Read Time: 15 minutes
Welcome to Episode 32 of Students vs. Startups. This week, moderator John Gilroy talks with the Co-founder and managing director of the startup, Shop4Clouds, Keith Trippi. With over 11 years of experience at the Department of Defense, Trippi built from scratch, a 150-person startup which specializes in improving efficiency within large services. Read below to learn more about Shop4Clouds, as well as how their consulting services can improve your business!
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John Gilroy: Welcome to Students Vs. Startups: Showdown on the Potomac. My name is John Gilroy and I’ll be your moderator today. Let’s have a big round of applause for big show number 33. Wow, all right. It is great. I can’t believe, Claude, we’ve done 33 shows in a row, and the place hasn’t thrown us out of here yet. If you’ve listened to this show before, you know we’re in Arlington, Virginia, just across the river from Washington, D.C. There’s a little incubator here called the Eastern Foundry and we stormed in and took over an office. We have a big meeting room here. We have a table. One side of the table, we have three students. The other side of the table, we have a startup. We have a little conversation in 26 minutes. We walk out of here as fast friends. Make sense?
Let me start out by introducing our students. We have two wanna-bes and one actual graduates to the program. Our first wanna-be is Yasir Khalid. He is in the technology management program at Georgetown University. Yasir, tell us about your background, please.
Yasir Khalid: Yes. I come from a marketing research analytics and insights background, and working in marketing, I realized that I need to have better technical [inaudible 00:01:26] skills. That’s why I decided to join the program.
John Gilroy: Good, good, good. Our next student is actually a graduate. He has a master’s degree in professional studies from the technology management, from the School of Continuing Studies at Georgetown University. Wes Lewis, you collect degrees, don’t you, Wes?
Wes Lewis: I do what I can. I also have an MBA with a focus in management from the University of Maryland University College, where I am also teaching digital media and web technology. I have about 14 years of experience in user experience design, development, and research. I currently lead a team over at Booz Allen Hamilton, focusing in user experience.
John Gilroy: [inaudible 00:02:06] yeah.
Wes Lewis: Yeah.
John Gilroy: Good.
Wes Lewis: Glad to be here.
John Gilroy: [crosstalk 00:02:09] your questions here, yeah.
Wes Lewis: Absolutely.
John Gilroy: Finally, we have a student in the technology management program, Ikenna Nwankpa. Ikenna, your background, please.
Ikenna : I’m a student at Georgetown of technology management program. I’ve only been working four years. I don’t have Wes’s [inaudible 00:02:22], but I’ll get there one day.
John Gilroy: You mean you don’t have two master’s degrees and 12 years experience?
Ikenna : Not even close.
John Gilroy: Don’t let that hold you back. We want honest, sincere questions because Keith’s going to handle every single one of them. Let’s go to the other side of the table. Our startup today is Keith Trippie and he is the co-founder and managing director of a startup called Shop4Clouds. How are you, Keith?
Keith Trippie: I’m just great. I think I’m outnumbered, but I’m ready. Let’s get it on.
John Gilroy: Yeah. I’ll give you 30 seconds to talk about your background. Keith, you’ve got 100 years of background here. Tell us about your background, Keith.
Keith Trippie: I’ll try to keep it current and relative to where we are. I spent almost 11 years at the Department of Homeland Security, ran infrastructure, helped oversee a $6 billion IT portfolio spend, and then got to basically create a little startup inside the Department of Homeland Security CIO office. Built it from scratch to about a 150-person organization. Got cloud, mobile, analytics started at the department, and then that entrepreneurial itch reached back out and grabbed me, and said, “Hey, let’s go solve a problem.” I fell in love with a problem while I was in the department, and I left the department, made some money doing some consulting, and now I’ve actually built the solution to the problem. Looking forward to being here today and taking your questions.
John Gilroy: I went to your website and you talk about automating IT consultancy. Is that a good summary?
Keith Trippie: Simplest way to look at it is when you’re doing, in the commercial world they call it shopping. In the government, we have two words instead of one. It’s called market research, and the problem is there’s a lot of money and time that gets spent trying to do market research before you can do a procurement. My bet is why don’t we automate that the same as they did in travel, the same as they’ve done in insurance, the same as they’ve done in dating, and basically create that same business model for shopping for enterprise IT services.
John Gilroy: If you can answer in 10, 15 seconds here, what business problems does your company solve?
Keith Trippie: Time and money.
