Will Mitchell has worked for himself for the past 17 years, as a GIS consultant and then as founder of NBT Solutions, a professional services firm offering custom mapping software applications to clients.
His business efforts to date have been solid and offered steady employment, but he also came to realize that working for clients under a billable-hour model can be severely limiting.
So two years ago Mitchell and his NBT Solutions co-founder, Sean Myers, hatched a plan. Instead of spreading themselves thin by saying yes to whatever client approached them about building a different custom mapping application for this industry or that industry, they decided to focus their efforts and drill down on one industry where they had noticed a gap in the currently available software and what type of problems that caused for industry players. Rather than a client-first model, they wanted to shift to a product-first model.
In 2015, NBT Solutions beta launched a new product for the telecommunications industry called VETRO FiberMap. It’s a cloud-based broadband mapping and fiber management system for small- and mid-size internet service providers (ISPs). It’s more than just a map in the traditional sense; it offers interactive tools that allow ISP employees to do things such as quickly estimate how much it would cost to extend fiber to a single home in a neighborhood or figure out the most efficient way to re-route service in the event of a tree falling on a cable. These are tasks that were previously much more time consuming for smaller ISPs, according to Mitchell.
NBT Solutions recently raised more than $700,000 from Maine Venture Fund, CEI Ventures, Maine Angels, and the Bangor Angels to help ramp up the sales and marketing efforts.
I spoke with Mitchell about the challenges of starting a company, his philosophy around selling equity to raise capital, and his long-term plans for the company. The interview is edited for clarity and length (but it’s still pretty long).
What was your first entrepreneurial experience?
I ran a food truck with my sister when I was 16. That would have been 1985 or 86. One of those summers. We were ahead of the food truck trend. It was kind of an established business, and somehow my dad bought it for us for the summer to give us something to do I guess. And we ran it in Augusta. We drove it around to events and little league games. It was called Libby’s Lunch Wagon. It was just a one-summer deal, but that would be my first entrepreneurial experience.
Did you guys turn a profit?
We did okay. We inherited a fully functional business with a client base and some process and a really extensive menu. We had everything. We had a grill in there, burgers, hot dogs, lobster rolls, whatever you wanted. I think at the end of the day I ate all the profits with my friends, so no we didn’t make any money. We broke even. My advise is don’t eat your profits.
When you founded NBT Solutions, and shifted from being a consultant to running a software company, did you feel prepared?
It was a major leap of faith. I had reached a point in that original consulting business I just knew it was somewhat of a dead-end path, or no-growth path, and I really had ambitions to do something bigger—and adapt with the times. But it was a major leap of faith. I didn’t have a track record of large revenue; I had just enough to get by and pay my salary and one employee and that was it. And this was like, ok we’re going to build a company. It’s a different mentality. We knew we had to hire developers, which is a big shift from hiring GIS analysts and we started kind of slow. We had to fight until we got a couple small jobs. Then slowly but surely we got some clients and projects going, we built some successful applications and it kind of fed on itself, largely through referral and reputation. We did a good job and year by year we kept getting one or two new clients and the jobs got bigger and the team slowly but surely got bigger.
What have been your biggest challenges?
One of them is coming to terms with running a business and delivering technical skills that I don’t possess—meaning I’m not a developer and I don’t write code. I was always on the frontlines, hands-on, doing the GIS work and doing the data analysis. Now our staff is building software and that’s been a challenge for me personally to learn the process around that, learn the personalities around that, learn the technologies around that, from a manager’s perspective. I’m not able to go in there and rip apart the code and critique it myself, which has been a challenge for me personally.
Another one has been trying to be too horizontal and trying to be all things to all people. We would take jobs where we could get them and end up building software that was really interesting, but it might be for a healthcare data presentation app or a citizen-science application or energy-efficiency data presentation application. We did locator apps, farm credit lending institutions, we ended up doing all sorts of stuff. What happens is you get this raft of applications that you have some responsibility to continue to work on and maintain and we host everything in the cloud and keep responsibility for it. So, long story short, it was a lack of focus in terms of industry and theme. It’s very limiting. In some ways it’s fun and exciting. ‘We can help you with any mapping problem you have!’ I still get calls: ‘Can you help me map whatever?’ And now we’re like, ‘No, we’re doing telecommunications, we’re doing fiberoptic networks, we’re doing VETRO FiberMap.’ We’re honing in on an industry and going really deep and learning all about it, and delivering a solution that’s very specific to the needs of a particular customer base and industry. That’s the transition we’ve been going through the last several years. We’ve also transitioned from a professional services company and the billable-hour approach to consulting and software development to a product-first company, and we’re in the middle of that swing now. That’s a big, big deal.
What’s that transition been like?
