away. I went upstairs to my room and I got my Thomas the Tank Engine, little bag, Thomas and Friends bag, I packed it up, I made the plan I was gonna go across the street and I was gonna live in my neighbors house with them. Makes sense, right? So I went outside, head held really high. I got to the road, had to look left, looked right, turned around, went back inside the house, went up to my mum and she said, "Connor, I thought you were running away. "What are you doing?" And I go, "Mommy I'm not allowed to cross the road." So that was the first failure that I, well I don't have a memory of that fortunately because that is incredibly embarrassing, but I guess I just told it all you guys so oh well. But that was the first memory I have to that and I learned from it ya know. You shouldn't be afraid to fail. A lot of people they might be on their third startup and that's the one that really hits hard. Their first two might have failed really badly but you learn from it. I never ran away from home again. With Spirit, if we bring more people onto the team I'm a lot more diligent with looking into these people and seeing what are their skills or possible weaknesses. Do we really wanna bring them on board. So who knew that a video series taught little elementary school kids could actually be the key to starting a business, right? Interesting, now unfortunately I will not be allowed to stay around for too long after this because I do have to make it back to Georgia Tech, I actually have class. Thank you UNG, I got an excused absence for my first class, so that's great. But my second one I have to be back. So like I said we do have Clint Winter here, he can answer any questions about Spirit if you wanna stand up actually. There are the shorts, there they are.

[Clint] Spirit communications, so that's why.

Yeah, he didn't get the message. It's alright though. So he can answer any questions you might have about Spirit afterwards but I'd actually like to take this time to answer any questions you might have now since it's 9:40, I think I've got till 9:45 but we might be able to go over a little bit, I don't know. Does anyone have any questions? No, I'm right on time then, yeah.

[Audience Member] What do you think is the best method when it comes to finding a team?

To finding a team? Well, obviously it kinda depends where you are. So where I am, I'm at Georgia tech at the moment. I've got students all around me, they've got organizations, they've got ATDC where you can go and meet people but that doesn't mean, if you're not in a school, that doesn't mean there aren't organizations out there to help. Like I said, I'm on a board of a team called GATN, Greater Alpharetta Tech Network. There are plenty of groups out there. You can just go ahead and join them. They've got plenty of networking events. You can go and meet new people. Bring a lot of business cards, but meet new people, get ideas from them. You might even end up finding the next member of your team. Actually, one of the GATN board of directors actually came up to support me today. Mitch is sitting over there, so thank you Mitch. There ya go. But yeah, so there are plenty of different organizations where you can help meet new people. Anyone else? Okay.

[Female Audience Member] So after your first customer how did you start building more and more clientele? Was it through references or word of mouth or did you do any marketing specifically?

So it was through word of mouth because at the time we were on a pretty shoestring budget. Really what I did was the school, the one school we were in, it was actually Wesleyan School. I went into them and I literally said to them, "Look, we're a startup, we're new. "Do you have any connections, please?" And they put in touch with some other schools in the area. Also I got a few testimonials from them so I was able to go to other schools and say, and if you are trying to sell to ed tech by the way go to their competitor, like their sports rival. 'Cause I went to the other school and said, "Ya know Wesleyan down the street are doing this "and you're not." And they, "Why are we not doing this?" And that's kinda how we got into them. So it was a lot of word of mouth at first. Honestly just knocking on doors and I'll tell you what, normally when you call a high school and you get through to the receptionist and you say, "We're from an app company and we're brand new "and please can we speak to your principal?" No, so you really do have to try hard. I know Clint actually just kinda, we walked into some random schools. I think we went to South Versailles, you went to South Versailles. We went all over to them. We just went in and said, "We need to talk to your athletic director." Now luckily because of our age I think they thought we were students so they kinda just let us in but it worked. So really just knocking on doors. Now we do have a bigger marketing strategy. We've got someone on our team called Natasha. She manages all our social media. She manages all of our advertisements. We do a lot with Google ads, Facebook ads, because they're really helpful for just targeting, if I want to get to high school principals I can literally just type in I want high school principals and it'll find them. The key is with that though you really wanna have a well-designed ad and targeting, making different ads for different demographics of people. So we make maybe five different ads and send them out to different people with the same message, yeah. How did I get financing? Luckily I was able to do it with family and friend round which is basically the investor way of saying my dad helped me. But family and friends round and luckily that was all we needed. Most of that unfortunately went away to having to hire that developer. But we actually managed to kind of bootstrap. I did a lot of the programming work myself after that. I did a lot of the marketing after that and so we got to a point where we could kind of sustain ourselves and then we said, okay we've got this much money here let's invest it in this and try and grow the company even more. Which is the stage we're at now. And we're kind of coming to a decision on do we want to kind of keep going what we're doing now, kind of keep bootstrapping it or do we wanna look for outside money and then have a big pot of money to play with which we can use to just grow exponentially? So that's what we're doing at the moment. Go ahead. I did not actually. There's a company out at the Atlanta Tech Village they're called Tenrocket. And what they do is they design apps for, well 10 days they'll design your app for $10,000. And I was kind of talking to their co-founders and they said that the biggest problem they had was people coming to them with ideas and saying they didn't want to tell them about the idea though because they were so afraid that it was gonna be stolen. Now the problem with that is you're never really gonna get anything made, obviously. I didn't do an NDA with really any of them and it turned out fine for me. We did, actually I take that back. We did have a problem with a company called Campus Labs. They have a logo which looks identical to ours but in orange after I met with our execs. Now I wish then I'd done something but we had a trademark on that logo so we actually forced them to change their logo. So I would kind of recommend having some legal protections but I wouldn't be so kind of afraid someone's gonna steal my idea 'cause if you keep doing that and if you don't talk to people about it you'll never get it out there. You might not meet that person who you were talking to at an event. You might not tell them because you're afraid they're gonna steal it and they might be your new co-founder. But you'll never know. So I wouldn't be too afraid about NDAs. Most of the time people are good people, yeah.

[Male Audience Member] Besides scrapping all that code what was the biggest challenge for you?

Besides writing all the code?

[Male Audience Member] Well, when you had to scrap it.

That's a good question.

[Audience Member] What was the question?

Besides writing all the code, what was the biggest challenge I had with the company? Which is a good question. I'd really say the time commitment it took. I was a student at the time when I was first doing it so I kind of, my grades actually started slipping and I thought was this just a distraction or is this just something I really wanna focus on? So the biggest challenge was just deciding do I really wanna do this, honestly. 'Cause again, my grades did slip and I was not really too sure. But in the end it worked out. So I'd say just kinda take the time. Because I know some of you you'll either be in school or you've got a job and you'll have to do this on the side at first. You might get no sleep. You'll start to think is this really gonna be worth it? That was probably the biggest challenge I had. Anyone else? Good, okay, thank you very much.

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