Million dollar notions: Alumni’s start-up helps personalize consumers’ lives

Wouldn’t it be cool to have a million-dollar idea? Steve Caldwell thought so; then he set out to find his.

It started in 2013 when his wife Paige gave him a just-released Pebble smartwatch. As one of the first, widely marketed pieces of wearable technology, the black watch with a small digital screen was more of a novelty item than an indispensable part of daily life. And for a tinkerer like Caldwell that presented an interesting challenge.

“It was new technology, and there weren’t a lot of apps for the Pebble,” the 2011 Mississippi State communication graduate explained. “I started building some, then I started wondering how to take those ideas and make money, like the companies that built businesses around smartphone development.”

Wearable technology is a category of gadgets that the user, well, wears. It can range from simple fitness trackers like the Fitbit to head-mounted displays like Google Glass, to smartwatches that today can perform many of the same functions as a smartphone—at less than half the size, while strapped to your wrist.

Wearables set themselves apart from other personal electronics by being in constant contact with the user. Whereas many programs track people’s preferences based on how they use the technology, the physical contact of wearables allows them to go further by actually tracking biometric data to show patterns in a person’s sleeping, waking or even eating habits.

In the business industry, this information is called human data intelligence, a relatively new branch of customer insight.

“It’s the next step in personalized marketing,” Caldwell said. “It used to be you are what you buy, what you Tweet or what you surf on the Internet. Now, you are what you do, and that sets up opportunities for much more personalized experiences.”

That realization led to the creation of Strap, which Caldwell, CEO of the company, co-founded with fellow Bulldog Joey Brennan, who is creative director for the venture, and Patrick Henshaw, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and chief operating officer.

“Strap is exciting because it’s a trailblazer in innovating the 'Internet of Things,'” said Brennan, a 2011 Mississippi State graduate in art.
Strap is essentially software that collects biometric data from a variety of wearable and smart-device apps to help businesses identify trends in customers’ habits: what time they wake up, when and what they eat, how often and how vigorously they exercise, and more.

With this personal information, companies can then see, for example, when it’s best to deliver email or when a coupon or advertisement is most likely to spur an individual to action.

“Until now, we only knew how consumers shopped, what they did online and what they liked on social media,” Caldwell explained. “With this, you can take into account physiological data and offline behaviors to create more perfect personalized messages.”

Caldwell said the idea is to move away from the onslaught of mass marketing and instead make the world more personal, with messages that are more relevant and tailored to the individual. However, he understands that the idea of sharing information about personal health and habits might be unnerving to some.

“Privacy is our No. 1 concern,” Caldwell said. “We make sure users know what we’re tracking and why by having them opt-in. We also make sure the retailers are using the data responsibly.”

Strap isn’t Caldwell’s first tech venture. Although he studied broadcasting while at State, he always had an interest in computing technology. In fact, he took a three-year break from school to pursue a full-time career in the field in Vicksburg. During that time, he started Crosstek, a website and software development firm, at his kitchen table.

He took the side-business full time in 2012 after finishing his degree. Within a couple of years, he had 10 employees, including Strap co-founders Henshaw and Brennan. The men teamed up in 2014 to develop the first iteration of the Strap platform and begin pitching it to investors.

By the end of the year, Strap was accepted to The Brandery in Cincinnati, one of the country’s most prestigious accelerators for start-up companies. Caldwell sold Crosstek, which is still in operation, and relocated to Ohio with his family and co-founders.

Brennan explained, “Relocating was an exciting time. We wanted to make the best move for Strap and ultimately decided this was perfect for growing our company.”

Within months, the company had turned its initial $20,000 funding from The Brandery into $1.25 million in seed investment from venture capital companies and angel investors across the country.

Caldwell admits that this path to his million-dollar idea wasn’t a straight one, but said as long as there’s a clear destination in mind, it’s OK to take some turns and see where the journey takes you.

“Starting a company to help businesses better market to consumers wasn’t on my road map,” he explained. “But if you pick a direction and learn as you go, you’ll end up where you want to be."

By Susan Lassetter | Illustrations Provided