Read Time: 15 minutes
Welcome to Episode 57 of Students vs. Startups. This week, moderator John Gilroy talks with Kurt Nguyen who’s helped create a mass emergency communication and accountability mobile app called RUOK. Listen to Kurt’s story below!
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John Gilroy: Welcome to Students vs. Startups: Showdown on the Potomac. My name is John Gilroy, I’ll be your moderator today. Let’s have a big round of applause for show number 57. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Al Gore invented the Internet. We love him for letting us do our podcast here.
John Gilroy: We are sitting in the offices of Eastern Foundry, took over a conference room here. One side of the table we have some graduate students from Georgetown University. Other side of the table we have a startup. We have a 26 minute conversation, and we walk out of here fast friends.
John Gilroy: Our two students today bring an interesting background here. We have Ekaterina and Elias.. Ekaterina, tell us about your background please.
Ekaterina P: My name is Ekaterina Pamsheva. I’m a graduate student at Georgetown. I’m halfway through the Technology Management Program. My primary study focus is cybersecurity. I work as a consultant in IT field. In my current role, I’m engaged in supporting and overseeing IT web portfolio for the federal government. I’m involved with application ONM and development, modernization, enhancement of the websites and associated cloud platforms.
John Gilroy: Yeah, and she’s looking real carefully at a big data center called Cyxtera, and will do a report on that at the end of the year, so it’s going to be kind of fascinating. Cyxtera Security. It’s going to be great.
John Gilroy: Our second student is Elias Yarborough. Elias, tell us about your background, please.
Elias Y: My name is Elias Yabarow. My background is in electrical engineering. Currently enrolled in the same program, the Technology Management Program at Georgetown. I’m currently a software developer at Accenture. I’m also doing my own startup on the side that I think is going to be able to change the way real estate is being done.
John Gilroy: So in other words, you want to switch sides of the table one of these days. We’ve had that happen a couple times. We really have. That’s good. Couple of smart students here.
John Gilroy: On our right, we have Kurt Nguyen. He is the founder of a company called Qnexis. Tell us about your background, Kurt.
Kurt Nguyen: Hello everybody. Thank you for having me here tonight. Again, my name is Kurt Nguyen. I’m the president and CEO of Qnexis. We are not quite a startup. We’ve been around for about 16 years now. I have been involved and have founded three other startups prior to founding Qnexis. We specialize in communications and technology. How do you bring and leverage technology to deliver information and content across the enterprise in an effective way? Tonight, I’d love to talk to you a little bit more about one of the products that we have recently launched, and I’m sure you have a lot of questions about that.
John Gilroy: What’s the product?
Kurt Nguyen: Tonight’s product we’d like to talk to you about is a product called RUOK? It is a mass emergency communication and accountability mobile app.
John Gilroy: Good, so we spell that out R-U-O-K. That’s kind of interesting. Tell me what business problem this app solves.
Kurt Nguyen: Sure. It’s a great question. The problem we’re really trying to solve is a very fundamental one. One of the issues that we’ve found in many recent incidents that’s happened with regards to emergency disaster-related situations that’s happened is that, whether it be something that’s by nature or even by manmade, when a disaster occurs, one of the biggest problems that we’ve found with regards to the ability for first responders, local law enforcement, as well as fire and rescue folks is the ability to provide direct, continuous and sustained communication and information to the people that are affected.
John Gilroy: Oh good, that’s all kinds of roads go down here, communication. We had a little windstorm here, a few days, a lot of people out of communications for a day. So a good place to start.
John Gilroy: Ekaterina, first question.
Ekaterina P: You recently participated at the Cybersecurity Shark Tank series.
Kurt Nguyen: Yes, that’s right.
Ekaterina P: I was able to find it online and see your demo.
Kurt Nguyen: Oh good.
Ekaterina P: I notice that your application has a very nice sound when the alert goes on, but that’s not what my question is about. My first question is if RUOK? is a company’s proprietary application? Do you have a patent on this, or is it a third party product? My second question, how are your case different from the regular, let’s say, text alert system?
Kurt Nguyen: Very good question. I’ll answer your first question in this way. First and foremost, our application is proprietary. We have filed for a patent on it right now. It is patent pending.
