Today, we are welcoming Ben Wilson, President and CEO of Rivers Agile, to talk about a novel model for investing in tech startups and innovation. Ben founded the Rivers Agile Workshop (RAW) as a business acceleration service designed for entrepreneurs and startups focused on Machine Learning, Financial Technology and Artificial Intelligence. Primarily intended for early-stage companies that generate impact through technology, "technology-oriented," and/or consumer-focused innovation(s) to trigger growth in preparation for continuing investment. The RAW initiative provides support to develop emerging commercially-viable businesses to become attractive to other funders and/or generate revenue. The Workshop’s goal is to transform business concepts into re-fundable startups that generate positive returns and outcomes through their innovation.
Good afternoon everyone. This is Audrey Russo. Just a little intro in honor of Van Halen. We Life is short. And we want to make sure that we add as much music as possible to our lives. And to have a moment in honoring Van Halen.
So come on, let's go.
Here we are. This is very thrilled today. I'm Audrey, I'm on the tech Council, Jonathan kersting is with us. He's vice president of all things, media, and obviously all things music. But he is, by the way, he's been with the tech Council, 23 years. So he knows a lot about what's happening here. And we're pretty stoked about having today's guest. Because today's guest is someone that we've all known for a long time. And we've watched him grow, we've cheered him on. We've watched him form into adulthood, and he's going to talk about rivers agile. But before we go there, I want to just tell everyone that I want to give a shout out to Huntington bank. Huntington bank has been with us along the journey. And if you don't know them, you really should, they have a lot of expertise in helping small companies. They've been the anchor for many companies as we've gone through the pandemic, and they're there for the long haul. Plus, they believe in all experiments that we do, and we can't, they can't be better partners. So we're at 138 sessions. It's another beautiful day in Pittsburgh and just grab your lunch and join us as we talk to Ben Wilson, who's the founder of rivers agile, we've muted your microphones, and we've allowed for a chat. And what we're going to have is a really great chat with Ben. So Ben Wilson, he's CEO of the aptly named company called rivers agile, he we're going to spend some time exploring some interesting pivots that rivers agile has made during the pandemic, and and even even before and after, because that's what he's been doing. He's been adapting to the his own market and been rapidly growing. So we're very excited. He is he's a startup, he's vibrant, and he contributes a lot to the community as well. So if you know that if you're a startup and contribute to the community, sometimes you just don't have enough time. But Ben seems to find a way to do that. So I want to welcome Ben. And before we talk about rich rivers agile First, I want to know how you're doing. And second, I want to know what's your journey? Tell us a little bit about your journey, Ben, and the kinds of things that you're involved in in the community.
Oh, sure, Audrey. Thanks for having me. Thanks to the tech Council for your continued leadership and programming throughout this completely upside down year. I don't think any of our worlds have remained unchanged at this point. So so my journey is, well, it's pretty interesting. So I pretty much have been a technologist since I graduated college from University of Pittsburgh. So I cut my teeth, really, in the startup world, I was a participant in the.com success in Bubble Pop, which was fun. I, at a very early age, was able to obtain opportunities, career wise, that I think maybe more traditionally, in a different environment would not have been possible. I was I was a manager of print cafe, I think, at the age of 25, or something like that. And so that is good and bad. I also spent my 20s in a cubicle. And so but you know, I think if you recognize opportunity at a young age in your career, you will receive some fruits from that labor later on. And so, you know, I spent about six or seven years at print cafe, it was a great opportunity for me. I had a gentleman named Shawn take a chance on me and really give me a the most junior QA job possible. And I took the opportunity in really just immerse myself in the world of quality assurance and eventually sharpen that skill set where over over a couple of different teams was able to build enough of a different mindset and skill set for QA that I was able to take that show on the road with reverse agile, but that didn't come without you know, probably 10 years of work in the industry. And you know, seeing successes and failures of startups. It helped shape me who I am today. Audrey, you mentioned that we are startup, we are definitely a 12 year old startup, which is funny to say. But you know, we we do as an organization, pivot based upon market trends based upon opportunities, frankly, and based on things that we tried and didn't work, right. And so we have to constantly be grooming the organization to fit what the market needs or what the region needs, right. And so I know we'll get into, you know, how we're having regional impact a little bit later on. But that's, that's my journey. I'm a University of Pittsburgh graduate, I serve on a board at the University of Pittsburgh today as an advisor. I also went to Robert Morris for my master's degree. So I am Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh bread for sure. A local person that has grown to the point in his career that, you know, we understand what our role is at rivers, and it's not just making software it is having, especially this year, it is helping, it is providing impact to organizations that just need a little bit of guidance, right. It is providing opportunities for startups that this year, they wouldn't have a prayer of getting that chance without someone thinking a little bit differently.
