Chris Bunnell has worked at a host of startups over the years, always drawn to the opportunity to take a clean slate and create something of value, something that solves someone’s problem, and potentially something that outlasts him.
“I feel personally that this is a way to potentially leave a contribution behind,” he said.
His current startup, UniteGPS, has built a cloud-based solution that allows school districts and the parents of students to track the location of school buses via desktop or a mobile app. The company continues to improve the product, which it calls Crosswalk, and plans to add a feature that allows school bus drivers to track the students who get on and off the bus. UniteGPS has also recently launched a similar product to help public transit companies and their customers track their buses in real time. Bunnell anticipates the company will reach $1.5 million in revenue this year.
Bootstrapping the business to this point has been anything but easy, which Bunnell gets into in the interview.
A former assistant administrator of Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, Bunnell left that job in 2000 to join his first startup, a company called HealthWatch Technologies, which had grown out of some work being done in the Medicaid program in Maine. That company eventually sold to Optum, a division of United Healthcare. After that, Bunnell worked at a few more startups, one of which he founded himself. In 2014, he was working as part of a team of developers at the University of California San Diego Supercomputer Center when he became intrigued by the possibilities of GPS technology. He fixated on the bringing a technology approach to how schools pick up and drop students with its fleet of buses, so he organized some friends he worked with at the supercomputer center and they built a beta software product that could help school districts and parents track buses. He and three co-founders launched the company in April 2014.
In this interview, Bunnell speaks candidly about the personal challenges of working at a startup, why he hasn’t taken outside money from investors, the silver lining of bootstrapping, and his advice for new entrepreneurs.
Maine Startups Insider: What was your very first entrepreneurial experience?
Chris Bunnell: Whatever was in the water where I lived, people were interested in having their own business and proud of it. So when I was in college you sort of had the standard set of jobs. You could work at an ice cream store, you could work at the movies, you could get a job waiting tables. All my friends had these standard set of jobs and I thought: ‘Wow, once you do a few of them you realize this isn’t very interesting.’ So when I was in college, one of my friends had a driveway seal coating business and he was successful, so I said alright, can you teach me? He started teaching me. It didn’t take all that long. I said: What do I need for equipment? Ok, I need a truck, I need a trailer, I need squeegees, I need 55-gallon drums for the coal tar so we can buy in quantity, I need a marketing plan on how we’re going to get customers and where we’re going to get them. So me and my buddy decided to do this for a summer. What could go wrong? So we made up a flyer, we passed it out in a nearby town that was known to be more affluent. We called ourselves the Driveway Doctors. We put these flyers in mailboxes. Of course that pisses off the postal service and they eventually caught up with us, but by that time we’d gotten in front of the customers we needed to at a very low cost. It was a sort of bending of the rues that worked for us in college and we felt like we didn’t do much harm. We got plenty of customers and did really really well. I think we went back to college and split $40,000 at the end of the summer of 1987. That was a lot of money back then. It’s still a lot of money. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever made so much money in such a short amount of time as with that simple little business.
Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever made so much money in such a short amount of time as with that simple little business.
You’ve worked several startup businesses. What do you like about working at startups?
To me it’s really interesting. It’s stimulating. The fact you have a completely clean slate, you’re faced with a problem that really no one has solved in the way that you need to solve it. If someone else has solved it you’re just reinventing the wheel. So trying to do something that’s truly innovative, that helps people in a new way, that’s hopefully a better way. I feel personally that this is a way to potentially leave a contribution behind. That’s what I really like about it.
How did you get interested in GPS technology?
A friend of mine was working on an app for the Blackberry—this was like in 2007—and he showed it to me, and it was fascinating. I thought, ‘Wow, this is amazing, you can really track anything and people have these things in their pockets.’ And it was before Apple came along and said we have an app for this, an app for that. So we started working on something and did a pilot for Carlyle. It has connections to Maine and is Fortune 500 company. They wanted to track trucks and drivers for a specific need. It was really successful in terms of technology, but the problem was you had to give every truck driver a Blackberry, so it kind of failed from a hardware perspective. So we put it aside and I came back to it a few years later after Apple had sort of changed the world with its hardware. Then Samsung and other providers came in behind them, made it cheap, and so I realized now we can do some of these things. So we started to work on a solution for schools. We did some pilots in Maine. We had some failures. We had some successes. Finally we decided we had enough of a prototype here to make it work. So on April 1, 2014, we formed a company. I have three other partners, one of them used to work for Qualcomm, which use to have a product called OmniTrax, which started in the 1980s and used satellite data to track trucks around the world. Back then you’re using satellites, you’re talking updates every two or three hours and very little data, so it was kind of rudimentary. Now, of course, our solution is getting data every five seconds and we’re getting unbelievable amounts of data. We’re getting heading, speed, altitude, trouble codes off the engine control units of the vehicles, so if a truck out there has a problem we know about it instantly. It’s a whole new world we totally live in with the technology that’s now available.