It’s been exciting. It’s been really hard. We’ve always had close engagement with clients. You’re listening to requirements, you’re solving their problems and crafting something custom for them. That’s a whole other mentality than saying, ‘We’re going to figure out what the requirements are for this industry or customer type’—in this case small- and mid-size ISPs primarily. We’re getting to the point where people are calling us and finding us online. They’re looking at the product and saying this looks awesome. This is what we need. And it’s crossed a threshold into having dozens and then hundreds of customers using this one thing that you built. It’s a big shift in every way: mental shift, culture shift, business shift, revenue shift. And it’s really the only way to grow the way we want to grow. If you’re doing professional services, you finish one job and you have to find the next one. It’s like a treadmill.
It’s hard to scale the professional services business model. But with VETRO FiberMap it’ll be much easier to scale.
Yeah, we found this market opportunity somewhat organically dealing with custom clients in the space. It was kind of obvious that there was this need for better mapping tools for broadband networks. There are a lot of historical legacy tools out there, but they’re not very good and nobody is happy with them. So, we were like, ‘We know how to do that, we could do better.’ It was a methodical discovery process. We tried and tested and bootstrapped. It was an internal project, so we were stealing time from our own pockets. We had one developer who took time when he could to get the thing going. So, that’s how it started.
How long did you work on it as a side project before you actually launched the beta product in 2015?
Probably two years. I give credit to Sean Myers, my co-founder, for the vision and the idea and the wild persistence and commitment to it. It was either we’re going for it or we’re not. We had a couple moments like that and we put our heads together and said we’re going for it.
If you know you have a bad situation, you have to act on it.
What are some major mistakes you’ve made as a founder that you’ve learned from?
I’ve never made any mistakes…. Kidding. I’ve made all kinds of mistakes. One is dragging my feet when I should have taken decisive action or made a decision. And that’s true for a lot of things, but having the wrong person on the team can be detrimental. If you figure out that it’s not the right fit, you got to make a change. It’s been 17 years in business, in both companies, and there have been a few situations that have dragged on and taken a toll on everybody and on the business.
It’s hard to fire people.
It’s very very hard. If you’re in a company of three people, or five or ten people, or 15 as we are now, you’re like a little family. But sometimes people need to move on for their own happiness and their own reasons. If you know you have a bad situation, you have to act on it.
Similarly, ‘the customer is always right’ has always been the way we’ve operated. I will bend over backwards to deliver at a high level on a customer need. But there have been times when I’ve felt taken advantage. Sometimes you have to stop and say no. Not doing that can take a big toll, as well, financially and otherwise.
Do you think you’ve internalized that lesson? Because while with VETRO FiberMaps you won’t necessarily be in a position to be taken advantage of by a client, you will have a lot of user feedback: ‘Add this feature!’ ‘Add that feature!’ And you can’t necessarily chase down every suggestion.
That’s right. That’s what we’re retraining ourselves to do is filter through that user feedback and still have a very high level of engagement with the customers but try and only build what they all need and not what just one of them needs. It can’t be customized for each customer.
We spoke a bit about the business challenges you’ve faced, but can you talk about the personal challenges of founding a startup? I like to ask this question because there’s this romanticism that goes on with startups, but the reality is starting a company is really hard and often requires sacrifice on the part of founders.
There’s certainly been an impact on time with the family. My family knows I never turn off. There’s no off switch. There’s work emails and phone calls and travel and client visits and partner visits. There’s stuff going on 24/7 all year long. That can be challenging in a lot of different ways. But they’re wicked supportive, so it hasn’t been much of a problem. My wife, Laurie, is my inspiration in all of this business stuff. She has taught me to believe in myself and my business goals, to stand tall in the face of adversity, and that I can truly be that ‘nice guy’ and still finish first. No way I’d be pursuing this without her and her constant support and encouragement.
There was a personal situation that I would share. We were going to start raising this money and try to scale this last year… and my dad passed away in September. That was a real blow, a crushing blow, and made me question whether to do this. It set us back a few months. I didn’t have it in me to lead the charge on raising money at that time. Last fall just kind of…it was tough. I got through it and took inspiration from my dad’s own entrepreneur story. He had his own private practice law firm in Augusta for my whole life, so he was an entrepreneur himself. He was always doing crazy things, making deals, bartering. After I got over the grief a little bit, I was inspired by him and wanted to really go for it. So that’s when we decided to hit the fundraising circuit in January of this year.
Did you consider your dad a mentor of sorts in the business realm?
Yes and no. He was an inspiration in many ways, a moral compass, an ethical kind of guide. But he was a terrible businessman. He was way too kind hearted and focused on helping people and not on the bottom line. So he had a wonderful lifestyle business—I hate that term actually—but he had his own practice with a partner and a small firm and doing central Maine law type work, and he loved it. That was part of the inspiration, too. He modeled it. He was his own boss for my whole life. I have three siblings and we’re all entrepreneurs.