talk about rivers agile, talk about the work because back in the day, you you really were very committed to helping a lot of entrepreneurs, and help them with their their nascent ideas, but talk about rivers at trial, what what is it that that is your core, and
our core, you know, we've evolved over the years, our core was something very unique, but it also forced us to be a little bit boutique in that we offered software quality assurance consulting, that was it, right. And what we offered with that service was a little more predictability with the software development lifecycle, you know, a sounding board for the estimates that you're working with, you're using to promise your customer base, or maybe a new customer that signs that says, you know, we'll sign but you have to add these three pieces of functionality by, you know, q1 of next year. Well, our our brand and our methodology of quality assurance helps companies really make that happen. Okay. And so what we were able to do at a very early stage, and this is, you know, when we're still working out of my basement, was to prove to large organizations that software software and software plan releases can be a little bit more predictable, and go out with less risk less bugs, and, and also stay a little more true to the requirements itself. Right. And back then, you know, in the, you know, 2008 2009 era, people weren't thinking about quality assurance in that way. Right? They were thinking of it as more of a reactive role than a proactive role, right? We're so essentially, the bones of the company is an elevated role in presence of quality assurance, impacting the business as a whole, right? Because QA, the prospect of quality is not just testing, it is applying quality throughout the organization.
And so what does that mean? So like, if you so give us some examples, like a use case of how you've worked with companies and embedded your expertise in QA because you've actually also attracted people that work for you now that have deep roots in quality assurance.
It's true, it's it's a natural movement and progression your career for a true quality assurance professional to try to apply those skill sets in the consultative manner that we've we've put together. So some some application there. So when you think about, you know, an easy and easy way to start a conversation with a fellow technologists would be, you know, how did your last release go? And, you know, here's the aha moment sometimes doesn't go very well. And there's a problem. And there's a story behind that. Right. And so, you know, a lot of times when you do a retrospective, and you think about well, how did this go wrong? Sometimes the answer is that functionality should have never been developed, because it wasn't probably properly specked out with acceptance criteria. And certain, you know, anticipations, from the product owner, slash visionary, whomever is talking to the buyer, needs to make sure that what they requested is actually being implemented. And a lot of times, you know, through just just moving fast and trying to deliver some, some steps are skipped. And so we apply our methodology to provide some gating to say, Well, if there's no acceptance criteria, that surely should not be in the sprint, right? Because now we're wasting time because now we're, we're imagining what what the vision of this is from the one or two lines sentence of a requirement. And then you have to do rework or it goes out and it doesn't meet the needs of the client. So that's one example. Another one would be, you know, taking an unbiased lens, through quality assurance to understand Are we really on track to meet that deadline? You know, a lot of times I meet with organizations who do estimating sands the quality assurance effort, and then they wonder why they're late. You know, that's an easy, easy thing to change, but it does, it does require a sort of top down Push to do so to apply those, you know, really best practices, but we didn't invent that. We just apply it and we enforce it, right. And so, you know, helping organizations understand what their true current state is versus what their anticipated or even even documented state is right. And oftentimes, they don't realize they're late. And it could be even six months out from the deadline, right? So we're able to sort of look through a different lens and really define the true current state.
But what's really fascinating to me, having watched you over this dozen years, is that you had at you've actually worked with companies that you're just working with the visionary, someone who's actually had has an idea, and you've and they're like, at that they're really, I mean, they're just still, you know, doing their
Well, I'll be honest with you, that is, that's where a lot of my passion lies, I love to invent and innovate. And so, you know, under normal circumstances, you know, pre COVID, I would spend probably half of my week on somebody else's whiteboard, trying to solve problems or trying to innovate. And honestly, that is a fantastic way to spend your week. I love it, I thrive on it, it really drives me. And that's also why I've focused part of the company, to remain in that sector of startups and entrepreneurs, because that's my passion. And and also, we know that we're having a regional impact, we, we, as residents of Pittsburgh, one to continue this path forward of Pittsburgh being this, you know, Innovation Hub, right. And to be candid this year of all years is not the year just to sit back, this is a year to push forward. Right, because there are others that are certainly sitting back and just, you know, watching right and not leading, and I think that's an opportunity for us.
