Nick Such is excited. His start-up company, AwesomeTouch, has just made its first sale to the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau, and he couldn’t be happier.
The product is called an AwesomeMap. “We just take new nouns and throw the word ‘awesome’ in front of them,” Such says, laughing. In fact, the AwesomeMap really is awesome. It looks like an oversized computer monitor—the size of a bulletin board, or big-screen TV. On it is a charming, hand-drawn map of downtown Lexington. Touch a building, and a floating legend appears offering more information. Drag a finger along the map and the image scrolls in one direction or another. Pull two finger tips apart and the map zooms in. Smush them together again and it zooms back out. It’s a lot like using a high-end smartphone, except that the screen is enormous.
Such graduated from UK in 2009 with a major in mechanical engineering. He had a lot on his plate at UK – he was captain of the Solar Car Team, vice president of Tau Beta Pi and even had his face featured on a UK billboard – but that’s nothing compared to what’s happened since. He’s the director of Awesome Labs, an organization that helps undergraduate students turn their school projects into real products, and he’s CEO and founder of AwesomeTouch. In fact, he deferred admission to the Stanford Graduate School of Business just to lead AwesomeTouch.
AwesomeTouch currently holds its meetings at Awesome Inc., a startup incubator in downtown Lexington that leases space at low rates to individuals and entrepreneurs. Awesome Inc. also has room for artists’ studios, a gallery space, dance studio and conference rooms.
“Yeah,” he says laughing. “That’s a lot of awesome.”
The story of AwesomeTouch’s creation stretches back several years to Such’s days as an undergraduate student at UK. While captain of the Solar Car Team, Such worked with fellow students Brian Raney and Luke Murray. After graduation Such worked with Murray, who had been president of UK’s Entrepreneur’s Club, along with Raney and student Ryan Copple, to establish Awesome Labs. (Murray and Raney were also among Awesome Inc.’s founders.)
“We wanted to work with UK engineering students to turn their senior design projects into businesses,” Such says. He also wanted to try his hand at entrepreneurship. After being accepted into Stanford University, he decided to defer enrollment for two years in order to focus on starting up a business. So as one of Such’s first orders of business as director of Awesome Labs, he visited the campus of his alma mater and talked with some electrical engineering and computer science students about a creative touchscreen project. “They decided a map would be something that had value and that they would enjoy creating,” he says. They enjoyed it so much that, when graduation rolled around in May, “a little more than half the team decided to stay around and keep working on it.”
Awesome Labs gave way to AwesomeTouch, with Such taking on the role of CEO, Raney COO and Murray vice president of sales. Such had some contacts in the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau, and he asked them to come see what the team had been working on. AwesomeTouch had already been using a scanned version of the bureau’s paper tourism map for their demos. “The original paper map had around 60 businesses,” Such says. “We were able to squeeze in about 300 based on PVA records.” The bureau was impressed. “We found that that’s a really effective sales technique: to show something that belongs to them,” Such says, laughing.
Of course, there’s a difference between getting a potential customer interested and getting them to write a check. AwesomeTouch talked to several other potential customers in Lexington, including downtown hotels and the Kentucky Theater. They got a lot of input on what they’d like in an interactive map. “It’s been great to have that opinion coming in from customers,” Such says. The finished AwesomeMap is a “wayfinding application” for large-format multitouch screens. “We worked with several organizations in Lexington to compile a complete, up-to-date listing of dining, drinking, entertainment, and shopping,” Such says. Visitors can use the map to discover places nearby, get walking directions, and browse events at those locations.
“We see touch as a new platform for software development,” Such says. He points out that there are an increasing number of apps for mobile devices. The AwesomeMap software is completely custom, written by the team. Originally the team wanted to create a touchscreen that worked through a window, but they realized that their technology didn’t work through double-paned glass. “So the lesson we learned was to focus on software,” Such says. He says that this illustrates part of his entrepreneurial philosophy: “The faster you get to failure, the less you waste.”
“A lot of people are scared of failure,” he says, “but we welcome it because without failure we can’t know if we’re doing things right or wrong. As engineers we know that we have to stress test to break materials to know how strong they are.” He cites the book Rework, by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson of the tech company 37signals. Such says that Rework emphasizes that startup companies need to “focus on the hot dog.” A hot dog vendor could spend hours thinking about the kind of mustard customers would use, or the best color to paint the hot dog stand. But in the end, Such says, the hot dog stand just needs the best possible hot dog. All else is secondary.
Such credits several factors in his decision to become an entrepreneur. “Working with the Solar Car Team, I know that I liked engineering, but on the Solar Car Team I learned that I liked working with other engineers significantly more,” he says. “The experience I had on the Solar Car Team led very directly into this.” Managing a diverse group of engineers and fundraising from a network of investors are both parts of his day-to-day work at AwesomeTouch.
Such also credits an internship with the Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation as motivating him to create a startup. “The group I worked in provided grant funding for high-tech startups in Kentucky,” he says. “I got to see business plans for 50-100 companies that way.” For six months, Such worked his internship during the day and then came back to Lexington to work with Awesome Labs at night.
Why are engineers often entrepreneurs? “Engineers are always told that they’re not creative,” Such says. “But then some problem comes along that really engages us, and that we have the tools and the skills to solve.” The drive to find the best way to solve a particular problem is very important to Such. “In the entrepreneurial world, ideas don’t matter as much as execution does,” he says. “YouTube was not the first video-sharing website. It’s just that it’s better than everything else.”
UK’s Hall of Distinction plaques in the lobby of the Ralph G. Anderson Building are also part of Such’s inspiration. “I would walk by it every time I went through that lobby and I would go to the website and read the stories of those alumni,” he says. “Many of them were engineers turned entrepreneurs like Ralph G. Anderson, William T. Young or Davis Marksbury. Those are the people we looked up to.” Right now Such is working on a project called the Kentucky Entrepreneurs Hall of Fame. “Kentucky’s entrepreneurs aren’t that visible. We want to recognize them,” he says.
AwesomeTouch’s future looks bright. The group is on the cusp of celebrating its official launch, and Such believes that they are poised to find customers for many more AwesomeMaps. “The next step is to go to Louisville,” he says. “Then Paducah, then Owensboro, and keep widening the map.” AwesomeTouch’s ten employees are also working on different software applications for their hardware.
Starting a company hasn’t always been easy. “I’d had to get out of my comfort zone,” Such says. “A lot of times engineering means talking to people I wouldn’t otherwise have talked to or taking a risk.” Such’s advice to other would-be entrepreneurs is simple. “Surround yourself with the smartest, most talented people you can find,” he says.
Having that much talent in one room? Well that, of course, is awesome.