Given your experience with startups and entrepreneurial nature, when you first founded UniteGPS, did you feel prepared in a way that maybe a first-time founder wouldn’t be?
You learn a million things along the way. You never know it all. That’s for sure. You run across problems and figure out how to solve them. So you become a really good generalist at solving random problems that come your way, but you never get to be a master of a single domain. You’re sort of an utility infielder, so to speak. You can play first base, third base, outfield, you can catch, maybe you can pitch a game. You kind of have to as an entrepreneur, right? You have to be the accountant, you have to be the marketing person, the sales person, the idea person. I don’t think it gets easier. You just become better at solving problems, but the problems might become more difficult. What we were up against in the 80s was way different than what we’re up against now. Corporate America has taken over almost everything, the powerful are paying off the politicians to put rules in place to make it very difficult for an ordinary person to create their own business, because they want all the money to go to corporations, corporations issue W2s, W2s collect taxes—it’s sort of that simple. So I think startups are much harder now than they were 30, 40, 50 years ago.
So it doesn’t get any easier, but did you feel any more prepared because you’ve had all that experience compared to a first-time founder?
Prepared? No. But I think there’s a semi-delusional nature to all entrepreneurs. What could possible go wrong? I think most entrepreneurs that are successful aren’t completely based in reality—they’re somewhat based in reality. I think there’s a denial component of being an entrepreneur. I mean, hell, when I was 20 years old and in college thinking I’d start my own business, I thought I was completely prepared. I had no idea I wasn’t. But I would have to prepare myself along the way.
I think there’s a semi-delusional nature to all entrepreneurs.
What’s been the largest challenge you and your team have faced in starting UniteGPS?
Well, I have two kids in college. That’s kind of expensive and so I haven’t had a lot of extra money lying around. So we bootstrapped and we’ve made this happen on our own resources. In the past, I’ve been in organizations that have had resources and I think there’s a tendency to solve problems with cash. I’ll give an example. We needed a component built for our system. A part of our solution was breaking down for actual live customers. So I found someone in Florida that could solve that; it was going to be $15,000 and the problem was going to be fixed. Well, we didn’t have $15,000 laying around, but we needed to solve this problem. So with some cooperation from my partners and thinking this through and finding a specific person overseas who was able to help us at an incredibly discounted price—at a price they could be comfortable earning—we were able to build that component for $2,200, and we were able to do it out of the cash we had at the time. If I had been with one of these bigger companies that had some venture capital, hell we would have blown the $15,000 on day one when we had that opportunity. But we didn’t. So you find these ways around. I think there’s a tendency in life and in startups to solve problems with cash. If you have it laying around, it’s so easy to write a check and make the problem go away. So as a result we’ve been able to bootstrap this. We don’t have any debt and it hasn’t been easy to do. We’ve tried to work off the cash flow we have from existing customers. That’s the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced: trying to bootstrap a company. I think to a large extent we’ve been successful because we put a lot of in-kind effort into it. Our team has over a million dollars worth of hours into this at our regular rates, but cash wise we’ve only put in $140,000, which is not bad because we’re up against billion-dollar corporations that have development teams ten or twenty times the size of us and we’re competing in the real world. It’s not easy to do, but if you think before you spend, you can really make a huge difference in what your overheads are, what you’re able to charge, and where you end up at the end of the day.
It’s not easy to do, but if you think before you spend, you can really make a huge difference in what your overheads are, what you’re able to charge, and where you end up at the end of the day.
Besides the $140,000 your team of co-founders put into the company, have you raised any money from outside investors?