“We spend a lot of money on consultants to go figure that problem out and my bet was tired of spending money on consultants to do a write up about what the options are.”- Keith Trippi, Co-founder and Managing Director at Shop4Clouds.
Let’s move the problem to make it automated, and then use the consultants to go deliver the services. Big difference.
John Gilroy: I’m going to have to turn to Wes here because Wes probably is an IT consultant. What Keith wants to do is put you out of business. He wants to automate you, Wes. You want to have the first question here?
Wes Lewis: Sure. Skill sets aside, what does your product do that humans probably cannot do?
Keith Trippie: The simplest way to look at it, you could take 50 consultants and say, “Go run analysis on this customer’s requirement and tell me what the viable options are in compared against its peers.”
Wes Lewis: Sure.
Keith Trippie: Those 50 consultants couldn’t do it in 10 seconds. That’s the value for the customer in not using consultants to do that. Let technology do it.
Wes Lewis: Okay, we can’t do it in 10 seconds.
Keith Trippie: No.
Wes Lewis: Okay. Now in 10 seconds, what is your product pulling that once again these consultants probably wouldn’t be able to do in a comparable amount of time?
Keith Trippie: There’s data sources across the internet and directly from the companies that we’re using to help do some of that analysis. The thought is if we can bring the best data together to help the consumer shop better, I like consultants, but I want them delivering. I want you delivering the services, not doing the analysis about what service to buy.
Yasir Khalid: Who is your primary target market? Is it the federal government or you’re also looking commercial options as well?
Keith Trippie: Yes and yes. Everybody has the same problem, whether you’re a small business owner. Here’s the other problem. No one can keep up with technology. Since we started this podcast, eight new companies have started. Blockchain changed 18 times with 10 different market verticals. It is impossible for the average customer to keep up with that and even consultants have a challenge keeping up with that. Our model is based on data, bring the data in, have a recommendation algorithm, do the math for the consumer. The answer is consumer companies as well as the government. Everybody has the same business problem.
John Gilroy: Ikenna, he markets to everyone in the whole world?
Ikenna : Yeah, that’s interesting. One of the things we actually learned in John’s class is about buyer’s persona. We read a book by Adele Revella about buyer’s persona. I wanted to ask you could you talk about the process that you went through-
Keith Trippie: Right.
Ikenna : Developing your buyer’s persona? Is that not relative to business you’re doing or is there a lot of insights in that [inaudible 00:07:01]?
Keith Trippie: I would say that is exactly the question to ask, and one of the challenges that IT companies typically have is here is my solution, everybody should know how to use it. Mine is based on there are really two types of users that are buying IT. The technical folks and the business folks. Two wildly different skill sets.
“What we’ve done with our platform is tailor the questions that we present to the users based on their user persona. We get a little bit of information upfront about the user and then what we do is we present them questions that they can answer.”- Keith Trippi, Co-founder and Managing Director at Shop4Clouds
I’m not going to ask someone that runs human capital for an organization what availability do you want in a system, but I will ask that to a technologist.
John Gilroy: Wes, to take this persona question, most companies want to redefine their target customer carefully. It seems like this is just too scattered an approach. What do you think?
Wes Lewis: As far as personas go, I generally understand those to be general representations of folks that you … Of larger groups of individuals that you want to target. Those personas tend to evolve over time, and I wonder with your approach, how do you … If it hasn’t happened already, in the event that it does, how do you plan to evolve your product to meet the demands of the personas that you’re targeting?
Keith Trippie: Great question. You’re right, I’ve got them in two basic buckets to get started, right? You can’t boil the ocean, right? Two buckets. Technical folks, non-technical folks. As we are working with the different customers that are using the service, we’re getting feedback from them. I didn’t know how to answer that question. I love it when I hear that. Some folks may not want to. I love it. Why? I know that I’ve got an opportunity here to maybe drill down a little bit further whether it’s for a technical user or a business user. That’s the stuff as an owner of an IT group you’ll want to hear that because you can’t solve it if you’re not getting that feedback from the user.
John Gilroy: Yasir, you’ve got a strong finance background. We got to ask some money questions here about growth and [inaudible 00:09:05] down the road. Show me the money here, Yasir.
Yasir Khalid: Yes. I would like to know how did you start off-
Keith Trippie: Sure.
Yasir Khalid: How did you get funded, and up until now, how has been the response in terms of the market uptake of the product-
Keith Trippie: Sure.
Yasir Khalid: How successful have you been able to in terms of making an entry into the market.
