TechVibe Radio is back on air at ESPN 970 AM every Saturday at 8:00 a.m.
In this episode, we geek out with Adam Paulisick of HeadStorm and Kurb.io. Adam's in the hot seat to detail how HeadStorm participated in (and won) the Pittsburgh Civic Hackathon this past spring to create Kurb.io.
Like any startup, Kurb has had it share of pivots! But Adam and the HeadStorm team are committed to investing in Pittsburgh's tech ecosystem while creating a new company or two.
Tune in for the full story and geek out with us!
It is a another episode another broadcast of tech vibe radio here on ESPN 970. I enjoy our Saturday space to talk to what I say are the absolute coolest people in Pittsburgh,
I would say and hopefully the people who are listening to ESPN will just get a little glimmer. Yeah, all the cool stuff that's happening here. And today's no exception. Exactly. We have Adam polacek with us today. And he's got his hands in a lot of things Pittsburgh, but we're only going to focus on one thing today. You think you can handle that? Adam? Just one thing.
I'm gonna do my best on behalf of all of Pittsburgh since all of Pittsburgh, you're gonna focus on one thing and make you have been focused on right. You're good stick. You're good GM ambassador for Pittsburgh, but you're also making a lot of cool things inside of tech and innovation. So what do you what are we going to talk about today?
So we're going to be talking about two things. One is about how we build interesting products that can do good and still use really interesting technology, and specifically the types of things that came out of the Civic hackathon that we all were participants in just a few months ago.
But Adam Paulisick showed up to this hackathon with a team a crew of engineers from head storm does everyone knows Adam is from head storm pretty much new to Pittsburgh now on how long it storm been in Pittsburgh for about a year now.
Yeah, actually a little little over a year. Obviously. I am a GM bander, as they say a return pittsburgher after a literal trip around the world a couple of times over and if you acquisitions later back in the day originally for the entrepreneurial ecosystem, so came back to launch well at the time was our third company and then also start teaching at Carnegie Mellon University at the Tepper school. And then the rest is sort of history, you know, continue to fall in love with this Renaissance that's happening, you know, from parks to plazas, and was lucky enough about a year ago after an acquisition of Maya design and being the Chief Product officer at the Boston Consulting Group to actually spark an extension or growth of a boutique product and engineering firm as you mentioned called head storm. We our office although it only intermittently and socially distance there from time to time in the Lawrenceville neighborhood here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And of course, they're headquartered out of Dallas, Texas.
Very cool. Yeah. What just real fast like what is head storm do exactly give our listeners a little teaser? You guys work on some pretty cool stuff. I mean, this is like engineering and it's fine. This format them as well, thanks. Yeah, that's what recycled entrepreneurs end up getting to do. It's full of joyful things. So we are an impact product and engineering firm. So we focus on primarily three really interesting things. So the first is using sales. So the psychology persuasion and influence to help lead and understand how to build better digital products. We do a lot of Human Centered Design and system centered design, you know, work from my my days, and my Carnegie Mellon roots. And then at the core of our world, and of course, the kernel has always been, you know, Deep Impact oriented engineering and data pipelines. So, largely working with the global 2000. Although we try to dip our toes and get our hands around as many early stage and emerging ideas as we can, although often times working inside of the new ventures are very large corporations, mostly agricultural healthcare, some financial services and telecommunications. Although, you know, in any given quarter or month, we're certainly not surprised to hear interesting stuff from other places. Absolutely. And it was really cool because the Pittsburgh tech council we partnered up with Kip Mueller, over there at rustbelt, we did our first Pittsburgh civic hackathon, which we thought was so cool in order to find tech solutions to make Pittsburgh a better place to live, work and play. We had a bunch of companies show up and you Audrey, you were part of the whole thing I do. I was not part of the hackathon this year. I only heard about from the sign. Are you gay? Moving,
I was intermittently there and then at the tail end because you know, I don't like to interrupt all the good work that's gone on to pull together a team and do some really interesting work. But what's, what's more fascinating to me right now is where he is right now in that leg of the journey, because all of this stuff is for our listeners know that Adam shows up with a team and they take first place. They clean up mightily at the Pittsburgh civic hackathon, which I thought was cool. And maybe the gates, you take it from here, tell us about quickly about the hackathon. And really the first concept you guys came out of, and then how that evolved into this really new cool company that you guys are putting together.
