New Lexington firm hopes to be link between makers, machines

February 8, 2015

MakeTimeThe MakeTime staff in Lexington. From left: Rick Spencer, Dima Strakovsky, Kasey Hall, founder and CEO Drura Parrish, Steve Adams and Brian Brooks. Photo by Tom Eblen

Suppose your company wants to make something, but you don’t have the equipment. Perhaps you can’t afford to buy it, or the quantity of goods you want to make wouldn’t justify the investment.

On the other hand, suppose your company has manufacturing equipment and staff, but they have blocks of idle time. Would you like to convert downtime into revenue?

That’s the idea behind MakeTime, a new Lexington company that has developed an online platform for matching manufacturers with excess capacity to customers willing to buy it. It is essentially a marketplace for by-the-hour machine time.

“The whole gist is to democratize manufacturing and the whole process of making things,” said Drura Parrish, the company’s Founder and CEO.

“Firms aren’t driving innovation anymore; people are,” he said. “There has to be a next step beyond prototyping so people can at least jump in and try out their ideas.”

MakeTime launched in November, and Parrish expects the company to arrange $2 million worth of gross transactions during its first year.

MakeTime has 14 full-time employees — half of whom are computer programmers in Ukraine; the rest work in Lexington — and Parrish expects to hire 11 more in the coming year.

So far, he said, MakeTime has signed up 80 manufacturing companies with $2 billion worth of capacity and is getting about 10 inquiries a day for buying their services.

I first met Parrish, 38, when he was teaching architecture and digital fabrication at the University of Kentucky’s College of Design. He came there with the former dean, Michael Speaks, from the Southern California Institute of Architecture.

Parrish then started a company, which was recently dissolved, that worked with artists to turn their designs into objects for museum installations around the world. Much of that work was done in an old industrial building on East Third Street, where Parrish also operated a contemporary art gallery called Land of Tomorrow, one purported translation of the Native American word for Kentucky.

Although trained in art and design, Parrish comes from a third-generation manufacturing family in Henderson. His grandfather was a tenant farmer who got into the lumber business, creating what is now Scott Industries.

Parrish said he started doing a sort of pre-Internet version of MakeTime when he was in graduate school.

“I noticed there were a bunch of people with a bunch of machines that sat idle at times, and a bunch of people who wanted to make things and thought they needed to buy equipment,” he said. “I became the literal marketplace. I bought up capacity time and started marketing it.”

Parrish and Dima Strakovsky, who had been a partner in Land of Tomorrow, started developing MakeTime’s online platform, where manufacturers can list their available capacity, clients can list their needs, and they can be quickly matched for jobs. MakeTime’s revenues come from a fee of 15 percent of the transaction amount, paid by the seller.

“Our DNA is still design and art,” Parrish said, noting that many of the company’s employees have design backgrounds, so are trained to be problem-solvers.

Parrish said Lexington is an ideal location for the company, although he couldn’t find enough local software programmers and ended up going overseas for help.

“Within a four-hour ring of Lexington you have just about every manufacturer in the country,” he said. “We’re committed to staying here. The only problem is with programmers.”

Parrish said he has had a lot of help getting started from the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. and state and local economic development organizations.

But while MakeTime had a couple of Kentucky “angel” investors, much of its startup capital came from New York. Parrish said the shallow pool of local investment capital, and the conservative nature of many local investors, is limiting the ability of entrepreneurs to flourish here.

“It can be hard to believe in the people who are near you,” Parrish said. “But it’s a matter of getting the right resources to grow. The risk of loss is often small, and the potential return is great.”


Lexington should stand firm on protections for cable customers

October 11, 2014

timewarnerAssociated Press Photo by Mark Lennahan

 

Bravo to Mayor Jim Gray and a unanimous Urban County Council for taking on Time Warner Cable. It’s about time somebody stood up to the giant cable television and Internet companies and their frustrating game of monopoly.

For far too long, the cable industry has abused the local franchise system across America to provide mediocre service at ever-increasing prices.

Meanwhile, cities have become pawns in the industry’s merger-and-acquisition game, which has left fewer companies owning more of the nation’s critical broadband infrastructure.