Kurt Nguyen: To answer your second question with regards to just how does it compare to the other industry. The reality is that, right now, what we’re finding is that there are a lot of current existing systems that are in place that are provided by the government. Many of them are the usual things whereby you’re subscribing to a text-based type of alert.
Kurt Nguyen: The problem with that is that it may not necessarily be directed at you, nor does it really designed to provide a sustained communication so that in any situation, whether it be, let’s say a weather emergency or a safety emergency or an active shooter incident, you’re going to find that those situations can be very fluid. The situation changes minute by minute. So to provide that type of mass broadcast alert, sometimes it’s not very well directed, and it may not be getting to the right people in the right place.
Elias Y: I also notice that your product was patent pending as well. So one of my questions was A, have you raised any funds for this particular product and B, if you did, how did your status as being patent pending effect, positively or negatively, for that?
Kurt Nguyen: Up to this point, as I mentioned to you before, our company has been around for about 16 years. We’ve been providing a host of different services to commercial as well as to the federal government with regards to IT services and communication type of services. When we found this opportunity and we started developing it, we really developed it as an outcrop of, we saw a very fundamental need. We didn’t see anything out in the marketplace that quite addressed the situation the way we wanted to address it.
Kurt Nguyen: Case in point, this actually occurred, if you don’t mind me just stepping back and telling you, the source for our product is that a number of years back, we actually were performing some work at the Navy Yard out in DC. It happened on a fall September Monday morning, and I heard about an active shooter that was on base. At the time, we have some clients that we were working and performing at the Navy Yard. Like many people, the first thing I did was that I picked up the phone and I tried to call into some of the folks that I knew. The reality is that I couldn’t get to many of those folks, because either A, I couldn’t get a hold of them or the few people I was able to get hold of, they didn’t know what was going on. So they couldn’t tell me anything, less they weren’t getting any information in.
Kurt Nguyen: I came away from that experience saying, “Well, there’s got to be a better way to be able to provide information to the people that are actually in those situations, because they’re the ones that need to know that, first and foremost.” Secondly, I thought about it more and says, “Well, shouldn’t there be just a simple app? An app that you can download if you’re part of that organization, whether you’re an employee or a teacher or a student, depending on whatever organization they’re at, and that in the event of an emergency, a first responder or anybody that has the responsibility to send out those alerts, can send it to you directly.”
Kurt Nguyen: With that, what we tried to focus on was to try to provide it in as simple, effective and as light as an application as possible. We believe that’s important. We’re not trying to address all the permutations that that can be addressed in terms of communication alert. That could be part of the larger EMS strategy that should be put in place, but what we’re finding is that we’re just trying to solve one basic problem, which is how do you quickly send out information and communicate it out to people that are affected, and at the same time, account for those people, and do it as quickly and rapidly as possible?
John Gilroy: I was writing down active shooter. It’s very serious. We think about Florida, and I got to add a little levity here.
Kurt Nguyen: Sure.
John Gilroy: My wife is a Latin teacher. She teaches at a small school here, and they’re all scared about this. They have meetings, and they have changes in their security plans and everything else. The problem is this, is that every year, they do a musical, and this year the musical is Annie Get Your Gun. Little problem with that. We got to bring this up a little bit later here.
Kurt Nguyen: Absolutely, and-
John Gilroy: Also, when I first say R-U-O, I thought it was some kind of computer code or something, but it’s a license plate. RUOK? I’m okay.
Kurt Nguyen: Exactly.
John Gilroy: Did you get that, Ekaterina? Did you get that the first time?
Ekaterina P: I couldn’t read it the first time, but-
John Gilroy: No it’s a license plate.
Ekaterina P: Right.
John Gilroy: I’ll let you ask a non-license-plate question.
Ekaterina P: My next question about RUOK functionality, just trying to compare if there is a feature for the people who are in emergency situation, is there a way for them to respond back to the alert?
Kurt Nguyen: Absolutely. That’s the beauty of it in that, if you want, I can quickly just show you a demo. Unfortunately, the listeners-
John Gilroy: Limitations of podcast here.
Kurt Nguyen: Right, won’t be able to see this, but I’ve actually have the screen up right now, right? This, the view that you’re seeing right now is actually the view that an administrator or first responder would have. That basically would say, in this case here, unfortunately I’m going to make this not as levity as I’d like to, but it’s just an active shooter, okay? They can put in there, “Evacuate the building.” Now what it does is that it gives you three choices. You can send it out as a push notification, a text or an email alert.