We haven’t. We looked at raising money and we went through the Maine Angels and we talked to CEI and the Maine Venture Fund and the usual suspects, but it became apparent to us that the rules are a bit onerous. They want to make a nominal investment, take 15% of your company and then control it. Well, there’s no way I’m letting that happen after everything we’ve done to get where we are. We probably could use some cash, but we would only do it for an investor who wants to roll up their sleeves and sit at the table just like the rest of the partners. No one is going to waltz in with a check and think they’re going to be running the show. That would defeat everything we’ve worked for. Not that there can’t be valuable contributions from an outside perspective, but we’ve all seen the Steve Jobs movie one too many times and we think to ourselves, ‘Nope, we can’t let that happen.’
Business aside, what personal challenges have you faced in running a startup?
Personally, your life goes through different phases and different people are in your life and I think for sure you can’t be highly successful if you’ve got chaos going on. If you have uncertainty and people who aren’t contributing or allowing you to do your work… if people are getting in your way and making demands of you as an entrepreneur, you’re screwed. Because the calls are going to come in… We have a lot of clients on the west coast, so my phone might ring at 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock, 10 o’clock in the evening. And we’re bootstrapping, so I’m the guy answering the phone a lot of the time. And my partner can’t say anything, you can’t be upset about that, you have to understand this is the mission and, by the way, as my partner you too are part of the mission. If you don’t have someone who’s supporting you—and I don’t mean working for you—but that means understanding enough to give you the latitude without creating other chaos, making you feel guilty about this or that. That’s the kind of support you need. I mean, I need to live on Planet Chris and do my work on Planet Chris and focus on this and if I take my eye off the ball for a minute it will take me two days to get back to where I was. On the personal side, those are the challenges. And certainly I have an awesome partner right now who supports me in that way. In the past, I definitely haven’t had that and that prevented me from being more successful than I probably could have been.
If you have uncertainty and people who aren’t contributing or allowing you to do your work… you’re screwed.
Tell me how your company gained traction in the first few years.
We started out doing pilots for free and you start to talk to people and, more importantly, to listen to what they’re telling you and really try to stand in their shoes and understand what they’re trying to solve. So we’re trying different things in these pilots and some things work and some things don’t. I think the failures come with the territory—you got to have them. Our first paid customer was Lewiston Public Schools. They had a situation in the news where it was one bitterly cold morning a few years ago and a bunch of the buses wouldn’t start and they weren’t able to get the word out to the people on the streets, so there were thousands of kids left in the streets of Lewiston in this negative 30 degree weather and they were never getting picked up because these buses were still in the yard. So I made contact with the superintendent and he was willing to take a chance on our solution, so we started working with them. Once you have a customer, life becomes a little easier.
We then got Lisbon Falls here in Maine and from there we were picked up by U.S. Cellular. So U.S. Cellular is obviously trying to sell cellular service and they came to me and said, ‘Well, geez, we’re finding it difficult to sell the next cell phone or tablet because everyone has one, so we’re trying to expand in other ways, like these data connections you need for your solution. So would you be interested to talk with our folks in Chicago about us potentially reselling your solution?’ I thought that was great, so we started to work them and we ultimately signed an agreement with them and they became a reseller of our product around the country. So suddenly we go from a couple customers to having a channel marketing agreement with a Fortune 500 company that has 133 business-to-business sales reps who have received a presentation about our product and are talking to schools in their footprint about our product. Leads are coming in and we’re doing demonstrations and we’re signing customers. So that happened, and then pretty soon Verizon figured this out and we get contacted through some of their partners to become a Verizon preferred partner and we started to work with them and they start to generate more leads. We started 2016 with a single paid customer and at the end of the year we had 22 school districts from around the country. Of course, it’s cyclical with schools and their budgets, so you have to wait until the next year [before you can sign more schools]. So since last year’s season ended we’ve been in front of more than 200 school districts. We generated about 50 of those demonstrations through our own efforts and the rest were brought to the table through U.S. Cellular and Verizon. We expect over the next few months to add another 50 customers, so by the end of this year we should have 70 school district customers from around the country.
So that’s the product you call Crosswalk. You also recently released a new product for public transit companies. How did that come about?
Last October, U.S. Cellular brought a transit company in Washington state to the table called Gray’s Harbor. Gray’s Harbor had seen our mobile application for parents at a school district in Washington and were friendly with that transportation director and asked him how much it costs and they thought that price was pretty fair. They had just went out to bid for 29 transit buses and the lowest bid was in the $300,000 range and some were as high as $500,000. They said, ‘We thought we’d talk with you to see if you’d be willing to work with us. We’ll give you the knowledge to tweak your system to work for transit, you tweak it for us and then give us the nice price point you get for schools.’ We said okay and so we started working with them. They turned out to be fabulous partners, really knowledgeable.