The Urban County Council last Thursday gave first reading to resolutions that would deny transfer of ownership of the local cable system as part of the industry’s latest deal, which would split Time Warner’s assets between Comcast and Charter Communications in a $45 billion stock swap. The systems in Lexington, Louisville and Cincinnati would go to Charter.

Gray’s re-election campaign also is tapping into public anger at Time Warner. The campaign is urging voters to sign a petition demanding that the company “improve customer service, deliver better speeds and give us what we pay for.”

Few cities have taken as aggressive a stand as Lexington has. Not that others aren’t concerned.

The Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Justice Department are both reviewing the deal proposed by Comcast, Time Warner and Charter, which are, respectively, the nation’s first, second and fourth-largest cable operators. Dozens of consumer advocacy groups have spoken out against it.

It’s hard to say how all of this will end. But here is how we got to this point:

Time Warner bought Insight Communications in 2012, but never negotiated a new franchise agreement with the city. It also has ignored some consumer-protection provisions of Insight’s franchise agreement, which the city has never enforced.

Since the acquisition, Time Warner has invested little in Lexington’s infrastructure while steadily raising prices. The company’s cost-cutting measures have hurt customer service, and public frustration has been rising. City officials say they have been flooded with citizens’ complaints about cable service and pricing.

Time Warner officials claim they have improved service, and their own surveys show high rankings for customer satisfaction. Yea, right. A J.D. Power & Associates’ survey last month of residential television service providers in the South ranked Time Warner dead last. (Comcast was second-to-last.)

Lexington officials say they are not seeking any new consumer protections in the franchise agreement negotiations — they just want to preserve the things Insight agreed to. Those include staffing the company’s customer service center beyond normal business hours, so customers with day jobs can actually get there.

The city also wants to preserve some way of holding the cable company financially accountable for service problems short of canceling the franchise agreement. Currently, the city can fine Time Warner $100 a day — although officials say that has never actually happened.

Time Warner has not been willing to agree to those modest terms, nor does it want to continue paying for the public-access television studio. It’s all pretty small potatoes, considering that Time Warner’s Lexington revenues probably exceed $100 million a year and the company has made little investment in its system.

If Time Warner and Lexington officials are unable to reach agreement by Oct. 23, when the council could take a final vote on the ownership transfer resolutions, it is unclear what will happen. Mostly likely, the issue would end up in federal court.

Time Warner, Comcast and Charter have deep pockets, but Lexington officials should not back down. Citizens these days need more protection from corporate abuse, not less.

More importantly, city officials need to make sure whatever agreements they reach leave the door open for more competition. With only two major Internet providers — Time Warner and Windstream — Lexington needs more broadband competition.

Cities such as Chattanooga, which are lucky enough to have municipally owned utilities, have invested public dollars in creating high-speed fiber-optic networks. Those networks are attracting entrepreneurs who are creating the high-tech jobs of the future. Unfortunately, that’s not a practical option in Lexington, whose existing utility infrastructure is privately owned.

Lexington officials must embrace creative approaches for seeking private investment in new fiber-optic networks, such as Gray’s proposed Gigabit City initiative. And they must stand firm in trying to hold accountable the revolving door of local cable and telephone monopolies.


Frontier Nursing University marks 75 years, from horse to Internet

October 7, 2014

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A Frontier Nursing Service nurse visits a family in the 1930s. Photo provided. Below, Frontier Nursing University President Susan Stone. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

HYDEN — In her 1952 autobiography, Wide Neighborhoods, Mary Breckinridge told how she started Frontier Nursing Service here in 1925 to show how nurses also trained as midwives could make a big difference in rural health care.

Breckinridge, who died in 1965 at age 84, could not have imagined just how wide her old neighborhood would become.

The nurse-midwives she sent out on horseback to remote cabins in the mountains of Leslie and Clay counties were trained in England until World War II made travel there impossible. So, in 1939, Breckinridge started a small school for midwives, who deliver babies.

That school is now Frontier Nursing University, which is celebrating its 75th year as the nation’s oldest and largest school for nurse-midwives. Its graduates work in all 50 states and seven foreign countries.

Frontier also is marking 25 years as a distance-learning institution. It pioneered many of the online methods now beginning to revolutionize all higher education.