Kurt Nguyen: But at the same time, to answer your question, Ekaterina, is this. By checking this box here, below this, it says, “Check the box to require okay or not okay response.” That means that when I send it out, I’m going to send it out right now. Hopefully you’ll hear that sound.
John Gilroy: That works for a podcast, yeah.
Kurt Nguyen: Exactly. What you’ll get is that, from my view, I’m the administrator. I get this dashboard view, okay? I also see the alert that I just sent out, its time and date stamp. What you don’t see here, but you as the user would see, is in addition, you’ll see the alert, but you also see two buttons that’ll come up. It’s going to ask you, “Check here if you’re okay or not okay.”
Kurt Nguyen: In a crisis situation, doesn’t have to be an active shooter, keep in mind. It could be a safety situation. It could be a weather alert. It could be a tornado, whatever that might be. By simply pressing that, it automatically updates in real time the system, and as a first responder, you see this little … A little levity for you here, a little thumbs up and thumbs down? Depending on the response, ah. It sounds like somebody just responded to me, and I’m going to see here. I can thumb up or thumbs down. Somebody that I just know just pressed thumbs down. It’s actually somebody that works for me. They are already standing by to respond to us here.
John Gilroy: Elias, I’ve got to ask the Tom Cruise question, the show me the money question. You got to ask this. He’s waiting to ask this. You might as well ask it before I do.
Kurt Nguyen: Go for it.
John Gilroy: There’s got to be a financial model here, doesn’t there? Where’s the money here?
Elias Y: Yeah, yeah. I was going to leave that for later on, but could you go through your A, your marketing strategy to gain traction and grow, and how that’s being affected by existing competitors, and the type of value added you’re doing for that? B, where are the leads coming from really?
Kurt Nguyen: Sure. Maybe I can, before I talk to the marketing, how we go to market and talk to you a little bit about the market itself. As we can see right now, as best of our knowledge, there are quite a number of providers of emergency communication app or technology sets out there. There’s no shortage of that. However, what we’re also noticing is that there are some large players, but there’s not clearly a leader. The industry hasn’t really settled onto this is the type of technology. I think partly that we’re still a little bit ahead of the curve in terms of the adoption of all these new technology that’s available out there.
Kurt Nguyen: Having said that, a lot of what we try to do in terms of marketing right now is a little bit of evangelizing. It’s helping organizations, whether it be federal sector or commercial sector, to understand how an app like ours can fit into their overall emergency management strategy. Okay? Once they understand that and they see the value proposition that we offer through our app, the simplicity of it, then it’s a lot easier for them to understand and adopt.
Kurt Nguyen: To answer your other question, how do we actually go to market. We actually have two models. We’re going both direct as well as through channel partners. We’ve already signed on a reseller, and we’re talking to numerous other channel partners, to be able to take our product and be able to re-market out as part of other solutions that they have.
Ekaterina P: Behind every solution, there is a backbone of sophisticated technology. Could you talk a little bit more about your technology partners, in particular, how do you utilize Google and Amazon technology solutions?
Kurt Nguyen: I can talk to you in a limited fashion, because first and foremost, I’m not the CTO or the engineer. My head engineer’s actually not here with me, but I’ll be glad to share with you a little bit about how the product is set up. It’s basically, it’s a hosted solution at this point in time. It’s hosted on Amazon cloud environment to provide the security. We have been, actually, approached by some organizations. I can’t name who they are. To see if they would be open to having this be an on-premise. The reason being for that is because they may have certain security and firewalls that they want it just behind themselves, and they want to have better control of it. We are open to that, so we’re under discussion with them as regard to if that model works best for them.
Kurt Nguyen: What we care more about is how do we get this thing out there, because we truly believe that something like this has not been well addressed in many of the different communities out there. We just want to see something like our app, even if it’s not our app, we’d love to be able to see somebody out there start adopting this type of technology.
John Gilroy: So Kurt, your target, let’s say, Loudoun County Public Schools? Is that a target for you?
Kurt Nguyen: Absolutely.
John Gilroy: I don’t know who your target is. Or is it a larger group than that? I’m trying to figure out the price model. How much would you charge them? Or is it a monthly fee? How does it all work?