Keith Trippie: Great question. When it comes to the money side, with cloud out there and developers that you can use [inaudible 00:09:33] in the United States and outside of the United States, investors aren’t just going to give you money for an idea anymore. That’s gone. That’s 10 years old. You’re going to have to invest your capital. I invested my money when I left the Department of Homeland Security as an executive. I still have that business as a consulting practice where I generated revenue that not only paid my payroll. It also helped fund this startup. It’s my capital. Short of that, friends and family, right, you’re not going to get capital from a VC or a group of angels. They’re just not going to give you the money for an idea anymore. Roll it yourself, right? You’ve got the money or you’ve got your family with it. That’s the best way to start that. Now once it gets built, the reason that I stopped with cloud really any data can go into the tool. I’ve got multiple bids out now between government, commercial, where it has nothing to do with cloud.
It’s IT. I want people to buy IT the same way they buy travel, the same way they go on a dating site and figure out who the best person is to go out on a date with. It’s the same problem. Now that we’ve got the platform up and operating, who’s your ecosystem? Who are your partnering with? Even once you have it up, now you’re going to see VCs and angels that say, “Where are you at in the revenue cycle? They’re going to be setting all of these targets in front of you. What, do you just sit there and wait for that magic investor to give you money? It’s not going to happen. You’ve got to go out and build your network. I’m fortunate, great network here in town. I’ve got partnerships with system integrators, as well as folks I used to work with in government to help give them a sense of what this capability can do for them.
John Gilroy: Ikenna, a couple weeks back, Amazon web service had a big trade show downtown, 9,000 people there. You could go 10 hours a day and take different workshops. Amazon, [inaudible 00:11:16] difficult to understand that product. How can someone like this have so much knowledge about the different [inaudible 00:11:21] and web services, Google? Seems like a pretty big challenge to know this much about the cloud, doesn’t it?
Ikenna : Yeah. I think cloud is definitely one of those areas that it’s evolved and everyone’s playing in that realm right now, but it’s still something I don’t think everyone quite understands. They just say cloud and-
Keith Trippie: Right.
Ikenna : Say all the buzz words.
Keith Trippie: Right. When I started the cloud journey at DHS, that’s why I started with that product line, six foot two, blond hair, blue eyes, looked like Matthew McConaughey. For those of you [inaudible 00:11:49], look what happens when you try to run cloud. Your question is spot on. The world changes. The technologies are going to change. Amazon and Azure and Salesforce are always going to be committing capital into new features. That’s exactly why I left the Department of Homeland Security to go solve that problem because to be able to do … We’re doing the math for the customer and it’s my job, my value that I’m providing to a customer that’s shopping or doing market research is doing that analysis for them.
Ikenna : Actually I have a couple follow ups. It seems like you got involved with cloud really early on. How did you-
Keith Trippie: In 2009.
Ikenna : How did you have the foresight to see that it was going in that direction?
Keith Trippie: I never looked at cloud as technology. It’s not technology. It is a business model shift in the way that services are delivered. Instead of say whether you’re Coca Cola or whether you’re the government, it takes six to 12 months to go buy some servers, another six months to put the green light on. Then you got to load all the software back in ’09. I said, “That’s insane. That makes no sense. No one would want to go through that process.” What I saw in cloud is I could shop, in theory, I could shop, order, and provision same day. That is game changing. The value that it can provide in my old world to citizens and more importantly, the taxpayer, somebody’s got to write the check, that to me was my obligation, and I wanted to run government more like a business, and cloud was a vehicle to allow me to do that. I never looked at it as technology. It was always a business model.
John Gilroy: Wes, you’re the UI/UX guy around here. Did you go to Keith’s website, take a look at it? What’d you think?
Wes Lewis: I did, I did. I took a look while I was still at the office. Took a quick look a desktop while I was sitting here. Took a look at the mobile. I did have a question as to have you tested your website? I know you have these two buckets of personas. If you did test them, did you test them with those individuals? What were your take aways, what were your findings?
Keith Trippie: Yeah.
Wes Lewis: How did you respond?
Keith Trippie: Great questions. I’ll go back to the start. It was all in my head. How do I solve it? I went out and met with a firm out in San Francisco that does this for a living. We did a two-day grueling workshop where they locked us alone and they kept bringing different people in. It’s almost like when you go out to dinner and there’s different people bringing your bread and your water and all that. That was the model, and everything out of my head, we went through UI/UX designs. They had different people come in and walk through the mock-ups. I took that information, built version one. Since then, it’s constantly getting feedback from the different users in community because I’ll suggest, “Hey, try this path,” and then you’ll see them get stuck or they won’t know how to answer a question. My bet is when you get to that question, I don’t know how to answer the question. It’s do I think I need 50 widgets or 100 widgets? I want them thinking that, not what does it mean.