Many students, faculty, alumni and supporters were in Kentucky over the weekend for anniversary festivities. Events included a gala in Lexington, where Frontier has its administrative offices, and tours of the campus in Hyden, which coincided with the town’s annual Mary Breckinridge Festival.

The celebration not only marked an illustrious past, but also a promising future.

141001FrontierU0008Mary Breckinridge would seem an unlikely pioneer of health care for the rural poor. She was a society lady, born into one of Kentucky’s most distinguished families. Her father was a congressman and ambassador to Russia; her grandfather was Vice President John C. Breckinridge, whose statue stands in Lexington’s Cheapside Park.

But Breckinridge was living in rural Arkansas when her two children died young, and she blamed inadequate medical services. Already trained as a nurse, she volunteered in France after World War I and saw the difference nurse-midwives made there.

Breckinridge went to England for midwife training, then dedicated the rest of her life to improving public health in Eastern Kentucky by focusing on young children and their mothers.

Because there were few good roads here then, Frontier Nursing Service’s uniformed nurse-midwives rode horses to places such as Confluence, Cutshin and Hell-for-Certain. They carried medical equipment in their saddle bags, delivered babies and staffed community clinics. For serious cases, there was a doctor at the small hospital Breckinridge helped build on Thousandsticks Mountain overlooking Hyden.

After World War II, Eastern Kentucky’s population declined as the region modernized. Jeeps replaced the last Frontier horses in the 1960s. After the area hosted clinical trails for the birth-control pill, the birth rate plummeted.

By the 1980s, Frontier nurses mostly provided home health care to elderly people and staffed Mary Breckinridge Hospital, which was sold to Appalachian Regional Healthcare in 2011. The school for midwives struggled until it ventured into distance learning in 1989.

Susan Stone was a student in that first distance-learning class for midwives. She became a faculty member in 1993, remembering how she was told to buy a bigger mailbox because distance learning then meant a lot of packages and postage.

Stone has been president of Frontier Nursing University since 2001, and she has led dramatic growth made possible by the Internet, an expansion of degree programs and an increased demand for graduates.

Frontier had about 4,000 graduates in the first 75 years. Now it has 1,500 students enrolled in several master’s and doctoral nursing programs in addition to midwifery. Annual admissions have had to be capped at 700.

The average Frontier student is a 35-year-old registered nurse. More than 90 percent are women, and 70 percent live in rural areas. They come to the Hyden campus only two or three times: for a few days of orientation, a few days of clinical simulations and, if they wish, for their graduation ceremony.

“Our target is nurses who live in rural areas and want to stay and serve in those areas but want a graduate degree,” Stone said.

Students study online with 96 faculty members scattered across the country and do clinical work in their own communities. “We’ve been able to recruit a high-quality faculty because we don’t make them move,” Stone said.

Stone thinks the demand for nurse-practitioners and nurse-midwives will continue to increase because of trends in the health care industry. She sees Frontier continuing to change to meet needs.

“One of the things we teach our students is entrepreneurship,” she said. “Sometimes what is needed is just not there and you have to create it.”

For example, one of Stone’s future goals is to offer training for psychiatric nurses, who are in big demand but short supply in rural America.

“Mary Breckinridge’s whole idea was that this would be a pilot project and there would be replications,” Stone said. “It’s just amazing when you look at what our graduates are doing. They really are going to change the face of health care.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:


When it comes to broadband, why is Kentucky stuck in slow lane?

August 17, 2014

broadband

 

When Dr. Pamela Graber traveled in Uzbekistan and Turkey, she was surprised to find fast, reliable Internet connections. She just wishes she could get that kind of service at her home, 20 miles from Kentucky’s State Capitol building.

“I sit here and wait for things to come up” on the screen, said Graber, an emergency physician who lives in the Beaver Lake area of Anderson County.

She and neighbors have petitioned a major Internet provider in their area for service, with no luck. So they use a satellite dish service. With data charges, Graber’s monthly bill is more than $100 — much higher than she pays for excellent service in Florida, where she lives and works each winter.

While slow Internet is annoying for Graber and her husband, Melvin Wilson, it’s a serious problem for two neighbors who have home-based online jobs. “When there’s a wind storm, they can’t work,” she said.

“Internet’s the main infrastructure we’re going to need to work in the future,” Graber said. “It’s going to be a huge issue.”

