Welcome to Podcast episode number 15 of the Mobile, Alabama Business Podcast with Nik Martin. My name is Marcus Neto. I own Blue Fish, a digital marketing and web design company located on Dauphin Street in Mobile. I am the host of Mobile Alabama Business Podcast where we talk to local entrepreneurs and business owners about their businesses and how they got started. I would like to thank you for spending time with us today.
In today's show, I sit down with Nik Martin. Nik is also a member of the 1702 CEO mentoring group I am in. We had known each other for a couple of years when Nik ran a data center on the University of South Alabama campus, and I was looking to start a hosting company. Both of us have pivoted our businesses since then. Nik is gone back into software development and is currently building up a SAS product for EMS personnel. He is also a finalist in the Alabama Launchpad for Startups, and he talks to us about his love of cooking with fire. So let us dive right in with Nik Martin.
Marcus: Today, I am sitting down with my 1702 brother, Nik Martin. Nik is the owner of Open Frame. Welcome to the Podcast, Nik.
Nik: Hey Marcus, thanks! Thanks for having me.
Marcus: Yeah. To get started, tell us a little bit about yourself. Are you from this area? Did you go to college here? Married? Kids? Give us a little background.
Nik: All of the above. Family is from Mobile, out in Theodore and born and raised just over the line in Mississippi, but call Mobile home and went to (the University of) South Alabama. I was in the Navy for a few years. Got out of the Navy, came here to South. Got married. Just few years ago, adopted a little girl from China, and we have been here, let us see, now 25, 26 years in total.
Marcus: Wow, very cool. Now, you and I first met when you were running a data center in Mobile. I was running a different company, and you were running a different company at that time, right? So you were running Server Core and I was starting Mac Mini Parking.
Nik: That is right. Yeah, we got together. I was doing data center here, opened a commercial data center in Mobile. Recently sold it to Southern Light and then started this gig here.
Marcus: Nice, very cool! Well, it is good to finally catch up with you again and 1702 has been kind of cool, you know, to see you on a regular basis. So, tell us what might you tell people about 1702? We are halfway through the year, is there something that you have taken away from it already?
Nik: Well, probably the biggest takeaway from me is, the guys that have been done what I am trying to do that have already been there are like a crystal ball to me. So every time I walk in, the topic is exactly what I need to be learning at that moment, every time. The first event was about fund raising, and then about marketing and sales and every time, and then this last time was a board. Just last month, I was looking at bringing some people on my board, my advisory board. So it has been absolutely phenomenal as far as how timely all the content and the experience that everybody at 1702 brings to the table. My classmates and the board roomers, both. It has been great experience.
Marcus: Yeah. I would admit that for our business, because we are not a product business, that there are certain aspects of it where it has been better than others. But overall, my experience has been excellent, as well. But, give us a little bit of description... A lot of people may not have heard of 1702, how would you describe it?
Nik: Everybody has asked me that and I said, "Is it a start up incubator?”, no not really. It is a CEO network, I guess is the best thing I can. It is a class, a classroom format, but it is a peer-to-peer CEO network for people in all walks of their company. I mean, we’ve got the President of Regions Bank there. He is actually a classmate of ours. So, it is not just guys trying to figure how to do it. it’s guys and ladies that are whatever stage of company who are bringing their experiences to the table to help other people be successful here in Mobile.
Marcus: No, I think it is just phenomenal and hats off to Dean Parker. He was actually though, if I understand correctly, was the driver to really get us started and also just a real quick, shout out thanks to the Mayor for his support, as well as Bill Sisson and the folks over at University of South Alabama, because I think what is happening here is we are seeing all these groups come together. You got the entrepreneurs, the Chamber, the local government, as well as university system. Those four groups are all coming together, and I think what we are going to see come out of that is going to be really powerful for this area. How did you get started in tech? You mentioned USA. Did you go there for technology?