Yeah, and so you've had your fingerprint in quite a few, you know, regional startups, which is really exciting. Quite a few. And then so then you get into this QA kind of world, and now you start to work with larger companies. Right?
It's true, you know, most of the work we get, believe it or not, is referral based, we don't have a large sales team, you know, out there sort of pounding the pavement might be a little more tradition, what what is more likely the case is that somebody is colleagues with maybe a startup or a other product company that we work with, that sees the body of work that we put together, reverse pushes out, you know, between six and 12, new pieces of technology every year, through our clients, none of them none of what you can buy from us or anything like that. But because we are that company, others who are naturally in that space, or want to be in that space, naturally come over and start a conversation with us. And we might talk for four months before any reasonable, you know, engineering activity occurs, because it's very important to me, you know, we are a service based vendor, right? It's very important to me that we build the right thing the first time. And if we if I have a feeling that we are building the wrong thing, that's when rivers will say, I don't think right now is the time, you know, let's continue to groom this, we're happy to do so. But if this is the plan, we don't think it's a great plan moving forward because of a variety of different reasons. Right?
So have you found that there's like a particular market sector that you have gravitated towards? Or, you know, or does that matter? Or have you seen any trends?
Yes, and you could also apply that to the natural history of rivers, right, in 2015 2016, we were so heavily into, you know, oil and gas and energy, you know, that was a mainstay for us, because that is an industry that, you know, scientifically has, has done wonders. But but from a software perspective, and a, you know, information workflow perspective, there's, there's still a little bit behind the times. Now, when you have market downturns such as you know, oil and gas does tend to have in cycles, you know, you naturally pivot so then we found ourselves so heavily embedded into healthcare right. Now, part of that is the region that we live in. Some of that is also just general market trending. But today, you know, we see a ton of activity, especially this year, in FinTech and logistics for logistics, if you're in business of logistics this year, you may have had a really good year, not everybody, but you know, it's it's just something we're seeing, we're seeing a resurgence in eecom, which, you know, it's kind of funny to say that, but we are seeing it, we're seeing, you know, traditional, you know, companies might have had Econ, but it was never as, you know, profitable as their brick and mortar, whatever it is they're selling. And so now they had to get it right. And so we do see these trends, you know, every, you know, 1824 months, it just sort of depends on what's going on in the world. But we as a company, tend to pivot because we want to continue our march forward.
And so you're now located on the north side. Is everyone back at work or how are you operating?
No. So we I sent I send everybody to work from home in the middle of March. And the week after we moved into our new office. So you know, wonderful timing. It is it is wonderful and ready for use, we are likely using it right now. We are at this point, looking at what parts of our work week or sprint are best served in person? What are those conversations were? To me, it's pretty hard to argue that any kind of whiteboarding software is good enough and supplemental for a real tactile whiteboard. Right. So when we're talking about sprint planning, and we're talking about demos and retrospectives, things that require that human element, that's that's where we're going to see ourselves in the office for that period of time. But we will remain in a primarily work from home status for for the foreseeable future. Right now, what my team has shown me is that traditional be in the office early stay late that that model doesn't need to be, it really doesn't. And as a matter of fact, when you start removing things like drive time, and the stress between, you know, switching from work mode to home mode and things like that, we've seen productivity increase, which is amazing. And maybe maybe I wouldn't have predicted that in March, because we didn't have, you know, spending months of data to look at, right?
Well, is there any technology that you think could help with collaboration, like real, like, I miss my white wall? So anyone who knows us knows that Jonathan spent time painting, you know, some walls that are that are white, and we can all right on I missed that I missed the bumping into and having those collisions and having one another riff off of it, or any technology that is out there. Someone's asking what,
oh, it's probably coming, but I haven't seen it yet.