It already is. Akamai Technologies’ quarterly State of the Internet report last week highlighted Kentucky — and not in a good way. It said that while Alaska has the nation’s worst average Internet connection speed, at 7.0 megabits per second, Kentucky, Montana and Arkansas are almost as bad, at 7.3 Mbps.

By comparison, 26 states have average connection speeds of 10 Mbps or above, which is now considered a minimum by tech-savvy homeowners. The fastest average speeds are above 13 Mbps in Virginia, Delaware and Massachusetts.

Kentucky also was near the bottom of the list when it came to improvement of average speeds over the past year. And when Akamai measured states’ “readiness” for ultra-high definition (4k) video streaming, Kentucky was dead last.

“Embarrassing, actually,” is how Brian Kiser described the report. He is executive director of the Commonwealth Office of Broadband Outreach and Development, and I called to ask him why Kentucky is so far behind.

“Our broadband speeds are left up to the providers, and I’m not sure the providers are investing enough in infrastructure,” said Kiser, who takes between three and 10 calls a day from citizens wanting help with Internet service.

Other studies rank Kentucky 46th nationally in broadband availability, with 23 percent of state residents having no access at all.

Part of the issue is a chicken-and-egg problem. Virtually all of Kentucky’s Internet providers are private companies, which are reluctant to invest in infrastructure if they can’t see a potential return on their investment. Providers usually want at least a dozen customers per mile in rural areas. “The problem is that 10 minutes outside our biggest cities it’s rural,” Kiser said.

Kentucky has one of the nation’s lowest demand rates for home Internet, at about 60 percent. “Surveys show people say either it’s too expensive or they don’t see a need for it,” he said.

(It’s worth noting that Kentucky has a high adoption rate for smart phones. Kiser said that’s because smart phones can be a more economical way for poor people to meet many needs — phone, Internet, camera, entertainment — especially in rural areas under-served by broadband.)

Kiser said his office has partnered with Community Action Kentucky to build 30 public Internet facilities in rural parts of the state to encourage technology literacy and use. The centers have proven quite popular for things such as résumé writing and social media use. “We just want people to not be intimidated by it,” he said.

Internet costs in Kentucky are comparable to neighboring states. But Internet all over the United States is much more expensive than in many other countries. “The real problem, I think, is we don’t have enough competition,” Kiser said.

Connected Nation, a national broadband advocacy group, says that improving Internet service requires a two-prong strategy: pushing Internet providers to offer better service and making the public more technologically literate and savvy, so they will create the business demand for that better service.

Tom Ferree, the president of Connected Nation, said the states with the best Internet infrastructure are those that have had strong leadership on the issue at both state and local levels, plus a lot of grassroots advocacy.

Many states got a jump on Kentucky because they were well-positioned with “shovel ready” broadband expansion plans in 2009 when Congress and the Obama administration put about $7 billion in economic “stimulus” money into data network development.

But there may be more funding opportunities ahead, Ferree said. The Federal Communications Commission is changing policy to shift subsidies away from traditional telephone service to digital data networks. That could be a big opportunity for states that develop good broadband plans.

As an outgrowth of the bipartisan Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative, Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers have proposed a $100 million public-private effort to begin building a 3,000-mile, high-speed fiber optic network across Kentucky to connect with local Internet providers.

“I cannot emphasize enough the need for local planning and plan building,” Ferree said. “I think that plan holds great promise. I hope Kentucky makes the most of it.”


Winchester man caught up in FBI’s ‘Anonymous’ Internet probe

June 16, 2013

Real life has been hard for Deric Lostutter. But with public attention focused on the shadowy worlds of government surveillance and online vigilantism, the tattooed rapper and computer geek from Winchester has become an unlikely celebrity.

Lostutter, 26, who goes by KYAnonymous online and records hip-hop music under the name Shadow, spent last week juggling interviews with major magazines, newspapers and websites from as far away as Britain and Australia.

The media frenzy followed his disclosure that federal law enforcement agents in tactical gear with weapons drawn raided his Clark County farmhouse April 15 and hauled off his and his girlfriend’s computer equipment, as well as his brother’s Xbox.

