Heads Up Display, Inc is a Buffalo based tech startup building a notification system that allows the workers in hazardous environments to make data driven decisions in real-time.
As part of our ongoing interview blog series with entrepreneurs impacting the Buffalo startup community, we sat down with Clark Dever, Co-Founder of Heads Up Display.
As with our interview with Dan Magnuszewski from ACV Auctions, this post is substantially longer than our normal blog; for those interested in startup, tech, and entrepreneurial pursuits, it’s a great window into the motivations and challenges of a startup co-founder.
Sam Russo: You're building Heads Up Display, Inc. Tell us about Heads Up. What's the value proposition? What's the company?
Clark Dever: Heads Up! Heads Up is a notification system that clips onto existing safety glasses and is targeted for people working in hazardous environments. This device prompts workers to take immediate action in case of a hazard or will tell you, "hey, check your phone and look for this work order." The idea behind the device is simplicity because even with gloved hands, it’s easy to acknowledge and respond to the notification with the push of “yes” or “no” button. It's rugged because of the design components but easy to train and easy to use.
Sam Russo: What makes you unique as a founder?
My skill set is unique in that I'm not a great developer, but I’ve done enough of it that I can speak fluently to developers. I know a little about a lot, which allows me to translate business use cases to engineers and engineering problems back to business and marketing teams..
I previously worked for a company that built augmented reality displays before Google Glass. Our clients were different defense customers. The company was smart enough to not put engineers in a room with Navy Seals and Rangers to sell the product - due to the potential cultural collide. As their only social chameleon besides their CEO, I became their technical sales support for those customers.
Through working there and interacting with defense customers, I learned a lot about the real world problems of video displays. A consistent problem is maintaining their situational awareness. For example, if people are shooting at you, you don’t want to be struggling to read text on a screen. Video displays also depend heavily on very precise alignment through different lenses. There's all sort of ways that it can fail when they are in combat. That defined the problem. We needed a product that was rugged, simple and lightweight.
Sam Russo: How did Heads Up get started?
Clark Dever: Once I had a conversation with an artist, and he was like, "Man, I can't afford Google Glass, I just want 4 pixels for $100." It wasn’t until 2 years later at Startup Weekend in Buffalo that my team was able to develop this idea. Unfortunately, I was out of town and couldn't make it to the pitch, so I convinced my cousin to pitch the idea for me. I was like, "You got to pitch this. I'll put together a team that'll build it for you. You just have to show up." He did. We brought our engineers and in 3 days, we made a 4 pixel display connected to our phone via Bluetooth. We took third place at Startup Weekend, which at the time I thought was ludicrous, because we'd built a functioning hardware product and android app in one weekend, but in the long run, I was thankful for it - because it made us hungry for success and recognition. It kept us moving on to Heads Up Display.
SR: So Fast Forward, Heads Up recently won The GREAT Tech Awards business plan competition in the U.K. That’s a far cry from coming in 3rd place at Startup Weekend!
CD: That the thing with hardware and probably the reason I'll never do another hardware startup. We had a working prototype in 3 days and now it's almost 3 years later, and we haven't shipped a single unit that’s come off a robotic production line. Prototyping isn’t a problem, but it takes a long time to mature the product to the point that it’s ready to ship to actual customers in the field. Ugh.
SR: Where do you guys stand right now? What are the biggest challenges you're facing, and what are the next steps?
Right now, Heads Up is a couple months away from a production release. In the coming months, I think we're going to have 25 units in the field of a major construction site in the area. That will give us the final feedback needed to iterate our industrial design, the actual housing that goes around the device.
Biggest challenge…the components of the system. There’s a lot – including: the circuit boards and device design, the industrial design, the app that talks Bluetooth to your phone, the API, in addition to data structures and systems on the back end that do all sorts of magical stuff. We also have a dashboard that we built to show customers their data. On the surface it looks like one product, but it’s really a system and a suite we developed. It’s taken much longer than expected, but the ecosystem we built allows us to add-on new hardware products and has the capability to integrate with existing systems. Right now we're right at that cusp. What it comes down to is the last bit of user testing in the field. We've completed the design-for-manufacturing process and now we have to raise money either through customer sales or through some kind of funding round, build units, and work with our distribution partners to get them in the field.
SR: You're a guy of many diverse interests with a ton of entrepreneurial energy. How do you allocate your energy and passion to the different things you’re involved in? How do you channel that energy to a specific focus? In order to drive a startup, you have to be laser focused, so how do you view that all coming together?