Kurt Nguyen: Sure. To answer your first question, John, any organization that have a lot of people that they have to be able to provide information to in a crisis situation would apply. Schools would be a great market for that, we believe. The reality is that, as you’ve seen, the number of incidents that’s been happening of late, the ability to provide maybe a teacher, a parent or a student in higher education, such as yourself, right? Wouldn’t it be great if you had an app that not only you can be able to have the information when it arise, if there’s a weather situation, safety situation or threat situation.
Kurt Nguyen: In addition to that, your parents or your loved ones or whoever else that you want to be able to provide permission to have this app, instead of them doing what naturally comes to instinct, as I mentioned to you before, pick up the phone and call in, right? Wouldn’t it be great if they also get the same information you have. “Hey, here’s the situation, and oh, by the way, here’s your status.”
Elias Y: I just got a new phone, and what I realize is that a lot of these smartphones have already a limited amount of alerts already embedded in them in the software.
Kurt Nguyen: Right.
Elias Y: For example, this new iPhone already comes with weather, Amber alerts, certain different types of alerts anyways. What type of alerts could I expect with RUOK? that I couldn’t find already in …
Kurt Nguyen: Sure. The ones that are already embedded in most phones right now are generally, I would call them, more general types of alerts itself, just like an Amber alert. You can get an Amber alert, but you don’t know whether that it means you or not. But if you’re part of an organization, again doesn’t have to be a school. Schools are a great application for this, or higher education. Or you can be part of federal government, employee of a large organization or a corporation, right? Providing that directed information because you’re part of that organization … Let’s say, for example, you going to be going out and getting your job, depending whatever the company that is with, you’ll know that that information is sent directly to you.
Kurt Nguyen: Case in point, even in our company, we actually drink our own Kool-Aid. We actually have our employees using this application. Last year, summer of last year, I believe it was, there was actually a fire alarm, a real fire alarm, that actually happened in our building. Unfortunately, the property management company didn’t have our type of application, so they had the normal audio fire alarm that went off.
Kurt Nguyen: What we did, and everybody started moving of the building. But what we did was that I activated RUOK? and I sent out the information out is that this is a fire alarm. It is not a drill. I sent it out to all of our employees, and guess what. Some of our employees were in the building and some of them were not in the building. Some of them were actually driving around. I think it was early afternoon, so they were driving around during lunchtime, and they got that information. So it didn’t really matter where they were. They knew that that came from us and it was directly toward them. So that’s the value is that it’s meant for you, it’s directed for you, because you are part of that organization.
Ekaterina P: I have a question about your partners. How did you establish trust with those companies, and some of them are big players? Do you work in collaboration with them, or is it a subprime contractor partnership?
Kurt Nguyen: The best way I would describe is we have different types of relationship. We do have large technology players that we port off some of their solution. Such as, for example, we’re leveraging the Google Maps for being able to … There’s a function within our RUOK? that you can actually not only account for people, but you’d actually use their GPS from their phone, if they have it activated, to be able to find them as well. So that provides one level of capability, and we’re just leveraging the phone. So whether it be an iPhone or a Google or Android type phone, we can do that as well.
Kurt Nguyen: Other types of partners that we do have, as I also mentioned before, which are our reselling partners, our technology reselling partners. They’re what we call our value-added resellers. So they actually already have certain expertise, whether it be technology or market capabilities that can help us go into certain markets that we may or may not be able to do before. So they’re basically extending our reach and our capabilities.
John Gilroy: So, Kurt, let’s say you waltz into Loudoun County Public Schools, and you pitch them on our RUOK? Who would you normally compete with? Who’s a typical competitor for you?
Kurt Nguyen: Sure. Well there’s a number of different types of competitors that’s out there. We actually, as I said before, right now there’s still a lot of education of the marketplace that has to be done. So depending on how a, let’s say, you mentioned a school like Loudoun County, how they would respond to that. They’re in the process, I believe, as many organizations are, trying to assess their overall emergency management strategy. So first of all, they’re looking at what their total comprehensive needs has to be, and how does that translate in terms of tools or systems that in place.
Kurt Nguyen: That could be everything from modernizing their alarm systems to electronic access points, those basically means that nowadays you can have security systems whereby you can lock down the rooms and whatnot, those are very important things to do, to integrated unified communication so that in the event of an alert, you can send it out through emails, to people’s desktops, to digital signage. So there are many different ways to be able to deliver this type of content. Very few, though, I believe right now, are actually addressing it from a mobile application perspective, or provide similar type of capabilities that we are.