Nik: I did not actually. I got here in a weird, somewhat of a roundabout way. I actually got out of the Navy and was a firemedic here in Mobile. I went to South to be a paramedic. Because that was what I did in the Navy. I was a crash and salvage rescue guy for heavy aircraft and so when I got out, my logical career choice was to be a firefighter. I like the emergency medical side of it, so I became a paramedic here in Mobile and through that I got up into kind of lower middle management in the County Emergency Medical Services System and got asked to implement a computer-based reporting system. This was back in 1993 or 1994 where really laptops were not even that practical yet. They had been run a few years, but they were not great. We were way ahead of our time. We implemented a IBM pin-based, black and white tablet reporting system that was way too far ahead of this time. It was actually a disaster.
Nik: But what it did do was it showed me that the technology may be not ready today but this is where it is headed. My first cellphone, I got it while I was here at the County. It was a Motorola MicroTAC, an old flip phone. I got addicted at that point to technology and particularly mobile technology back in 1993 when there was no such thing as mobile technology. The fact that you could actually take this tablet away from the network in your office and do work on it and come back and actually have the product of your work digitized. From that point on, I was a tech guy and I had been in public safety technology just about ever since. So the little time at the DOD, some defense contracting, but generally had been in public safety technology since about 1995.
Marcus: Where were you when you were working with the DOD?
Nik: So I went up and spent a few years in Huntsville, and I got a job at Intergraph Public Safety. Intergraph is a big graphics company there. They have several federal divisions and one is public safety division. I spent about 5 years implementing some of the largest public safety systems in the world. In fact, I have done Tampa Police Department, San Diego Sheriff's CAD System, Chicago CAD System, the whole country of Whales. They wanted a mobile data system back when iPacks. Do you remember that iPacks?
Marcus: Yeah. I remember that.
Nik: They said, "we want to do something mobile" and this was years ahead of this time and we said, "I don't think that's possible." They said, "yeah, yeah we think we want you guys to do this" So I went down and wrote a classic ASP dot, not .net, of classic ASP in VB script. I wrote a mobile data system for that. Literally, I sat there and polled. It just refreshed itself every like 30 seconds and that was the very first that I know a public safety Mobile app that existed and that was right out of the Intergraph there.
Marcus: Well this is extremely, I mean, it is a big time foreshadowing for where you are right now.
Nik: Oh absolutely. So, I went from there and because Huntsville was such a DOD central town, I did a couple of jobs with a couple startup DOD research firms that wanted to do censor research and mobile censor research and so we did some mobile mapping again, a little too far ahead of us time probably. So that is how I got back here to Mobile doing technology at the Research Park at USA.
Marcus: So, I do not know if you and I ever discussed this, but one of my experiences was in the late 1990’s. I was working on a DOD project called "Clinical Healthcare System 2."
Nik: Oh, okay.
Marcus: Because Clinical Healthcare System 1 was basically almost like a DOS based system. I am over simplifying what it did.
Marcus: They were trying to move away to a VB based system that integrated all the different aspects of hospitals, patient care records.
Marcus: So, you and I share a little bit of that same experience.
Nik: Yeah. That's cool.
Marcus: We were at that time, I mean, it was a little bit after what you are describing but at that time, we were experimenting with tablets and stuff like that because even back then we could see it coming and of course the iPad has completely changed all of that. I mean it is nothing to go into a doctor's office or a hospital and see a mobile device that has patient care.
Nik: Yeah, it is funny. Mobile, and I do not have anything to attribute to, but is a hot bed of medical technology firms. I mean, you think of Spring Hill Hospital was cutting edge that is where CPSI and then we got SSI Group and the Mitchell Cancer Center. We are just a hub of medical technology. The Morrison Management Group that ended up at Mobile infirmary doing their system, and so it is an interesting town for the size we are, the amount of medical technology firms that have sprung up here.
Marcus: Yeah, it is pretty cool. So tell us about Open Frame. How did you get started? What are you building? What is your unique selling proposition?
