The startup community in Louisville is by no means large, and there are even fewer technology startups. As a fellow tech startup founder, I make a point of meeting other tech startup teams either at networking events or one-on-one meetings. I first met Aaron Marshall in June of 2011 at such a networking event. At the time, his social media consultancy, TECHSMO, had not yet been acquired by another local tech founder legend, Jason Falls of Social Media Explorer, and Marshall’s tech startup, Potluck, was researching the goal-sharing mobile application space.
Most tech startup founders in Louisville are active on Twitter, and Marshall is no exception. (You can follow him @aaronmarshall.) To promote his goal-sharing app and research the competition, he attended this year’s South by Southwest festival in May of 2012. While he was there, he began dropping hints on his Twitter stream that he was onto a new idea – a big idea.
“I realized at South by Southwest that there really weren’t any great solutions for putting text over photos,” said Marshall. “There’s some cheesy caption stuff and really developer, undesigned, brute force solutions. However, there was nothing that was elegant, fast, and had beautiful fonts. I wanted to cater to the busy creative and the accidental designer. We’re all designing stuff now and we don’t even realize it. There’s an aesthetic standard that exists and I think we wanted to design a tool that allows people to stay in that standard.”
Fast forward two and a half months later to July 6, 2012: Marshall and the Potluck team launched their new app for the iPhone called Over. It allows users to add beautiful text to photos and share them. The app resonated with users and major technology pundits alike. Blogs such as TechCrunch and Mashable had high praise for Over’s design and ease of use.
“The Over app lets people get in and out in 90 seconds,” said Marshall. “To add text, position it right, and share it – that’s pretty fast. We want to own the speed portion of this market so that people are spending less time on their phone and more time in the moment.”
By the third day of its release, Over was in the Top 10 list of the photo app category in the Apple iOS App Store.
“So that was a big deal: to beat [Apple’s own] iPhoto and iMovie, even for a few hours,” said Marshall. “It was a pretty awesome feeling.”
A few weeks later, the Potluck team received a call from Apple indicating that they too liked the Over app and had editorial interest in it, which meant they might feature it in the App Store.
“A week later, they featured our app in the App Store,” said Marshall. “Big milestone – to know Apple likes your app. It was a boost in sales.”
Besides owning the market on speed, Over also specializes in offering new, exclusive, and beautiful fonts.
“There’s actually a sweet story about that,” said Marshall. “Jeremy Booth, an up-and-coming designer here in Louisville, was there on the day that I launched the app…Jeremy and I were at Starbucks and I told him how Over was starting to look for font foundries and various people to design fonts for us. He asked what we were looking for. Well, there was one specific one that I had been looking for which is based on ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ – a hand-drawn style. He sat down right then and there and drew it freehand. A week later, he had the [OpenType] file to me. And now it’s one of the most popular fonts used in Over.”
While it may appear that the Over app is an out-of-the-gate, overnight success, according to Marshall, this is not true.
“[It is the result of] years of beating my head against the wall,” said Marshall. “We tried a lot of things before Over stuck. Our philosophy is: You put down several shallow hooks and whichever one gets a bite, you follow that. We’re less interested in building a company and more interested in building a platform for experimentation. The experiments that catch on and are successful become a company. We just want to have a laboratory. I don’t think it’s wise to call yourself a company right out of the gate because you don’t know what the heck you’re doing. You don’t even know what the competition is doing.”
In fact, Over is not the first app designed and launched by the Potluck team.
“We’ve had minimal traction in all the apps that we’ve launched, but this is the first time we’ve had substantial revenue-generating traction,” said Marshall. “And that’s a big deal. We’re going to continue to experiment. That’s our philosophy. I know that’s the path forward, even at the stage we’re at right now: test revenue channels, test different markets, different features.”
One impressive aspect for an app, especially one that’s not free, is the spread of ages of active users.
“With Over, I’m trying to create a new art form, and not a difficult art form like the violin, but more like the guitar, where someone can pick it up, play a few chords, and sound just fine all the way to face-melting guitar solos and everything in between,” said Marshall. “It’s for everyone. Adobe Photoshop is not for everyone. I’ve got four-year-olds using it and I’ve got 67-year-olds using it. I have over 700 users who are over the age of 55. They can barely work their smartphones, but they get Over.”
Our conversations always go back to the question of what Louisville can do to support and grow the local tech startup community. Posing the question to Marshall once more, his answer reflected the years of experience that got him to the point of Over’s success.
“I would encourage some sort of – and I don’t know who would do it or who would lead it – a personal reflection of what Louisville is, who we are as a city, where is there actual momentum,” said Marshall. “I think this could actually be done by people who have data…I would love to see some sort of infographic that showed what Louisville actually is: where is our money coming from and where is it going and what are people doing with it.”
He summed this up into two central questions: “Who are we?” and “What do we want?”
“Those two questions are the crux of what we were working on with our goal-sharing app back in the day, getting people to answer ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What do you want?’” said Marshall. “But answering that question takes somebody who has some data and is able to communicate that back to people, because everybody has a different story when you ask them what is Louisville all about. Some say logistics, some say health, some say bourbon, some say biomedical, some say equine. There are 10 different angles. I would love to see something that says, ‘Here’s what we are.’”
“How can we align with what we are?” said Marshall. “So instead of going off and building technologies in categories that we’re trying to compete with the Silicon Valleys of the world, we look at what we have, and the intelligence and strengths we have right here, and say, ‘What kind of equine technology should we make?’ if that’s what it is. If it does happen to be medical, like every single stinkin’ city in the Midwest says they are, well, then let’s focus on that. Let’s find where there’s momentum and give it adequate resources. We’re not clear with who we really are. Once you’re clear about who you really are and where you want to go, you start to make really good decisions today. That would be the most helpful thing to the startup community here in Louisville.”
GLI’s ENTERPRISE CORP
EnterpriseCorp is the division of Greater Louisville Inc’s economic development team that works with early-stage tech companies in the region.