Yeah, let us know. Because we need it bad. And we need it, we just make it
make it even better yet and make some money on it, too. I see. Greg chakra is asking that. He said, which online tools? Have you found, surprisingly, or unexpectedly useful? I want that was essentially my question. Because I have find none would be my answer. Everyone who wants to build it with us? please reach out to Ben and Jonathan and Brian Kennedy, and we'll start a company.
I, I can't think of a better outcome of this conversation than that.
Right? I mean, I it is, it's impossible. I almost bought an iPad thinking that there was a tool in there. And then as I started to look, I thought, this isn't this is just a tool for me. Just my own drawings, it's not going to help me work with Jonathan. I can't see her drawings from her iPad. It's right. I'm just not so. So talk to us about this five crowd, what is five crowd fit? crowd.
So five crowds are really interesting company, they are an example of some of the we we spoke with, and collaborated with for months before we did any, any roll type of engineering, because we don't make sure that we will do building the right thing with them. And sometimes that just ends and you know, a number of planning and brainstorming kind of conversations to make sure that we feel like we have a good MVP in mind. And what came out of that is a white labeled, crowd crowdfunding platform that allows you may you may or may not realize this, but regional banks and credit unions, that part of their charge is to have regional impact. Okay, that sounds good. And you can budget around that. But if you don't have a tool that enables it, it's going to be tough to do. Okay, so five probably answers that call. And, you know, I think during a pandemic year when most regions are hurting and looking for, you know, alternative sources of funding, this, this is a pretty good time to launch. And, you know, the MVP is just about complete. And I see lots of success in their future, the leadership team is very strong, you know, what I'm looking at any type of investment for the firm or individually, you know, I want to see leaders that have some wins on the board. Not not ones that, you know, have never run a business before or invented, invested, excuse me in technology, things like that. So that that makes the playing field a little bit different when you have a strong leadership team such as Fire Guard has.
So how do you use your civic muscle? What have you done? And you've been involved in boards? I think I saw you on one board how do you how do you give back
so and I may not have predicted that this is the way they've been gone. But you know, here I am, you know 12 years into reverse agile and, you know, we've worked with a number of different businesses, some as clients and some just to help right. I do find myself on a couple of different boards. So I'm on the Pittsburgh venture capital Association Board as well. And, you know, part of that charge is to help organizations who are thinking about launching who are thinking about introducing something to, to help others, or introducing technology, it's going to make money. And we talked to all of them, to be honest with you, I spend a fair amount of time working with them. So I serve as a coach for the upcoming Pittsburgh venture connection, right. And this is not a client, this is not a chargeable consultation of anything this is let me help you with your pitch deck, because I want you to get funded, I want you to exist here in the Pittsburgh marketplace, so that we can continue our path forward together as as the center of innovation. I also served as an advisor for the University of Pittsburgh, where they put together a quantitative economics master's program that merges economics with big data. And I can't wait for the first cohort to graduate because they're, they're going to be I say this, they're going to be dangerous, but in a great way, I think we're building leaders in that program. I'm actually speaking to them next week. And I'm very, very excited to do so to share some insight, both career wise, but also what they can do with their new talents, right? Because what I see, especially with with tech leadership, is you either have one or the other, right? You're a great technologist, you don't understand the business ramifications, potentially, of decisions of how you're leading your company, or have opportunities, both won or lost. And so I do see that program growing for sure. I think there's about 14 students in that cohort right now. And I'm sure once they, once they get their legs about them that that program is going to grow. So I'm very excited. You know, it always feels good to go back to your alma mater and do anything positive, you know.
And so what's the name of that program? Again,
quantitative economics. That's a master's degree. It's, it's it's new, it's exciting. It's built. Part of the curriculum is built by technology leaders here in Pittsburgh. And so, you know, as employers, they asked, Well, what what would you find valuable, and that's one part of the curriculum came to be so I'm very excited about the outcomes for that.
That's really cool. And hopefully, they have humanities and ethics built into their curriculum, of course, as well. So that's exciting. So Are you hiring?