One of the things that was important for me was how do we advance the science. We don’t want just another transit app. It needs to be better in some sort of material way, so one of the things you discover is that Google has got involved with this a few years ago and they created something called GTFS—Google Transit Real-Time Data Feed. But as it turns out, what they call real time isn’t really real time, it’s delayed time. Imagine you have a device in a transit bus—most of those devices are updating every 30 seconds. In other words, reporting its location. Once that coordinate is reported, Google only picks it up every 30 seconds, so if you’re a person on the street your coordinate is going to be at least 30 seconds late and it could be as much as a minute late depending on where in the 30-30 cycle you fall. So with our system we’ve not used the Google method, which is pretty much being used by everyone across the country. We’re putting our own device on a vehicle and it’s reporting to us every 5 seconds. So literally if you’re looking at our app and it’s telling you the bus is coming around the corner, the bus is coming around the corner pronto. It’s not going to be in 30 seconds, 60 seconds, 90 seconds, it’s going to be in two seconds. So that was the major innovation we brought to the table. We built this on the cloud, so anyone could use it. Once you build something on the cloud these days, it’s super cheap. You build it once and then it’s copy and paste for everyone else, so it becomes a very, very cost effective solution for transit companies. We show them our price, which is $39 a month per vehicle, and they’re like, ‘Where do I sign?’ So since we’ve launched that, we’ve been in discussion with about 30 different transit companies around the country and most of them are very eager to move over to our solution.
Can you tell me anything about sales or revenue?
With the school systems on our system we’re expecting $1.5 million this year in revenue. And the transit is just coming around but it’s rapidly catching up to what we’re doing with schools. Since the schools are on a budget cycle, we’ve coverted pitching the transit stuff so we’re going to be focused on transit for the next several months.
What are your long-term goals for the business?
I love building these solutions, listening to people, trying to understand what their needs are, then take technology and apply it in such a way that it’s incredibly effective. To my way of thinking we’re this bridge beween products like Google Maps and the end business user. To take the needs of those business users and develop something that’s so custom for them that it works perfectly. For example, we’re in conversation with some national EMS leaders on potentially working towards a solution for when you call 911. So if someone is hurt on the street and you have your cell phone and you call 911, they don’t know where you are. I think people would be shocked to know that. That’s a problem that needs a solution. You have ambulances driving around and the dispatcher can’t tell them where you are. That’s a problem that can be solved, I think. So we’d like to work on that solution. And eventually we’ll have data reporting in from thousands of school buses and transit buses, and trucks, and mobile workers, and EMS vehicles, and the UPS delivery and the FedEx delivery. Once you have these data streams flowing into one location, then you can create an API that allows people to build their own custom maps. So if you’re a business, you have mobile workers and you have trains and trucks serving your business, people can start to share just like on Facebook where you share your personal information with your friends, you can share your location data across your whole business with other businesses that you’re working with and try to coordinate things. Share this data in ways that solve problems that we can’t even think of today. We don’t even know what the needs are. You need to put that in front of people and let them think about what they could solve with all that information. I think that’s the end game. Once we get more traction and we get some more capital and we have a chance to expand our development team, I’d personally like to be working on 15 to 20 GPS-type solutions at a time, incrementally making them better and better all the time, and as we learn something from one industry cross pollinate it to another industry and just make these tools flexible and easily applied to solve problems elsewhere.
If you could give two pieces of advice to someone thinking of starting their own business, what would they be?
Write your plan, write your plan, write your plan. I think that’s the number one mistake people make. They wander in nonchalantly and maybe over time figure out a plan, but if you really take the time to think through the important questions, what are we offering, why is it better, why would people choose us, what do the finances look like, who are we going to sell to, why would those people buy from us. All those business plan questions. I think it’s the last thing most people want to do, but it’s really the first thing that needs to be done because until you have a plan, you don’t’ have a plan.
And I think you have to have someone by your side who knows what they’re doing. Somebody’s been down your road and made a million mistakes and can say, ‘hey, that’s a landmine, don’t step on it.’ I mean, it may seem simple, but people who have done it before can easily do it again, the people who have never done it before are just guessing where the landmines are.