Okay, great. Well, thanks again. So for those that are less familiar, a hackathon in this format was come together on Friday. With all the talents you can imagine whether you're a great storyteller or a designer or researcher, of course, a computer scientist or someone who can write and build technology. And and you come there with the aspiration that pitch an idea on Friday. And then of course, by Sunday have some form of a proof of concept, having run the gauntlet of talk, talking to residents and citizens and government officials and advocacy groups, and pretty much everyone else you can imagine and make sure that the idea that you pitched on Friday and organized a group around, which is not just the people that you came with, but anyone else is, of course, at the hackathon, welcome to join you. What happens on Sunday, then as you pitch these ideas, and you present, whatever you have, whether that's wireframes, or a picture or a video or a story, and then a variety of really impactful civic leaders, private business owners, executives all vote on a combination of how inclusive and equitable was the idea? You know, what kind of interesting and unique applications of technology are there that you're showing, you know, promise to, and then ultimately, what would have a measurable and definable impact not just in southwestern PA, because while we were certainly organized around, I think our networks here, you know, there was actually national participants, right. So there was participants from Texas and California and Washington and, and all over. And I guess that's one of the exciting things that the tech council sort of saw as a unique way to execute a hackathon. What's also really interesting about that is it's not a time to kind of bring old ideas necessarily and sort of reinvent them or try to get free labor to build your idea, right? I mean, this is really like a pitching idea. Yeah, get rejected or not on Friday, and then sometimes Wait, and sometimes you don't. One of the things that hedstrom is really important to us, though, not knowing if we were going to all work on the same idea or get distributed to everyone else's idea was just that, you know, there's a little bit of despair that happens in a pandemic, there's a little bit of, you know, what, what should we do? And, unfortunately, we saw this trend where a lot of technology and specifically technology consulting firms, even local firms had given up, right, they were they were hiding, they were kind of licking their wounds. They were saying, well, no one's paying us right now. And I'm not sure what I'm doing on my people. And, you know, there comes this inflection point where either you kind of put your money where your mouth is, and try to build something to fix the solution, or you sort of ride it out on the bank of your past success. And I think for head storm, you know, we're just not the type of firm that sort of sits on our heels, right? This was a big opportunity to say, What can 20 plus engineers, and so it's a volunteer basis. So we shot out sort of the signal to head storm and said, Hey, listen, there's no obligation here. But he wants to show up on Friday, and then wrap up on Sunday and do it. We talked to more than 100 small businesses, residents, advocacy groups, you know, government groups, which, you know, sounds easier than it makes like suppose between 5pm on Friday, man, three, three o'clock on a Sunday. And then you know, what, where it starts with is this kind of design thinking process, right? So it's like, Hey, what's a big enough problem to manage, which is what we picked around, which in our case was parking, right? So how do we create a better relationship between the curb which is the most valuable real estate in the city, and the small businesses because the small businesses can't sustain through a pandemic, and there is no need for parking. And for those that are just getting out into the parking knowledge, you know, Pittsburgh, like many cities is down Oh, well over 80% on its parking revenue, and the parking taxes alone are a non trivial double digit percentage of the operating income. We all need to invest in parks and services and everything else that a city provides. So we started out with this idea of how can we support small businesses, you know, without alienating the residents and the citizens that are fundamentally in these neighborhoods, went through and talked to big and small businesses, hotels, restaurants and alike and came up with this interesting idea called curb curb did a couple of things. It was a map driven collaboration tool that allowed any planning department or Community Development Corporation to zone off parking on the fly and pass that information into a cloud based parking enforcement and reservation system. But what's also interesting about it is that it unlocked to potential parking. revenue streams. One is that it allows you to create separate types of reservations for commercial vehicle. So if I am a loading truck that's coming in to bring goods to a restaurant or a hotel that I can actually make sure that I have guaranteed space. And in exchange for that I can create additive revenue for the city. The other big unlock is we created a proof of concept that you could click through by Sunday around the idea of business paid parking. So this idea that instead of paying a relatively predatory third party delivery system 30 35% of somebody's ordered, yeah, right.
Is that high? That's ridiculous.