You recently raised more than $700,000. Can you tell me about your philosophy around raising capital and how you decided to pursue equity financing rather than self-funding the venture?
I would rewind two and a half years. I took the Top Gun Prep class with Don Gooding, which was an online course through MCED. I got a bit of exposure to the thinking around productizing, scale ups, venture funding. And that led us into Top Gun in 2015. And that Top Gun experience was fantastic. It took me right out of my comfort zone, first of all. You have to stand up in front of people and sell your concepts—the pitch. That was new to me. I mean, I had been pitching things and selling things in my own way, winning jobs, but this was a whole other level. You’re pitching a big idea to strangers and asking for money to help you build something. That got me personally comfortable with getting up on stage and making the pitch, doing the Shark Tank thing. And then we started building the product. We had MTI support. We did everything along their cycle. We did a TechStart grant for market research, then we did a Seed Grant for prototyping, then we did a Development Loan to build the MVP product. So that was our first outside money. It was debt capital. It was all a build up to going out and asking for this venture money. I think we sort of did everything methodically and along the logical path. Everything we did built upon the last thing we’d done. That led to getting in front of the Maine Angels, the Maine Venture Fund and that opened up this network.
Let me back up. Why did we go do this? Well, we built this MVP, we were getting out there to trade shows, getting out there in the market. And there was a resounding ‘Yes, you got what we want. This is the right fit.’ So talking about product-market fit, we had that. But then it’s always about timing. We were just on the cusp of this massive investment in this fiberoptic infrastructure, which is going on all around us right now. Google Fiber, seven years ago, with its first project in Kansas City, really triggered a competitive upwelling around broadband service producers, and ISPs. They’d been shrinking and struggling, but Google triggered a heavyweight competition with the likes of Verizon, AT&T, in the major markets. But what we started seeing was these emulators, these little guys, companies in small-town Maine and small-town Ohio and rural markets—second, third, fourth, fifth-tier markets—trying to follow that lead. Because the reality is nobody likes Big Cable or Big Telco and they’ve had a monopoly hold on internet service. They’re the most hated companies in the country. Their customer service is bad. They act like monopolies and consumers don’t like it, so whenever a competitive alternative shows up, there’s a big hunger for it. So we saw that going on and we’re like we have the tools these guys need to behave like Google Fiber and design more efficiently, build more efficiently, and operate the network more efficiently. They have limited capital, so they have to be really smart with where they build and how they build. So we’re enabling them to do that. It’s kind of exciting to see. One of our customers is Pioneer Broadband, which just finished building fiber to the home in Houlton, Maine, and that’s a great example of what we’re talking about. There are 3,000 households in Houlton that can now get the best internet on earth, way better than in Portland.
Going out to raise money takes a lot of time and effort and focus, and you’re better off going for more out of the gate.
So we saw the market landscape is fragmented, chaotic, hungry for innovation. And we have this great mapping expertise and the ability to tailor a mapping solution to those needs, so we figured this was a window of opportunity. That’s what drove the money. Long story short, that’s when we said, ‘We’ll never get this done fast enough without some more resources. If we’re chasing consulting jobs to fund bootstrapped development, it’s going to take us five years to get the product built to where it needs to be. We set out to raise half a million; got a lot of feedback, got engaged with those investors I mentioned and the due diligence, which was a great discovery process. They gave us advice and asked good questions. That led us to raise the raise to a million. Going out to raise money takes a lot of time and effort and focus, and you’re better off going for more out of the gate. So that’s what we did. We took the pitch on the road to New Hampshire, Boston, and Buffalo [where Mitchell’s co-founder Sean Myers is based], and at the end of the day, we got all Maine financing and backing. A lot of the other groups we met with out of state were angel groups, like in Boston. Our deal wasn’t big enough for them, they didn’t know us well enough, so it came back to these Maine groups, they kind of got what we were doing, saw how dedicated we are, and they got on board and have been unbelievably supportive. We just closed, so we’re just getting started with putting that money to work. We just had our first board meeting. Can I tell you who’s on the board? We haven’t announced it yet. We’ve got Josh Broder, CEO of Tilson Technologies. He’s in our market space and incredibly knowledgeable, connected and successful in his business. We’ve got Corky Ellis, who was CEO of Kepware and sold that business last year. And we have Frank Governali, who was a Wall Street telecom industry analyst previously and lives locally. So we’re absolutely psyched and thrilled with the board and what we think we’re going to be able to do together. With the investment money, we’ve already hired a sales person, a marketing person, a customer support person, and we’re still seeking one or two developers to add to the team. Geospatial developer talent is very hard to find, but we’re looking hard to add to that team. We already have a solid development team—it’s all done in house, we built everything ourselves in house. That’s worth noting.