Nik: Well, so my elevator pitch is we make Nitro PCR which is Mobile Electronic Health Charts for EMS, for emergency medical services. When you go to the doctor today, the doctor gives you this pink slip, just take this at front, and that gets checked out, there is the exit. That is called a patient encounter. So my software does the emergency medical services version of that patient encounter.
Nik: Now the big thing difference in it is the doctor's office already knows who you are when you get there. In the EMT world, you do not necessarily know the patient.
Marcus: Yeah. You are just picking up a person.
Nik: You do not fill out 3 fields on the form and hand it to the patient. We have about 400 fields that we have to manage for the patient chart. So that is the product Nitro PCR and it is kind of sprung out of both my love for mobile technology and for emergency medical services and healthcare. So, it is kind of combine those three things together. We started the company in March of 2013. So we just passed our launched our product in June of last year. We just hit our one year anniversary being loved.
Marcus: Very cool. We just signed up our seventh costumer here last month.
Marcus: Nice. Congratulations on that!
Nik: Thank you.
Marcus: Cause I know when you are just getting started each customer really is an affirmation that you are on the right path, right?
Nik: It is, and when I wanted to start the company, I had looked at several new business and design philosophies and frameworks and the Lean IT methodology was the kind of path we chose. One of the things is that Lean really expresses as you need to have early adopters who had bought in your product. So, they are taking the risks with you, but they are also helping you drive the requirements. What that lets you do, part of the Lean methodology is you do not spend any effort on anything that does not add value to the end product to the end user. Having those early adopters has really done that so there is no fluff in our product. It does what I asked you to do and that is what it does. Now it may get fluffy in five years when I've got 500 customers who all want this one little thing but today, it does exactly what they wanted to do, no more, no less. The beauty of that is it’s easy to use form, it is fast. It is very stable, because it does not have a lot of features that they do not use. It is a 90% solution which is what we went for. It covers 90% of their needs. So, we have been really happy with it.
Marcus: You hear that folks. If you want to influence Nik's development, then you need to get in quick.
Nik: You need to be an early adopter.
Marcus: An early adopter.
Nik: You got to make all decisions.
Marcus: Now, one of the very cool things that you've had happened recently is you were nominated for the Alabama Launchpad, which is a startup competition here in Alabama. Tell us a little bit about that experience.
Nik: It has been, kind of like 1702, it has been great because they bring in. We had our first meeting about three weeks ago, our first meet and greet. It is sponsored by the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama (EDPA). The director of that was the CEO of Mercedes Alabama. So, the guy brings a lots of experience with him. It is unbelievable. They had brought in again world class companies around Alabama to help mentor guys like me who are trying to start up here in Alabama to grow our company, to stay in Alabama, to hire in Alabama, and to buy in Alabama. I just passed the first cut. There were 22 teams that had applied and then it got with our business plan and our first pitch, they boiled that group down to 11 and I made that cut. I'm actually going up Friday to pitch to the judges a lot of presentation. I got 8 minutes to sell myself to them and after that, they will make a decision that afternoon for the next group that gets to pass to the next round. After that, everybody in that group will get some type of funding from... The pool is $250,000 of funds available for the top teams that meet all the judges' criteria.
Marcus: How many teams actually made it to top tier last year?
Nik: So, last year they can choose. They do not have a certain number that I have to decide. The smallest I've ever done was three. Last year was five.
Marcus: Oh wow.
Nik: So five teams got a share of $250,000. So, it is pretty good. The top team got about $130,000.
Marcus: That is cool. They can really make a difference for startup. That can be the salary for either the founder or for an additional person to kind of accelerate growth.
Nik: That is right. It has been very timely for me because if I do get some funding that is one of my first milestones as to be able to hire a full-time salesman. That’s really my next step is to get a guy that is dedicated enough to bring in business. So that Launchpad funding if I get it and they fund, that milestone will pay for a salesman for a year.