“Why was I raided in the first place?” he asked last week as we talked in a suburban Lexington bar. “They want to make an example out of me, going, ‘Don’t you question us!’ That’s what it is.”

kyanonKYAnonymous played a key role in spreading tweets, photos and videos on social media that helped draw national attention to a rape case in Steubenville, Ohio, that involved a 16-year-old girl who passed out drunk and a high school football team.

Last December, online vigilantes hacked into the Steubenville team’s website and posted a note and video threatening to release the personal data of coaches, school officials and every player unless those who were involved or witnessed the rape came forward and apologized. Two players were convicted of rape in March.

Another activist actually hacked the site, Lostutter said. But he made and appeared in the video with his voice altered and wearing a mask styled after Guy Fawkes, an Englishman who tried to blow up Parliament with gunpowder in 1605.

The federal search warrant Lostutter posted on his website  said authorities raided his home seeking evidence of, among other things, computer intrusion, identity theft and conspiracy. They also were looking for a Guy Fawkes mask.

Lostutter said that during the two hours he was handcuffed and questioned by FBI agents during the raid he was told they also were looking for anti-American propaganda.

“I was like, you’re in Kentucky, man!” he said he told the agents. “I just got done turkey hunting. I drink Bud Light. I live on a farm. How much more American can you get?”

Lostutter said his lawyer has told him he faces possible indictment on three felony counts. Conviction could land him in prison for as long as 10 years — a much harsher penalty than the two teen-aged rapists received. That has been the headline in some international news reports about Lostutter’s case.

New Mexico lawyer Jason Flores-Williams, whose office calls itself the Whistleblower Defense League, has taken Lostutter’s case pro bono and has encouraged him to seek publicity and online donations, which he said now exceed $35,000.

“I’m trying to get vindicated in the court of public opinion,” Lostutter said. “They’ve finally found out that the Internet they have tried to monitor us with has actually granted us one huge sidewalk to protest on.”

Lostutter seems quite comfortable on the Internet, a virtual world where anyone can become whoever and whatever they say they are. It’s certainly more comfortable than real life.

Lostutter says he was born in Iowa and grew up in Illinois and North Carolina before moving to Winchester in 2007. He said his parents split when he was seven and he spent some time homeless.

While in high school, he discovered a talent for computers. He said he and his girlfriend now live in a farmhouse she inherited when her father died. Lostutter said he made money fixing computers and doing Internet vulnerability consulting for a company he declined to identify. But he has had bigger ambitions.

“I wanted to be SWAT team, and then a bounty hunter,” he said, adding that he studied for a semester at Strayer University in Lexington to learn more about computer forensics. “I wanted to be pretty much the hacker for the government.”

Then, last year, Lostutter saw the film We Are Legion, which profiled the loose network of radical computer-hacking activists who call themselves Anonymous.

“It was like mind-blowing,” he said of the film. “I was, like, there’s people out there with the same interests I have, so I’m not such a freak anymore. I just identified with that.”

Lostutter said he connected with Anonymous activists on Twitter and some Internet forums. He says he never hacked anything, but became a social-media maven skilled at attracting public attention by spreading material that others gathered.

His first effort was distributing emails legally obtained by citizens who last year were battling with former Clark County Schools Superintendent Elaine Farris, who has since retired. He next went after Hunter Moore, who operated a controversial Internet site with “revenge porn” — obscene photos people sent him of former sex partners with whom they had broken up.

Then Lostutter read about the Steubenville rape case and thought it looked like people in the town were covering up for a popular football team.

“I thought something fishy’s going on here,” he said, “And I’m going to get to the bottom of it.”

Lostutter made an online video, which prompted others to send him tweets, photos and videos posted by young people in Steubenville who were joking about and may have witnessed the rape. He publicized them and made the video that ended up on the team’s website. In January, he was interviewed about the case on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 show wearing his Guy Fawkes mask.

The crowd-sourced “investigation” that Lostutter began included a lot of wild and unsubstantiated allegations, death threats against football players and accusations against one person who Lostutter has since apologized to online.

The case has heightened public debate about the role of Anonymous and other so-called “hacktivists”. Are they heroes trying to hold the system accountable? Or are the out-of-control vigilantes trying to take justice into their own hands?

Lostutter sees his work as positive, and he compares himself to Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee and security contractor who leaked details of the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance programs to the media.