Yeah, I hope that there's one message that people come out of this with is that buying delivery from a local restaurant is great in this pitch, that everybody makes you around sort of capturing additional demand for a staff that you're already paying for, or for a building that already has a kitchen, when you start taking 30 or 35% out of a check. Right? That's taking the margin out of a hospitality business, right? I mean, we saw even I mean, we saw bills where it was even beyond 35%, just based on promo fees and discounts and the like. So it's not supporting local, when you buy from a local restaurant unless you make a connection that doesn't include stripping them of a 35% margin in the process. And that was news to me and a lot of others about how the systems fundamentally work, which was scary. But at the end,
really fascinating about the whole thing. So you know, now that Adam has talked about sort of setting the stage of what happened in a very short period of time, and he packed definitely packed a lot in there. I think what was really fascinating for me, to watch all this is that it was during a time where we had no, we had no confidence that we could do something virtual. And we had lots of concerns about the assets in our region, which included restaurants. So we're watching things crash and burn. And we were I mean, lifetime, at least the Jonathan and I were watching it lifetime, absolutely. Passion burn, you pick something that at that point, and still is altruistic but business focus. So and said, we've got to figure a way to eradicate the ridiculous, not only the ridiculous expense that happens with some of the other services, but also create something that was seamless. And no one ever really thought of something that was that seamless in terms of trying to solve a problem. That's what really that I don't know if I told you that before. But that's what really appealed to me was that that when you combine all that and you layer it that way, there's that's like a new way to think about what what it means to solve a problem and that I really appreciate it.
So thanks, Audrey. Yeah, I think simple is the theme that comes out of a hackathon. Right? The answer is why can't restaurants make reservations on behalf of their most loyal customers to help them have a preferred and preserve reserve spot, you know, right in front of their, their restaurant, right? Why is it that we require restaurants to pay not only sort of this, you know, subscription or kind of monthly relationship with these third party fees, but give away a third of the money or more that they are expecting to have. And it was exciting time to see everybody come together and rally rally behind it.
And remember, at that time, restaurants were vacillating between no one inside everything carry out, seeing whether they could stay, you know, sort of alive on almost a day to day basis. So the rest of the community that you were able to engage that that sort of stakeholders and get user experience, I think real time really made all the difference as well. So Jonathan's giving me the finger saying which we're not that finger, pointing at me. I'm saying, hey, it's probably time for a break. We're with Adam policy. And he's with head storming. He was with us on he's the was the winner of an earlier hackathon. And now we're talking about the pivot that he's made.
Absolutely. And every good tech story has a pivot to it. And we're going to talk about the pivot when we come back from this break. So hang on for about a minute. Right back with Adam policy from head storm. This is Jonathan Kersting with its protec Council, and this is the Pittsburgh Technology Council has been helping our region's tech companies succeed since 1983. The Pittsburgh Technology Council helps its members meet new customers, hire top talent, make headlines and have a strong voice in government. From startup to multinational. The PTC helps tech companies and advance manufacturers of all sizes, see how we can help your venture grow at PGH tech.org. That's PGH tech.org
You're listening to tech vibe radio coming at you from the Huntington bank email@example.com. A tech five sponsors include c leveled PNC Bank, my benefit advisor 321 blink, of course called compumedics sdlc. Partners. Here are your hosts, the Pittsburgh technology Council's RG Russo and Jonathan Kersting. Getting ready to geek out with you as AP. no fooling around. We are back with more tech vibe radio. This is Jonathan Kersting.
And this is Audrey.
Audrey, we are talking to Adam polacek from head storm and curb key you are B was the winner of our hackathon way back in May, which seems like eons ago, but also just last week, all at the same time. I don't know how that's possible. But it is. And before we left for break, I did allude to a pivot that had happened along the way, as always, as with a tech company has this great idea too. But then as he starts getting out in the market sees they gotta start changing it up a little bit. And thanks for sticking around to keep telling us your story, because we think this is a pretty cool story without a doubt. So take it from here, Adam, tell us what was the thing that started changing when you realized that you had this this kernel of a product of a service of a technology? And then taking that and then realizing we can start shaping it pivoting in a little bit?