CD: It's funny. That is true. I don't know that I'm good at that. That's one of the things that I'm working on, but I think this brings up the important issue of co-founders. I think a lot of successful startups have co-founders that complement each other. My co-founder is my cousin, Brendon Dever, and the startup wouldn't exist without him. He is the pitbull that grabbed onto this idea and won't let go no matter how much you shake it. Brendon continues to drive the company forward while I try to provide strategic vision and a technical approach. In my personal life, I try and balance all these things, not to say I'm not committed, I work 3 jobs in order to continue this startup. It's a struggle for me to say “no” when I see another entrepreneur just starting out and needs a mentor, or if there's a cool project that I just want to touch.
All of the activities that I've organized and the events that I've organized in Buffalo have been solely around that purpose. I think my higher purpose is building the Buffalo community and creating an ecosystem where all of the startups work together and push forward. I think we've had some success, so I'm really proud of that.
Kevin Kerl: In building Heads Up, what was the one thing when you first started that you believe to be true and has shown through to be true?
CD: I think the premise of a simple display for data-driven decision-making was dead on and I still believe in it. During startup weekend we did the quadrant chart of mapping our competitors and where they were. Back then, we compared ourselves to Google Glass and all these other augmented reality displays. When you look at that, you realize that everyone [our competitors] have been building the Apollo program. They're all trying to land on the moon. They're going for 1080p displays, 180-degree field of view, total immersion, and no latency. We looked and no one had built the Wright Flyer. In my mind, everyone's skipped over what should have been a fundamental building block. A few pixels that clip onto any existing eyewear, that communicate through a simple protocol.
KK: What was the one thing you believed to be true when you started, but in the end realized you were completely wrong?
We did it backwards. They tell you to solve a problem first when you start a business. We came up with a product idea, and we tried to shoehorn it into a bunch of different markets and that’s been the struggle. I guess that was something that wasn't true. Personally, I thought this would be easier than it has been. I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn't know it was going to be this hard.
I think the biggest challenge for our startup community is how long it takes you to get to a “yes” or “no.” Some of that, I think, could be solved with funding, better tools, and some of it can be solved with mentorship from industry experts. One of the things I've been talking to folks like Garrett Smith about is how to provide tools that validate a business model in 3 months or 6 months instead of 2 years.
KK: If you could bet on a horse [startup] that you've seen in the last couple years, who would it be?
CD: To me, I appreciate the collaborations and the critical mass that I've seen. I'd like to take it back to Buffalo Open Coffee Club. Buffalo Open Coffee Club is a Google group that you can join. It's free. It's open. It started out with just 3 or 4 guys, Steve Poland, Dan Magnuszewski, Nicholas Barone, Mike Canzoneri, and a few other people. At this time there were no startups in Buffalo, so they just put it out there and said, "Hey, let's meet and talk about tech and startups on Tuesday mornings at 8 am." We met at Spot Coffee for a year or two before we collectively came to the conclusion that if we wanted to work for startups in Buffalo, we had to start them ourselves..
Right now, everyone that I listed from the Coffee Club has their own company in Buffalo that they bootstrapped along. Some of those are the leading companies in the Buffalo startup scene.
I really think that's the amazing thing about our community. We've had some state dollars come in over the last year or two, but we were already off to the races before that even happened. There was a group of 300 or 400 people we brought together that were already working as freelance contractors and starting to coalesce into functional teams. Once you see your friends take that risk and achieve some sort of success, you feel a little more comfortable and begin to follow other people’s leads. You see they didn’t lose their house and their wife didn't leave them, so you're like, well maybe I can do that, too.
I think to myself that eventually we're going to be the leaders in Buffalo, right? Not just in the startup scene. We're going to be people who are of note that you're reading about in the papers because of this. It's so strange when you realize that 2 or 3 years after you come up with an idea and start working on it, that the next guy who writes a check to my company, makes me a millionaire on paper because of my equity position. That's a bizarre feeling. In reality, because of cash flow, I can barely make my mortgage payments, but the idea, the concept of it shows that the wealth is being generated. To me, it's not about my personal enrichment; it's the fact that for the last 2 years, I have paid at least 2 or 3 people's cost of living. They exist in Buffalo and they stayed in Buffalo because of the startup that I founded.
SR: What does that mean to you? Who has supported you along the way?
CD: That means a lot. I think that wise men plant trees that their grandchildren sit under. That's what it's about. I want Buffalo to be an awesome city again. I always tell people about the 1900’s and what an amazing place this was. Now they believe it, but when I first started telling that story, people were in disbelief. In the last 18 months, billions of dollars have been pouring in for new construction projects. It's coming. It's real.