We’ve gotten pretty good feedback to where as we’re tuning it, that we think we’ve got at least at the macro level those personas, but it is full core press into now we start drilling down because the CFO may think a little bit differently from say a sales and marketing person. We start to capture those personas. We’ll continue to update the back end, really the logic and the wizard. What we wanted was the UI to be relatively simple. No one’s said it’s a hard UI to understand. Then the UX is just keep answering the questions, you’ll get to your payoff. Right? That’s always going to be a part of it. It’s just which path we take them and how we ask the questions will change over time. There’s another reason why it’ll change. The data changes. A new cloud service is available. New cyber capabilities are associated with a particular product.
“As that dynamic change in the marketplace happens, we’re going to be getting the feedback from those consumers. It’ll never stop changing. That’s the point of what we’re trying to do here.”- Keith Trippi, Co-founder and Managing Director at Shop4Clouds
Yasir Khalid: Has the product actually provided any solutions that have been sold to date?
Keith Trippie: People that go on and shop on the solutions [inaudible 00:15:52] yes, there have been on the commercial. We’re still working with folks in the government because that sale cycle-
Yasir Khalid: Okay.
Keith Trippie: Is a little bit longer. Some of the government agencies are saying, “I just want to bring this in-house.” Right, because then the government would get all the data. Think about this. Imagine 10,000 people, let’s say IRS are running queries. Here’s my business problem, how do I solve that? All of that data rolls up to a CIO or a CPO to help shape strategic sourcing opportunities. It’s the only thing in town that does requirements at scale. No more data calls, no more spreadsheets. That’s really where we’re getting some of that feedback so far.
Yasir Khalid: Just a follow on question, in terms of the product development, I actually went through the whole Q&A process for both the different scenarios.
Keith Trippie: Good. Good.
Yasir Khalid: The results that I got were very rudimentary in terms of the qualitative nature. I felt like there was a lot of … It was very superficial information from me to be able to make a decision in which direction as a decision maker, where should I go. Do you have anything follow up, any detailed summary planned for this product?
Keith Trippie: Again, the limitation is less around how we configure it and more around the data. As the data quality gets better from the vendors, then the results are going to be able to go even deeper than where we are today. The way I like to describe is the first time we Google launched, you had to run two and a half to three queries to get to what you want. That’s where we’re at, but it was still better than going to the library or just not knowing an answer. As this thing matures over time, it’s going to be just like Google. You start typing something in Google, it’s going to give you the answer before you’re even done. That is multiple iterations away, but that’s really the model that we’re following. Same thing with Amazon. There’s a great post on LinkedIn [inaudible 00:17:44] start recently, what the original screen on Amazon.com. Go check it out. You would not believe the change between what it was.
John Gilroy: Yeah. Some of my students go to the Wayback page, Wayback.org, and I asked them [crosstalk 00:17:57] look like. Wes, I’m going to toss you that question, you’ve done that in class.
Wes Lewis: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. How do you keep folks engaged? Is your product a one time deal or I guess a once every couple of years deal, depending on the needs of an organization? If your product is one where your prospective clients may end up making returns, how do you keep them engaged? How do you-
Keith Trippie: Great question.
Wes Lewis: Keep them abreast of changes on your website or the product-
Keith Trippie: Right.
Wes Lewis: That helps them make those educated decisions?
Keith Trippie: Correct. We looked across to another successful model, just like we did with travel and all of those industries. That’s the way people buy nowadays, ecommerce if you will. How do you make it sticky? Gamification. We went through and so we’ve added gamification points. The more a user shops, the more saves, the more rates, the more referrals. All of that, the user’s earning points. Those points for a commercial provider … For example, a large IT OE may say, “We want to load our catalog in your platform white label.” The more points their commercial customers are shopping on their platform and learning what’s available across their catalog, they’re earning points. That commercial entity can go back and say, “I’m going to give you X percentage discount on your next purchase.” The more a person or an entity shops, the more points they get.