“The Constitution clearly defines that it’s a citizen’s right to step in if the government fails,” Lostutter said. “Vigilante is not a bad word. It’s been painted as a bad word over time. In Old West days, vigilantes were awesome, they were bounty hunters, they went after outlaws that the police couldn’t handle.”

Many others, of course, would disagree. But now that technology and the Internet have given a global megaphone to anyone who chooses to use it, the online Wild West is likely to keep getting wilder.

Last week, while doing interviews and replying to fans and critics on Twitter, Lostutter found time to have a new tattoo added to his much-tattooed arms: the logo of Anonymous. Although worried about the possibility of prosecution, trial and prison, he clearly seems to be enjoying himself.

“For the first time in a long time,” he said, “I’m doing what I think I was meant to do.”


Young Lexington entrepreneur launches OuiBox

October 27, 2010

The Internet has been shaped by a series of bright, young entrepreneurs whose ideas changed everything. Peyton Fouts hopes to be the next one.

On his 25th birthday Wednesday, the Lexington man is launching OuiBox.com, a multi-platform Web site with a unique writing tool Fouts developed. It harnesses Internet search engines to research papers as you write them.

Fouts said he has spent five years creating OuiBox with help from about 100 consultants, lawyers and programmers around the world. He thinks the site could become huge, and a group of experienced local investors agrees. Members of the Bluegrass Angels investment group have invested several hundred thousand dollars in the company.

“I wanted to make a system that would change the world,” Fouts said. “Not just change it, but better it.”

OuiBox is a free site that brings together a user’s email, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts, plus has its own social network, news, calendar, photo, music, video and blogging applications. Each application is branded with “oui,” the French word for “yes.”

The main application is OuiWrite. In addition to searching for relevant sources as you write, the software can automatically format a paper in MLA, APA or Chicago style and create footnotes.

“For math you have a calculator, and for English you have OuiWrite,” said Fouts, who is initially targeting middle, high school and college students. The site includes software that lets parents set limits.

Fouts has a pay version of OuiWrite for legal research, and he hopes to earn money from selling related iPhone apps and limited advertising. But most revenue will come from getting a cut of purchases users make from online retailers through the site. Fouts said he has spent years negotiating agreements with most major retailers. A portion of OuiWrite’s cut will go to charities, especially those that help orphans and abused children.

Fouts recently formed a board, and OuiBox’s first director is Bart Van Dissel of Lexington, one of the Bluegrass Angels investors. He is a former Harvard Business School professor and former management consultant with the prestigious firm McKinsey & Co.

Van Dissel said OuiWrite initially attracted him to the company. After showing it to his two college-age children, he recalled, “they immediately said, ‘I’ve got to have this.'”

In addition to OuiBox, Van Dissel said computer code that Fouts developed and is patenting to more accurately track online purchases made through the site could prove profitable for the company. Others have already approached them about licensing it, he said.

Van Dissel said Fouts is “very different” from other technology entrepreneurs he has worked with. “Most don’t have the combination of creating a grand vision and the focus and detailed knowledge and discipline to make it happen,” he said. “I can speak directionally at a very high level and he gets it immediately.”

Fouts grew up in Lexington, one of six children of a lawyer and former teacher. He was home-schooled until the eighth grade, then went to Lexington Christian Academy. Fouts said he got the idea for OuiBox the day after he graduated from the University of Kentucky at 19 with degrees in English and communications. He also had studied computer programming.

Fouts said he sleeps about three hours a night and spends most of his time developing OuiBox on seven Apple computers in his Masterson Station home, where he lives alone. He relaxes by building Lego structures and volunteering as a youth group leader at Southland Christian Church. Faith has been a driving force for Fouts. “I told God that if He gives me the ideas, I’ll make them happen,” he said.

Last fall, Fouts threw a party at Lexington Ice Center for the Southland teenagers and a couple hundred of their friends to recruit them as OuiBox testers.

“They have been a valuable sounding board,” he said.

Fouts has hired Miss Teen America 2010, Katie Himes of Cynthiana, as a celebrity endorser. He has hired YouTube bloggers to promote OuiBox online. And he is giving away several iPads to people who register and tell their friends.