Marcus: Very cool. Yeah, that was actually my next question which was right now, you are putting a lot of effort into that Launchpad experience, but is there an area of the business that you are putting a lot of effort into besides that? I mean sales, is that really what you are focusing on?
Nik: It is right now because we did the whole Lean startup where we had our early adopters. When we launched, like day 1, our product was stable, but it was pretty, it was well. It is ready to hit the street. So I am focused right now I am wearing my hat 50% of the time on sales myself until I can get a salesman. So growth is where I am right now. that is the only thing I am spending my time on.
Marcus: I was listening to another podcast. I think it was Louis Hals over the weekend and I have not finished the podcast, but his latest one and of course this podcast will not be released for a bit so it will not be his latest latest. But the gentleman that he had on was the publisher for Success Magazine, and he was saying that there were 4 things that every entrepreneur or person that wanted to be an entrepreneur needed to keep in mind. Of all of those four things, the number 1 thing was sales. That without somebody buying or you being able to sell something, that you were not an entrepreneur unless you are selling something.
Nik: Right. You're just going through the motions. You are pretending to be a company unless you actually have paying customers.
Marcus: I mean nothing happens here at Blue Fish unless somebody makes the sale in. I can completely get, a lot of people may be not confused but they may be surprised by the idea that you would be spending 50% of your time on sales, but I can mirror that. Like my experience is that I spent probably 50% of my time on sales, as well. If it is not direct sales, it is efforts that go into selling. So you were mentioning earlier about setting up a sound booth, so that you can record training videos that go up on YouTube which ultimately act as kind of a lead generator, right?
Marcus: Looking for something and it shows up in search criteria. They see your product. They like what they see and so they give you a call and want to kick the tire, so to speak. Those are all efforts that go into lead generation or sales and so on so forth.
Nik: Absolutely yup.
Marcus: As an entrepreneur what is the one most important thing that you have learned? You have been at this for quite a long time. If you were to give somebody that was just starting now or even somebody that has gotten some experience. What is your one takeaway?
Nik: Here is the biggest one, because I have seen it so many times and I have been on entrepreneur startup sites and new sites. I got this business idea, I want to do this, I want to do that. You have to make a product that somebody wants to buy.
Marcus: That sounds so...
Nik: It sounds obvious...
Marcus: But it's not really.
Nik: You have to make something that somebody will be willing to pay for. You may have a great idea but if it is not something I won’t actually break and take out my wallet and emotionally put money towards you to support your product because it has does something I need, everything else is probably a hobby, and there are lot of great hobby businesses that might make you some money but as an entrepreneur who actually wants to make a living, doing something, you have to be willing to build a product that somebody else will pay for. It may not be your ideal product but if there is a market for it, you got to make it your ideal product and you've got to make sure somebody wants to pay for it. That is really my entire takeaway of my entrepreneur experience as you got to build something that somebody wants to pay for.
Marcus: Right. I often hear people in a startup community, because we are kind of involved in that with some of our clients and stuff. They talked about find the pain points that people are dealing with. If you can find a solution for those pain points, than you have a product.
Nik: Absolutely right.
Marcus: If you can remove that pain point whatever it is and obviously removing complexity like what you are doing.
Nik: Yeah. To apply that to my business, to give you a little background, in 2015, there will be about 80 million patient care reports. That is my widget, that's my unit of measure in my business. So there will be 80 million of those done in United States. In 2015, over half of those will still be on paper. The reason why is, there is a pain point there that I am now hopefully addressing for this people is there has not been a solution that will actually save them time and money, every solution today unless you are a very large organization. These are all small companies, by the way. Half of this market is all companies that do less than 500 calls a month which are fairly small companies in the EMS world. An average EMS company does 2,500 to 3,000 calls a month. So to give you a little picture, those are the people I am going after. None of my competition are. They are going after the guys that have been doing 5,000; 10,000; 20,000 calls a month. All these guys that are on paper now are struggling on paper, but they do not have a better solution. Nothing is meeting their needs.
Marcus: So when you say that they do that on paper. Does that then at some point in time get translated into digital?