We are, we are now hiring again, I will tell you that, you know, in the early summer, we were not we were watching to see what happened. And we were finding ways to adapt to the new world and things like that. But we are we are hiring again. And that is a bellwether to, to how rivers is doing, right. We have multiple positions, and we're seeing a massive resurgence in quality assurance. And I think that comes with a little bit more of an eye on risk mitigation, right? If you invest more in quality, your risk goes down. That's pretty easy. And so what I'm seeing is, there are a lot of projects that were slowly progressing. And now now companies are saying, Okay, let's go again, but you can't get it wrong, you can't have a bad release, you know, you have one one shot at this, essentially.
it's pretty interesting to see So, so that, again, is it's how we're adapting, you know, we started with QA, but we, you know, back in 2014, we really changed to when we added software engineering as a service, right? That as you know, nobody was surprised on this call, end up being a pretty big launch pad for us, right. And it really changed the shape of the organization. But it's so interesting to see, you know, as we walk through this, this crazy year, to see, you know, how businesses are adapting what what what's trending, what's not, and how people are changing their approach to business. I will tell you that most most business conversations that I have today are less, a lot less small talk and a lot more. Let's try to solve this problem right.
Now. Do you think we've lost the art of small talk?
It'll come back,
it'll come back.
Well, I got to tell you that, you know, we joked about 12 years ago, and the vision that you had working out of I think cannonsburg. And the fact that you were you know, even had like hard copies of papers. I remember handing out so it's going people about what what you were doing. And even then I thought, well, that's sort of cute. But how we got to help Ben right, Jonathan? You know, we got to help them. And then immediately you got involved in a lot of startups, and just really helping them and helping them you know, go through their journey in a way that they couldn't do themselves. So people want to think about reaching out to rivers agile, what kinds of problems might they be solving?
What what kind of questions or what kind of problems might be entrepreneurs coming back. So I'll tell you what our our focus on is on artificial intelligence, FinTech machine learning. That's that's what gets us excited. We know that there's plenty of room for innovation in those areas applied to many different business problems. Right and You know, we we intend to stay in those areas, and we are finding, there's plenty of people that are wanting to deliver something, you know, machine learning as applied to x, right there, you know, all of those problems haven't been solved yet. You know, AI and machine learning are not new topics anymore, right. However, we have not even remotely applied those great technologies to all the problems we need to solve today. So
like virtual whiteboards, virtual whiteboards, anyone,
let's have a meeting at the tech Council and have a brainstorming session, I think it'd be amazing. I mean,
there has to be a solution. So we've put your website out there, you're actually hiring. But what's more important, you are actually working to help build tomorrow for Pittsburgh,
we are and you know, we fought we fought our way into into that circle. And now now that we have a role there, it's our responsibility to continue that path forward, and to help enable more innovation, which is why the workshop exists, which is why the Northshore office is dedicated to the workshop, right? We provide, you know, we we now invest in our own clients at this point, right. And we do that for a number of reasons. One, because it's tough to get to point a right. So if we can help, even by diverting some of our revenue into the funding round of that entrepreneurs startup, and it makes it get the MVP out, then we've done our job, right. We also again, going back to my passion for startups and entrepreneurs, we will always have a presence in that marketplace. But But today, more than ever, it's tough. You know, venture capital has seen a really interesting cycle here over q2 and q3 of this year. I mean, there is no funding to be had for the most part. And especially if you if you're not a seasoned or serial entrepreneur that has received funding in the past, it's even harder, you may have the best idea in the world, something that the world or this region, or someone middle really needs. But if if all you have is a good idea, and not a lot of background of successes in the past, it's gonna be even harder. So that's, and that's okay for us because we have our own vetting process, right. And we also help on the business side, we can help supplement where the gaps are typically, including myself at one point, you don't have all of those skills, right? You're a great technologist, but you don't know the business or the reverse, right? And so we help to do that. And our goal is to get you into a refundable state, right? Get your business out there, get it working, get it and get it to the point where people are chasing you that is very, very much of interest to us.
Well, I want to thank you for joining us today, Ben. Good seeing you. I see Nancy vukovich is saying she was assuming that we're using the zoom whiteboard. Not great, but a start. Yeah. Thank you, Nancy. We still are looking for something a little bit better. But appreciate that shout out. Thank you, Ben for being with us. And anyone want to know about Riverside Drive we put their information in? And tomorrow, Jonathan, who do we have? We have the one and only Deb aquin from WQ. Ed? Yes. So much fun to hang out. It's gonna be fun on a ton of Emmys last week. I heard he's got quite the
closet full. So very cool.
So thank you, everyone. Have a safe day. Thank you, Ben. And be safe. We'll see my buddy.
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