John Gilroy: I’m just thinking that typically in most schools students may not be allowed to keep their phones with them in the classroom.
Kurt Nguyen: True.
John Gilroy: Or some can, some can’t. I think that’s a transition here. I would not want to be a school administrator right now. Ekaterina, this would be … Because you have signs you have to worry about. You have humans you have to worry about. You have privacy issues. There’s just so many issues here. It seems like … I don’t know where it fits. It seems it would be a tough sell.
Kurt Nguyen: Right. What we want, would rather do with something like our application is work with the organization, whether it be a school themselves, to help it adapt as part of their overall process or policy that they would want to have. For example, you know, we don’t believe, like for K to 12, that every student should have an app like ours itself, and many students, especially in the elementary grades don’t have mobile apps. So it doesn’t make sense for them to have that. It might make more sense for administrators, staff, as well as teachers that would have that, because as we can probably recount some of the incidents that has happened in our school systems, it would’ve been better if even the teachers would have had the app.
John Gilroy: It’s not a fire alarm. Lockdown.
Kurt Nguyen: Absolutely, absolutely.
John Gilroy: That would’ve worked in Florida I think.
Kurt Nguyen: Absolutely, yes. How do you enable the people that actually are in that situation, that can actually send out communication and be connected with other teachers, as well as administrators. Let them know all what’s happening.
Ekaterina P: Right now I’m taking a marketing of technology products class. For that reason, I decided to ask the following question. What is your digital and marketing strategy? What is your digital presence? Can you talk about that?
Kurt Nguyen: Sure.
John Gilroy: Five hour answer.
Kurt Nguyen: Sure, that is.
John Gilroy: Give us two minutes.
Kurt Nguyen: As a matter of fact, my background, I actually graduated with a marketing degree.
John Gilroy: Wow.
Kurt Nguyen: So it’s all about the four Ps of marketing, if you took that, right? Exactly. But just to answer … Actually, a number of years, I was actually, I held many marketing and management roles from product marketing to communications to branding. So that is very near and dear to my heart.
Kurt Nguyen: Nowadays with the advent of digital, how do we go to market? Obviously, I’m a big believer. I actually maybe because of, I’m showing a little bit of my age here, but I’m a big believer that it’s great to put yourself out there, but I’m also a big believer of not necessarily just trying to put a shotgun approach. It’s more of a rifle shot approach. That’s where you can be much more effective in how you go to market.
Kurt Nguyen: When you look at the mediums like Twitter, Facebook or whatever the current social media digital platform that’s out there, I tend to take a little bit more pragmatic approach towards that, only in the sense that at the end the day, you want to make sure that your message is very clear and crisp, and that it’s actually riding on the right platform. Otherwise, to me, buzz is just nothing more than noise if nobody gets it nor nobody cares.
Ekaterina P: There are so many outlet channels right now. Did you find any particular that works well for you? For your company?
Kurt Nguyen: Yeah. Actually for us, we actually still do a lot of Twitter feeds. LinkedIn we’re big on, because right now for us, because of this particular type of application, and the types of individuals that would interested in this, we’re finding we’re making better connections on LinkedIn, because there’s a lot of folks that are involved in first response, emergency communication, government officials. So we’re finding more of that as our market, so we are putting more content such as white papers, our videos and blogs, all on there, because I think it’s resonating more with those folks.
John Gilroy: We’re running out of time here. If people want to have more information about your company, where would they go?
Kurt Nguyen: Sure. I invite them to go to www.qnexis.com/ruok.
John Gilroy: So Q-N-E-X-I-S.com.
Kurt Nguyen: Exactly, and forward slash R-U-O-K.
John Gilroy: Mm-hmm, great, great. If you’d like to have show notes, links and a transcript, please visit theoakmontgroupllc.com. I’d like to thank our founding sponsor, Radiant Solutions. If you are interested in getting involved in geospatial projects, contact Radiant Solutions. We’re hosted by Eastern Foundry, a community of government contractors who are bringing innovative solutions to the government marketplace. For more information, go to eastern-foundry.com.
If you would like to participate as a student or startup, contact me, email@example.com. Thanks for listening to Students vs. Startups: Showdown on the Potomac.