Nik: It does, two or three times. That is one of the pain points is. They have to key that information into a website for reporting and compliance purposes. The billing person also has to key all that information into the billing software to get paid, and then they have to go store it somewhere for seven years. There's three pain points that just that time alone my product has already paid for itself about three times.
Nik: That is our early adopter thing back to the Lean IT. We figured out how much time they spent touching a piece of paper. One piece of paper, one patient care report and it ends up being about $12 worth of labor just in handling that piece of paper. Average price of our product for the smaller companies is $2. So they've already a 6 X right there that I saved just by not having that piece of paper in their hand anymore.
Marcus: Wow, that is pretty impressive! Going back to this idea of, you know, espousing some wisdom here, have you read any books that have influenced you as a business owner?
Nik: I have read a few. “Getting Things Done” for my organizational because I really have to struggle with that and so “Getting Things Done” has been a big one. “Spin Selling”, Neil Rackman, as far as how to position your product to make sure your are solving pain points for the customers, make sure you identify what their actual problems are and that you are solving them, and you come to them with a solution that solves their pain. I think of some other ones that really stand out. Lean IT, the Lean Business Cycle that has been a great book as far as when I started the company. So those are all fairly specific topics, but then it is a little bit of a hard read, but “How to Win Friends and Influence People” has been good one. It's a classic. I actually did that on our audio book because I could not actually flip the pages cause the lingo is a little old school but that has been a great one, as well.
Marcus: Yeah. That is extremely important as an entrepreneur that you will be able to deal with people, because going back to the idea that you have to be selling. Especially in the early stages, you are definitely going to be. If you just do not like people or do not know how to deal with people, then you are...
Nik: You are going to struggle.
Marcus: You are dead in the water. What are some other resources that you use on a regular basis? Any websites or things of that nature?
Nik: I have got a couple of daily places that I go to. There is a fairly robust startup community on Reddit. I use Reddit for my news feed now too, but there is a pretty decent startup community there. I am trying to think of couple of others that I frequent. Right now, I am head down on sales so I have been spending a lot of times on a couple of guys called Manager Tools. It is two corporate guys that have started a management consulting website, and they have a great Podcast called Manager Tools. Those guys really focus on interpersonal relationships between direct reports and managers. Cause no matter what you do, again, selling is part of it, but as you grow your business too, you have got to be a good manager. If you are not, your corporate culture in the very beginning is going to get poisoned. You have got a long road ahead of you if you cannot build up a good corporate culture, and the Manager Tools guys do that.
Marcus: I thought it was really interesting now, remember which session it was in, but one of the speakers that we had at 1702 said that you actually developed, or maybe it was some other mechanism or some other group, but they said that the way you actually define your corporate culture is your hiring.
Marcus: Yeah. I just thought that was really intense, because a lot of times you think well I am hiring for a skill set or I am hiring for a position. But the truth is you are also hiring for culture.
Nik: In the early stages, it is. You are developing your long-term corporate culture with those first couple of hires. Step further than that, your initial board when you decide you need some advisers to bring on board to help you, your board members, their background and their personalities are going to drive a lot of your corporate culture, as well.
Marcus: So I find that many business owners are really focused on their businesses, but they are also hobbies that allow them to stay balanced. What do you like to do on your free time?
Nik: I've got too many hobbies. I love outdoor cooking, so I have a pizza oven on my back porch.
Nik: I have two barbecue pits on my back porch and so barbecue and pizza are two passions. I spent a lot of time on that in the wood fire pizza community and then I home brew. I got pizza and beer and barbecue.
Marcus: Dude, we are so gonna have to talk about those. One of the ideas that we had was for an art walk. We wanted to do like unveiling of like a special brew and do some food and stuff like that. Tad (Ward), one the guys that works for me is really big into barbecuing and smoking and stuff like that. We have to chat afterwards.
Nik: Maybe we could buy one of those. We could smoke some grains and do some cherry smoke grains and do a port or something like that.