Yeah, thanks, Jonathan. I mean, I think the good news was coming out of the hackathon, we knew one really big theme had emerged out of everyone's mouth, which is the use of space, whether that was you know, new streets where we needed outdoor dining or new use of sidewalks or people needing to be outside that were formerly inside? And then ultimately, where does the space go for all the cars and the mopeds and the E bikes and all the things that are happening around Pittsburgh? And so we started percolating this idea between how do we pre reserve parking, how do we create higher turnover? How do we create a revenue stream for commercial, you know, vehicles to contribute into the infrastructure of Pittsburgh, and of course, this kind of novel idea around small businesses paying directly for the parking of their most loyal customers that were coming to pick up directly from them, as opposed to sort of using some of the predatory third party delivery services. And like a good technology firm, we talked a lot, you know, hundreds of customers of that point. You know, after the hackathon, we got very involved with the city in the county and a variety of advocacy groups, we worked our way through all the complexity, as are taking reservations and sending reservations. But there was a roadblock that we got to which is there is an underlying technology that is the clearinghouse for all of these types of reservation systems to pass the who should be in what spot all the way through to the enforcement system. And you know, the parking authority was incredibly supportive, you know, the people that were thinking through, you know, historically bad stereotypes around parking enforcement were incredibly innovative and looking for ways to educate in thoughtful ways that support the business districts. But when the rubber meets the road, you can only hold engineering teams moving on proof of concept, so long as third party technologies are willing to do so we found ourselves in a place where this legacy technology company wasn't willing to move at the speed of innovation sort of support the revenue. So we started thinking ourselves, okay, well, we have built this really interesting and simple map collaboration tool, it's you don't require a master's level degree to use it, you know, you can typically do it from any browser. So we put all of our energy sort of outside of the parking space and really focused it closely on the idea of drawing dragging, you know, and doing everything else you can on top of a digital map to communicate what your plans and your intended use for space were. So we went from purely drawing parking spots on the side of a curb ran vacant lots to really understanding how to draw where you want pop up retail or different types of outdoor dining.
Give us some examples besides pop up retail, give us some other examples, like trucks.
Yeah, so some curb has basically three ways to draw on a map. The first one is areas and that's the stuff we just talked about pop up retail zones, stages, construction zones, different forms outside dining, you can even spread out areas for you know mesh Wi Fi networks, but the idea is color and a map around an area or zone that has an intended use. The next object you can use it curves to draw lines, lines can represent things like traffic flow, they can also represent where people need to queue they can represent things like bike lanes have all their different shapes and sizes, whether they're neighborhood ways or the like and of course, quite a bit of parking. You know within both of those two object types and not just going to classically defined meter parking but also short term micro mobility different forms of you know, pay as you go. And of course, parking for differently abled can all be represented simply right on top. have Google Maps. And then finally are these stamps or icons that you can drag or drop and resize all over the map. And that's to your point where it gets really fun. The idea of putting food trucks or food carts, outdoor shelves, safety cones, like bike parking, e bikes, you know, we really went through quite an exhaustive list with city planners, transportation engineers, basically, anyone who wants a permit, approves a permit or finds a permit in the process of using public space and ask them just what they would need to draw on it. And once we had gotten through this new artists Canvas for anybody that can use, effectively the same technological level of navigating online maps to drag and drop these plans, we added an overlay so that you can get you know, supportive or constructive or neutral comments on any of the objects that are drawn, you can do that amongst private collaborators or send it out in a public URL. You we have some basic analytics on the site to make sure that one person who's not a collaborator is not leaving all the comments, we can understand how to flag and revoke those, no inappropriate comments in case somebody gets a little feisty. And you know, as we continue to evolve, I mean, this type of simple city planning is going to mirror some of the much more advanced design tools that artists use today. The only difference is instead of you know, sort of brushes and, you know, oils, and canvas, we're talking in terms of you know, cones and delimiter posts and bike racks and funds, as you can imagine, yeah, that's, that's right. But, but as it turns out, you know, there's a surprisingly large gap between I want to play in a neighborhood market, or this is how you want to use a public square or a parking lot. And being able to communicate that and then have an easy and seamless handoff between a planning department or a transportation engineer, to check all the boxes, right, you know, are the parking spaces at least 30 feet from the curb, or the table spread out in a way that's going to honor the socially distance, you know, common sense, you know, practices and approach that, you know, most states and cities are trying to support.
If you go to curve.io, K, u rb.io. You can kind of you can do some demos and kind of see how it works. Honestly, it can always be like a video game, you just nerd out and build like your own little environments, if you want it to.
The thing is, is I'm back to that original point when we started talking earlier is that space has always mattered. You know, Adam, you've talked about the value, you know, the sort of the real value of what this means in terms of dollars, as well as in terms of metaphorically, but it matters. And you've also talked about these middle, this middleware that exists right now that create, you know, that creates this, you know, enormous amount of pressure on restaurants, etc, as well as cost to the consumers. But what's really interesting is that space in the term in the time COVID actually matters as well. And I don't think we're going back I just don't see the other day New York City is saying, what about restaurants just being outside? Well, I've spent time in Switzerland, Montreal, cold places, Jonathan, and I've been to Iceland, these places all have outdoors all year long. Right. So I think this has shifted, I think people are now saying in a very, very small period of time, that it matters.