One potential marketing strategy is enlisting school systems as partners, with OuiBox’s charity cut of purchases going to those users’ schools. In addition to generating revenue, the strategy could help ease concerns teachers might have about OuiWrite. Van Dissel said he recently approached the Fayette County Public Schools and is waiting to hear back.

Fouts hopes to have 100,000 OuiBox users by Christmas and a million within a year, which Van Dissel thinks is “highly optimistic.” That kind of traffic would require a big increase in rented server space — and millions more dollars in second-stage investment.

“I feel that this is my calling,” Fouts said of OuiBox. “My main goal right now is to get students on there and wow them. If I’m not wowing them, I’m not doing my job.”


Internet success story with a Lexington link

July 8, 2009

One of the November election’s big stories was how Barack Obama and other Democrats used the Internet to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in small contributions and connect with their supporters.

Much of that strategy and technology was developed by Blue State Digital, a company founded by four young guys who experimented with what the Internet could do for politics during the 2004 presidential campaigns of Howard Dean and Gen. Wesley Clark.

One of those guys, Ben Self, is a Lexington native. Not only that, he still lives here, although that seems to be a relative term these days. Last week he was in Portugal. Before that, Brazil, Mexico, Italy, Australia and the Dominican Republic.

Business is booming for Blue State Digital. Politicians and parties, businesses, universities, unions and non-profit organizations around the world are hiring the company to try to get some of Obama’s online magic for themselves.

“It seems non-stop these days,” Self said when I first met him at a downtown coffee shop in April. “We’ve never done any marketing. All of our clients are people who come in through our Web site and say, ‘Can you help us with this?’ It’s overwhelming.”

In the past year, Blue State Digital has doubled its staff to more than 100 people. It has headquarters in Washington, D.C., a technology center in Boston and offices in New York, Los Angeles and London.

Self, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he spends several days each week on the road, but always tries to get back to Lexington for the weekend.

Even when he’s here, Self has conference calls at odd hours with clients around the world. Earlier this week, there was an evening conference call to Australia, where one of his clients is the prime minister.

Self lives in an old house in the Aylesford neighborhood with his wife, Rebecca. They met as students at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. A former teacher who also has a degree from MIT, she is the education director for Seedleaf, a local non-profit that develops sustainable food sources for people at risk of hunger.

“We love Lexington,” Self said. “We would never leave.”

After studying in Boston and living in Madison, Wis., founding Blue State Digital gave the Selfs the flexibility to move back to Lexington and be close to their families.

Self knew the election campaign would be all-consuming. While partner Joe Rospars worked as the Obama campaign’s new media director, Self was technology director for the Democratic National Committee, where he managed an overhaul of its Web site, computer infrastructure and national voter file database.

Blue State Digital’s pace hasn’t slowed much since November. The company continues to work for the DNC and Obama’s Organizing for America arm, as well as a growing list of progressive politicians and parties worldwide.

Blue State Digital also is developing other lines of work, such as helping universities build fund-raising relationships with alumni. The company’s 200 clients include the University of Florida, the American Red Cross, the Carter Center, the Tony Awards, the Prince of Wales’ Rainforest Project, the Sundance Film Festival and Wal-Mart Watch, which criticizes the retailer’s employment practices.

Clients are interested in Blue State Digital’s technology and expertise in building online communities.

“Technology is enabling people to organize quicker, more effectively and cheaper … and (public) engagement is tearing down all the walls,” Self said. “It’s about talking to people honestly and making them feel a part of your organization instead of customers of your organization, no matter what it is.”

As the name implies, Blue State Digital’s political and commercial work reflects the progressive values of its partners and employees, Self said. Several politicians and companies have approached the company and been rejected because they weren’t compatible with those values.

Eventually, the whirlwind will subside. But Self thinks Blue State Digital has a bright future as people’s use of the Internet matures. He finds the work fascinating, and he hopes he can continue doing it from Lexington.

“I feel like I got a fantastic education here in the public school system,” Self said, adding that Dunbar’s math, science and technology magnet program prepared him well for MIT.

If Lexington wants to keep and attract more smart people like Ben Self, it must continue to focus on the infrastructure and quality-of-life issues that technology entrepreneurs and workers look for in a city.

“I do wonder what would happen if I didn’t have this company,” Self said. “Would I be able to stay here? For a technologist, there’s not a huge number of opportunities here.”