Can you give me a sense of the traction you’ve found so far? How many customers do you have?
We’re up to 25 companies on the platform, subscribers. We’re aiming for 50 by the end of the year and a couple hundred by the end of next year. It’s a very niche business-to-business offering.
It’s niche, but there are certainly a lot of these small ISPs across the country, right? So it’s not necessarily a small market, is it?
That’s right. Think about internet as infrastructure, or as a utility. That’s another shift in the landscape—the government is viewing internet access as they did electricity back in the day, so getting internet out to rural unserved and underserved areas is more of a goal now than it ever was. It’s an economic development imperative. We’re trying to enable the builders.
Yeah, there are several thousand prospect companies in the country in the direct sales context, the ISP space. Rural telephone companies are a target market, rural electric co-ops are a target market. They’re delivering fiber now for smartgrid use. There are municipal networks sprouting up. There have been a lot in Maine that are public-private partnerships. We work with GWI; they’ve done quite a bit in that space with towns like South Portland and Rockport and Islesboro. The more towns and cities that do fiber builds of their own, the more customers we’re going to have.
We also have international customers already, and we expect a lot more. We have very strong interest from South Africa. Totally unexpected, to be honest. But we have customers there building fiber-to-the-home projects at a rapid clip and they called it a fiber land grab in their market. And that’s happening in other places, too. Everyone needs the internet. You talk about connected homes, self-driving cars and Internet of Things. Every household will have 40 devices connected to the internet. We need more bandwidth. Our current infrastructure isn’t cutting it and won’t cut it in five years for sure. So this build, this investment is going to be sustained and very large and global.
You mentioned some short-term goals for the business. What are your medium- and long-term goals for the business?
We are positioning ourselves as a platform offering and what that means is we don’t want to be just a tool. We’re a living, breathing repository of network intelligence, network data, the physical network map, and we serve it out through APIs and open architecture, meaning we’re going to allow these businesses to leverage their network map in ways they never could before. It’s typically been locked away in the engineering office on someone’s laptop. Now it’s going to be organizational intelligence that will support all these operations: sales qualification (can I get to this address or not and how much will it cost), outage management (a tree fell on the line here, whose internet is out and how fast can I fix it or reroute the circuit). What I’m trying to say is as a platform we see a lot of growth opportunities for creative applications to be built leveraging the map. So once we are involved with a lot of these companies, we think we can grow with them very nicely and bring a lot of value. We want to be the best at what we do. We want to be the best mapping solution for fiber-network inventory and management. We want to achieve a very significant market presence and be in a position to do big things and to go upstream. We’re now focused on the small- and mid-size companies, but you’d be surprised at what a mess the mapping is at the largest of the internet providers, as well. I won’t name them, but we’ve had calls with the Big 10 and none of them have a happy mapping place. They all need help. So we want to go up market in terms of the scale and size of the customers and deliver things to the big guys, as well. But that’s long term. We’re not focused on that yet.
And we want to grow the team. Our plan is to add about five people a year over that time frame here in Portland, and export this product around the world from here. It’s a cloud-based service, so we can do everything remotely, which is kind of amazing. And grow that recurring license revenue at a rapid clip until we’ve got a thriving and rapidly scaling business.
Are you guys profitable yet?
Not on the Vetro product. We’ve been investing heavily in it. We’ve done good business on the legacy business side with consulting revenues and custom-job revenues, so it’s hard to talk about one without the other. We have been profitable historically, but we’ve gone into this mode of focus and shifting into product-first and the licensing revenues haven’t caught up yet. But as those grow, we’re becoming selective and winding down the legacy business until we’re profitable on the licensing only. That’s where the growth is going to be.
If you had to give two pieces of advice to someone starting their first company, what would they be?
One would be just do it. If you do a good job, you have a good business model, and you’re dedicated to it, passionate about it, go for it. I can’t imagine not working for myself after the last 17 years of experience. There were times it never should have worked; it should have failed. And invariably you get to the end of your rope and something good would happen. The other piece of advice is learn to live with the uncertainty and volatility and just keep after it.
Persistence and patience. You don’t hear that word patience a lot when talking about venture money and scale ups. So I have to balance those things. I’m having to evolve as an entrepreneur. Success a couple years ago was one thing, but where we’ve set our sights, success is totally different and much bigger in some ways. I personally need to be more aggressive and less patient at this stage. But early on, persistence and patience for sure.
Bringing on venture capitalists forces some of those changes, too. Because now it’s not just you and your co-founder. Now you have a board and investors who want to be involved. And those investors will want to exit at some point, so that probably drives some aggressiveness and needs to work into your future plans.
They want a return, absolutely. We do have our thoughts on an exit. There are quite a few different forms it could take, but that could be the five-year milestone. We build, build, build for five years and get acquired. That could be a reasonable expectation.