Yeah, if we're serious about the use of space, right, it's it's the small businesses that need to be able to advocate and visualize there's accountability of seeing what suggestions are made, and getting the public involved in the neighborhoods and those that not only work there, but live there as part of the process. And frankly, it's a platform for anybody that wants to reinvent the city to finally have a wiziwig or that what you see is what you get almost website like builder version of redesigning your city and john, and I know you were joking about the, you know, anybody can go on and kind of play their own version of Sims. But the truth is not far from that. Right. The idea was about anyone that's capable of browsing a computer in order to submit a plan seamlessly and publicly about how to use space. And that is a powerful inflection point,
but it's also your neighborhood. It's not just when you keep saying like city, I keep wanting to take it down to something sort of local and meaningful, particularly, particularly in a place like Pittsburgh, that brags about their neighborhoods, right. So that language is not foreign to us.
No, that's it. That's exactly right. And I think there's also a future here, where it's not just those that already know how to use browsers of computers that can participate in the process. There's incredible community development corporations and advocacy groups that work on behalf of those that are more gapped by the digital divide that we would like or maybe not have access to technology, but how powerful Could it be that you know, individual corners or vacant lots could actually be planned and voted on in a way that you know, aren't behind closed doors and can be presented at meetings and printed to PDF and frankly, at the end, export it into geeky stuff like geo JSON, which is the you know, the life fuel of all these very complex engineering tools like AutoCAD or microstation. But but but we need to, we need to have an inflection point where we no longer think of planning as exclusively in person meetings, because that's not going to be accessible and inclusive going forward.
It's also real time. It's also right, close to real time as you can get. And that's how the world is right now. I don't want to plan that in a month from now, I want to be able to see what I can do sooner.
That's exactly right. Well, and we've talked about not just large cities, I mean, we've talked to counties and municipalities alike, but today I want Market Square to be oriented around a retail theme. And tomorrow might be fitness and health and well being. And the day after that it might be more supportive to those of younger families or older families or more active or less active lifestyles, or it might turn into a co working space outside based on the season out of the year as you like you are saying and you know, that's important, right? Because for the Pittsburgh downtown partnership, or the Oakland business, investment district or Lawrenceville, United Lawrenceville Corporation, or all these variety of CDCs, they are constantly evolving and changing the use of space but but without a visual feedback loop, what happens is you could be imagining one thing of what your neighborhood market is going to be and I can be imagining another and I believe there should be five booths, and you should be there should be 10. And I want food trucks and you want food carts and you get where it goes. And before you know it. Nobody actually has a common language even though everybody wants the same use of this public space. And so we hope that this visual tool becomes not only something for Southwestern PA, of course, but but nationally. And we're seeing that momentum, right, we're seeing cities across the Midwest and the coasts, you know, foundations and like really start to take interest in curve.io.
I, it's just beyond, you know, cool that you were able to do this in a short period of time, during a period of COVID during a period of time where we're not going back to what we were before, and ensuring that the democratization of information is at our fingertips. And it's in every way that we inhabit our day to day world. And I think that part to me is really cool, because I bet you, Adam, that you'll pivot again, based on opportunities that come in front of you. I do, I'm not saying that you're going to be a zigzag. But I think that as the groundswell occurs, and people start to see how meaningful this could be that you're going to, you're going to see this as sort of like an open architecture that will hopefully live and breathe outside of, of the work that you're doing right now. Well, oggi we certainly hope so
and the idea behind the technology and the idea behind the initiative is to make it accessible to everyone whether you're a one person planner, or you're a municipality or a major city or beyond, you know, again, you know, the excitement firstname.lastname@example.org it's beta it's available there are cities and municipalities and counties using it today to draw everything from, you know, public squares to parking lots and everything in between. So we just encourage everybody who wants to be courageous in the university or private or public sector to leap in and redesign your city in such incredible times. That's kurb i o KURb.io. go there and check it out. fun little website to me, I guess it makes me want to design something having fun. Outdoors.
Well, thank you both so much. Really appreciate the time. Thank you, Adam policy, and you guys are making Pittsburgh proud. That is for sure. That's what it's all about companies like yours here in Pittsburgh really making a difference. Are you running everybody tech 50 around the corner happening happening November the 12th virtual biggest night in technology from Pittsburgh honoring the 50 fastest growing companies. We're all out of time.
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