On the government side, I’m working with a couple groups now about what the gaming badges would look like. The more you shop on the government side, 160 people, if we’ve got 30 of them that are helping you do the front end work about what systems are next, that keeps them engaged and sticking. It’s a return. My vision is get rid of the little certificates that are up on the [inaudible 00:19:44] walls, put gaming badges up on the wall. When I walk around, I’d want to see someone that’s a guru around drone. Give me a guru around blockchain. Then as an executive, I can hit a button and all of the gurus around blockchain show up on a screen. That’s where I start my conversations with if I have a new business problem I want to go solve. That’s the idea.
John Gilroy: Yasir.
Yasir Khalid: Yeah. Who are your key competitors and what’s your point of differentiation, because everybody’s running after cloud solution right now?
Keith Trippie: Sure. Again, it’s a broader platform than just cloud. Cloud’s just a technology product. I started with cloud because you can’t boil 18 different technical, I can’t go do every blockchain everyone out there. We started with cloud. Who are our competitors? I would say maybe the traditional competitors are system integrators, FFRDCs, Gartners, and that group. That’s the main traditional competitors. There’s some newer companies like Capterra that’s really more focused on the software side and they’ve got some high level analysis that’s been done and allows for rating and recommending. I would say those are about the closest. There literally is no technology platform today that allows a customer to enter 10, 15, 20 questions and get a match or the best matches to their business problem.
John Gilroy: Ikenna.
Ikenna : I don’t want to give your competitors [inaudible 00:21:05]. Could you discuss something that you think is a big accomplishment from your company that you would say gives you a competitive advantage-
Keith Trippie: First to market.
Ikenna : Okay.
Keith Trippie: First to market, and what I mean by that is the business problem is [inaudible 00:21:22]. No one’s got it solved yet. When I left DHS, I didn’t talk about it very much because I wanted to be the first to market. First to market meaning if anybody wants to come in and duplicate what we’ve done, not saying a patent pending is the final answer, but it’s certainly helpful to defend the model that’s been implemented because nobody’s got this for the problem that we’re solving. That’s the hope, right? Quite frankly, if a company wants to come out and do something like this and they’re a larger company, then they may say, “How about a buy build discussion?” Do we really want to go out and spend a bunch of money to go get something like this built or just maybe look at this as an acquisition target?
Ikenna : Okay.
Keith Trippie: Over time?
John Gilroy: Wes, what I hear is that this company may appeal to people in Oregon and Mexico. This isn’t just local Washington, D.C. appeal for this type of a product, is it? It’s universal appeal I would think.
Wes Lewis: I would imagine so. It’s an impressive product from what I’ve seen so far. What did your prototype look like? What did you-
Keith Trippie: Terrible. Terrible. No one will ever see it. I threw it into the Potomac.
Wes Lewis: How did you develop it? Did you work with anyone?
Keith Trippie: I did. My background, I’m not a coder. I’m a business person that knows It. Two totally different things. I know what goodness looks like. When I was the Department of Homeland Security, I had a very simple term. I want the at home user experience. I don’t want people to come in and use our government system and it takes six weeks to get trained on how to use it. To me, the visual eye, I’m always coming at the problem from the consumer vice from a technical solution. Look I had a bunch of good technical folks. I get people around me I trust. I have the discussion about what I’m looking for and the technical folks provide, “Hey we can do this, but we can’t do that,” and a trade off. It’s my call to go in and make that decision. I’m pretty comfortable with that.
John Gilroy: Keith, if people want to learn more about your company, what website should they visit?
Keith Trippie: They should go to www … Do we even say that anymore?
John Gilroy: No, not [crosstalk 00:23:17].
Keith Trippie: I’m not very hip. Forget I said that. Who is that guy who said that? Just go to Shop4Clouds.com and-
John Gilroy: It’s the numeral Shop4, numeral four.
Keith Trippie: Shop number four, clouds.com. Stay with us, we’re going to be adding new data. We’ve already got a road map of data that we’re looking to add across emerging technology companies. Got an interesting partnership with a data provider that’s got a pretty slick set of emerging tech data.
John Gilroy: That sounds like a tease to me. Good, good, good. We’re running out of time here, Keith, unfortunately. I like to thank our sponsor, the Radiant Group. If you are interested in getting involved in geospatial projects, contact the Radiant Group. We are hosted by Eastern Foundry, a community of government contractors who are bringing innovative solutions to the government marketplace. For information, go to Eastern-Foundry.com. If you would like to participate as a student or a startup, contact me. JohnGilroy@theoakmontgroupllc.com. Thanks for listening to Students Vs. Startups: Showdown on the Potomac.