Marcus: No! It is all over now.
Nik: Maybe smoke gouda on the smoker and do a pizza around it and just combine them all.
Marcus: Oh man, I am hungry now. Give us a look at an average day for you. What does that look like?
Nik: Well, this kind of leans towards corporate culture. I have a goal and I have held it so far is to be a virtual company, so I do not have any real estate. I do not think in the near future I need any real estate. I get up. Get some coffee in me and I head upstairs, that is the office. My wife is a school teacher. She is out for the summer right now, and my daughters a swimmer, on swim team. So head off to swim. Using the Getting Things Done methodology, I clean up my inbox. Today at least, at least this month, I've been getting on the phone. I immediately get on the phone and start calling customers. Being on central time, right at 8 o'clock, I can hit my east coast guys. I've already been up for an hour and then usually everything kind of slows down around lunch time. I go do some technical stuff internally and in the afternoon, I get back and start talking to costumers at least once a day, I try to call an existing customer.
Nik: I will not be able to do that forever, but I try to call every customer at least once a week. I found this, it has really been great for me on amazon, because you can drop ship from amazon. I will send either somebody that's just demo’d, I try to do this at least once a day. I will drop ship something from amazon too, just a gift to thank you. I will put a little gift receipt in there. Usually, it is something EMS related like a flashlight or pair of paramedic sheers or something. Either somebody that just finished demo on the product and they have kind of gone cold on me and they've kind of disappeared, that usually kind of wakes that back up or an existing customer, I will send them a flashlight and say "Hey, thanks. Hope you can get some use out of this. Glad to have you guys on board." I try to do that in the afternoon and then late afternoon, I get back on the phone and make some more calls to some customers.
Nik: That is the kind of day right now.
Marcus: I love your approach there. It is so oftentimes we take customers and clients for granted, and they really are what keep us in. Literally keep us in business. It is not a bad thing...
Nik: It is a little harder in a virtual company. I have to spend effort on it because when we get them going, this is not to brag, it is just the truth, our software is really easy to get up and going. We have actually gotten in one of our customers' live in as little as three days. A lot of my competition takes a couple of weeks to do that. The downside of that is we have come and gone and now they kind of forgotten who these guys are. They do not feel like they have a big enough investment in this yet. So we have to really be consciously to make sure they know that we are here for them, that if they do have any problems that we are just a phone call away. Because we do not have this big retail presents that they could go drive up to and go beat on the door if they need to. We do have to spend a little effort to make sure our customers know that we are here and we exist and we are real people and that we are here to help them. We do spend a little extra time doing that.
Marcus: Well tell us where people, mostly investors, if you are listening can find you?
Nik: They can find me at nitropcr.com. That is really easy. We lucked out there. We did a naming competition on Reddit's EMS board and that is the winning name. We gave a paramedic a $50 Amazon card to name the company. But you can find us at nitropcr.com, and you can always hit me a firstname.lastname@example.org. That routes right to me and most of our customers actually find us in the Play Store of all places. You can always go at the Google Play Store and look for EMS PCR, and you will find we are the only ones there right now. That is really the best place to find me, and then you can usually find me on my patio making pizza on weekend, come out at West Mobile.
Marcus: That is cool. Well, I want to thank you again for coming on the Podcast. To wrap up, is there any final thoughts or comments you would like to share?
Nik: If you are looking to start a company, again number 1 is find something you’re passionate about and then within that passion, find something that somebody will actually pay you money for. It's not very profound but that is really my key to startup. Because I found something that I love to do, technology and public safety, mobile, and I found something that people were struggling with and so I solve. I put those two together.
Marcus: Well, I think it is cool that you have gotten be able to marry several of your passions together and come up with this idea. I wish you much success. I appreciate your willingness to sit with me and share your journey as a business owner and an entrepreneur, and it was great talking to you.
Nik: Hey you too, Marcus, I appreciate it. Thanks for having me.