That said, there's a lack of people making $10,000 - $20,000 bets routinely on people who have an idea. That's an important gap to cover because it’s the difference between being able to take a swing at it and leaving your job to see if the idea is worthy or staying in the cube farm. We've been able to cover that gap through grants and just friends and family. I'm hoping that Steve Poland's new resource guide, which will list out all the money opportunities that are available will help with this. UB has been great and we wouldn't exist without them. Early on we worked with Marnie LaVigne before she was with Launch New York and received a power authority grant. The grant allowed us to build our first prototype and show people to get them excited about the product. Then we received 2 Center for Advanced Technology grants from the Biotech group at UB. The grants have allowed us to continue development.
We've had great supporters all the way through. For example, the founders at Algonquin not only invested in Heads Up, but also hired me with great flexibility, allowing me walk out of their office to take meetings or tend to Heads Up as necessary. Which is another way local people can support the startup community, by hiring founders and helping them step into their businesses.
SR: What a great asset that is.
CD: This is one of the things that I love to share with people who want to try and get a startup. Everything in life is negotiable. You have to realize that. We get so used to talking about compensation is in terms of dollars and health care benefits and things like that, but freedom is also on the table a lot of times. I was working for a very highly funded startup, and I demanded a very high price for my services. I took a pay cut to work at Algonquin and that's not to slight their compensation package. I came in, and I said, "Listen, I will take less money if I can leave whenever I want." I told them, “You will get the percentage of time that this compensates for, and I guarantee you will not regret it, but I need the flexibility in case I need to take a meeting. You're buying in knowing the risk and the hope that I will be working on my own startup in 3 or 6 months.” It's almost a year and a half later and I’ve helped them modernize their development practices, shift their culture, and ship a product. They also have my undying loyalty, I have helped them hire four people from our community because I’m always talking about how great they are. I think that's an important lesson that people can take away - negotiate the deal going in.
KK: What do you think of the city? What does it need next?
CD: It needs a couple wins. I'm not just talking about the Sabres and the Bills. I think we need an exit or two out of this wave of startups. I consider our peers in the startup community to be either third or fourth wave startups in Buffalo. I think as soon as one of our peer group exits, you'll see another uptick in a number of startups here. I believe that the guys like ACV will have an exit in a couple years, I know Dan will put money into the community and will reinvest. I know Jack Greco will reinvest in the community. If Heads Up makes it to an exit, we're going to reinvest in the community. I'm sure that Mike and Kevin of CoachMePlus will reinvest in the community, if they exit. We have a lot of people who are true believers in not only Buffalo but the startup scene, and as soon as one of us can sell our company or IPO or whatever, then you're going to see an acceleration in growth, because we get it. We went through the process with the resources that were available to us, and we're thankful for the resources that are here, but we also know that we need more risk tolerant early stage investors here..
KK: I believe I’ve heard some other stories... You just missed Facebook?
CD: Just missed Facebook. That's true. I played Quake 3 back in the day. We had a Quake 3 clan and we were nationally ranked. My best friend in high school used to spend his summers at the Center for Talented Youth, which is summer camp for nerds. While he was there, he met Mark Zuckerberg and they became camp friends.
Facebook started up and I knew about it during its first year (when I was a sophomore). UB was probably the second or third school after the Ivy League schools to get Facebook. But it wasn’t until later on, I found out my friend was working at Facebook and built Facebook chat. I didn't follow up with him because the clincher is in my senior year of high school; we had a falling out over video games. Before I know it they IPO, and he retires!
I've had 2 unicorn misses. The other one is when I was doing social media for the augmented reality company. I was at CES working the booth, and I had been doing press all day. When you're the marketing guy, you always know the weaknesses of your product. You figure out how to talk around them and how you compare with your competitors. We're sitting there and this college kid comes up to me, and he's like, "Man, your product sucks." I was like, "Yeah, well it does have some issues." He's like, "Yeah, man. The field of view is horrible." I was like, "That's one of the harder things. There's actual physics around why that's a challenge." He's like, "Yeah, I think I've got it figured out." I'm like, "Cool, man. I can't wait to see it." I thought he was just in some research lab, and assumed he would show up 10 years from that point. I gave him my card and was like, "Hey, if I can help you in any way, let me know."
He gives me his card and we do the Facebook thing. Low and behold this college kid, Palmer Luckey, later became the founder of Oculus Rift. No joke. We're still Facebook friends. In fact, my friend Dan Gigante from ‘You and Who’ was doing a Kickstarter for shirts and I convinced Palmer to back it financially. And that is how I finally got some of the Facebook IPO money back to Buffalo.
Keep your eyes and ears open for what’s to come with Heads Up Display in the coming months. It takes a significant personality to influence and spur the startup movement in the Buffalo community such that Clark has done. Just don’t forget, “Everything in life is negotiable.”
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