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NC A&T Students develop mobile apps from coding dreams

by Jeff Sykes

There’s a good chance that most of the students at NC A&T State University know Everette Slocum and Keenan Smith on sight, especially if the two collegiate entrepreneurs are sporting their Aggiesland t-shirts.

 

Slocum is an imposing figure. A standout in high school football in Miami, Florida, the 6’4″ offensive tackle had multiple college football scholarship offers until he tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder. Undaunted, Slocum threw his effort into track and field, earning a scholarship to A&T as a member of the track team. Showing a glimpse of the innovative spirit that would later make him the brains behind a mobile app that would take the campus by storm, Slocum learned to throw discus and shot put with his left arm to overcome the damage to his right.

 

Smith, who hails from Chesapeake, Virginia, also came to A&T on a track scholarship. He’s excelled at the triple jump and the 400 meters, falling just short in the 400 of qualifying for major national events. A picture of Smith in midflight in the triple jump graces the university’s track and field website.

Slocum and Smith met as freshman in 2012. The combination of power, innovation and determined effort resulted in what many say is one of the best examples yet of college students in Greensboro taking advantage of the entrepreneurial support network that has grown steadily in the city over the last decade.

The duo created Aggiesland, a website that connected students to campus events, that first semester. The site morphed into a mobile application that now has some 3,000 registered users. As the popularity of the app soared, Slocum and Smith developed additional concepts, aided by a growing team of talented code experts. But it wasn’t until the team attended an Idea Slam at Geeksboro last summer that the world of business opened up and the students realized the type of success that possibly waited in the future.

To say that Slocum and Smith make a powerful pair doesn’t quite capture the palpable energy present when they get started talking about their projects. Smith is the positive, at times giddy, spokesperson for the company they recently formed, BrownBoxWorks. Slocum, who describes himself as “an old soul,” is more measured and philosophic, already focused on future business success and professional motivation.

In a nation that is desperate for visionary leadership that truly embraces the possibilities of the 21st century, it’s refreshing to hear such focused young men talk about their goals for the future. That they cite Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as examples to follow is no small thing.

“We have huge plans for where we want to go with the company,” Smith said. “We’ve evolved more from just college kids with the Aggiesland app. In the future, what we will be able to do with the BrownBoxWorks is just “¦ hopefully in the future we can have the same impact on the world as Steve Jobs did with the ideas that we have.”

 

It’s a bold statement to be sure, but when you realize the potential of the concepts their team is currently working on, it doesn’t seem far-fetched.

Slocum came to Greensboro in 2011 as a high school athlete to compete in a national track and field event at A&T. The track coach recruited him on the spot and Slocum came to campus in the fall of 2012. He roomed with four upperclassmen at University Park Apartments on East Lindsay Street. The upperclassmen would often schedule parties in the apartment and would let the freshman know about it out of common courtesy.

“I didn’t have any say. I was only a freshman so I couldn’t tell them ‘no, no party’ or anything like that,” Slocum said.

But the idea of having some advanced notice is actually what gave him that first conceptual spark for what evolved into Aggiesland. Slocum decided to make a website, something he had experimented with in high school in addition to being on the robotics team.

“That was the original goal, just for parties,” Slocum said. “I sat in my room day in and day out and I was building the website. After I had a small version done, I put it in one of our Facebook groups for A&T and the students just loved it. It made me feel good, so I continued to just work on the project.”

Both Slocum and Smith said the campus culture at A&T is grounded by a vibrant social life, with students often looking to connect, kick back and have fun. But even as freshman, these two weren’t that deep into the party scene. Eventually, however, they found a way to harness the power of the social culture on campus.

The pair met in an entry-level computer science class.

Interestingly enough, both men came to computer science after pivoting from their initial fields of interest. Smith’s initial interest was in video and film, and later engineering. Slocum also wanted to be an engineer, expecting it to be a hands on field of study to take advantage of his natural instincts.

“I was always the kid to break toys, or get a little motor and put a battery on it and let it fly,” Slocum said. “When I came here I thought that was what I want to do, hands on, but when I found out it wasn’t just hands on””it was math and science””I realized I would have to pivot here.”

Smith said after moving toward engineering, he too realized it was not his best course.

“I wanted to be a hacker, really,” he said. “That didn’t really pan out the way I wanted to because engineers have to take chemistry and that is not my strong suit.”

 

They ended up in a basic computer class taught by Dr. Kenneth Williams. Slocum showed Smith his idea for Aggiesland, and it was on from there. Students had shown great encouragement toward the concept.

“I got a lot of good feedback from students,” Slocum said. “They were like ‘yea man, this is something we really want to use. Just keep it up.'” During that first year, Slocum said he made 15 to 20 versions of the website. He added an email list and a login to begin collecting user data, a move that would be pivotal to the project’s growth once the mobile app was ready.

Both men realized that first year that creative vision was their strength and that by teaming with true computer science experts they could bring their ideas to reality.

“I wanted to create this platform for college students to have and know about campus events””sporting events, nightlife, party stuff””things that college students want to know about,” Slocum said.

The key to taking the concept to the next level occurred when Slocum and Smith met Neegbeah Reeves, a fellow computer science student who was just then learning iOS, the operating system for Apple devices. Reeves explained how he could turn the Aggiesland concept into a mobile application. The team discussed the project for a month and then Reeves rolled out a beta version.

The team was excited about the app, but needed several graphics tweaks before rolling it out sometime near the Greatest Homecoming on Earth activities that year in 2012.

Before the app dropped, the website had generated considerable buzz.

“Even when we first started people were just signing up for the website because they wanted to be a part of it,” Slocum said. “People were signing up everyday. They were telling their friends about it. The incoming class of freshman was telling their friends about it.”

The student response to the Aggiesland concept was a major factor in the development of BrownBoxWorks.

“For me, I think it was just knowing that people wanted to use something that I created,” Slocum said. “So even just the first few, I was happy. When you get those initial users, just to know that people are using something that you made, I was happy about that.”

 

The app dropped that October and the team pushed it out to users who had signed up for the website email list. Smith said he was amazed at how fast they cleared 1,500 users.

“We didn’t do any major paid marketing, it was just students telling other students ‘this is something you guys want to use,” Smith said. “The students just attacked it. We started to get downloads everyday. Some days it would be 30, other days 100. When this past freshman class (2014) came in we got at least 400 new users on Aggiesland. That was really good.”

After the group sponsored an event on campus, and began wearing their Aggiesland t-shirts, the visibility challenged their otherwise private personalities. Invites to parties and clubs began rolling in. The staff at Club Lotus gave them VIP treatment and promoted Aggiesland.

Slocum said that they began getting random handshakes and shout outs on campus. People would stop and thank them for the app, or ask about joining their team. The party invites became constant.

“Now it’s like we don’t look for the parties, the parties look for us,” Smith said. “It kind of brings us out. Every time we go to a party we think about how could we make the app better? What are they doing in here and what could we add?” Slocum smiles when he refers to it as “doing research.” Over time they added additional features to Aggiesland, such as bus routes and university announcements. Local entrepreneurs wanted to place articles on the app. Businesses wanted advertising space.

That’s when they knew they needed to form a company. Their first concept was Crumbs Software, but that didn’t stick. Soon they came across BrownBoxWorks, an idea taken from an unusual source.

Slocum and Smith laugh when they describe the episode where Spongebob and Patrick find a plain brown box and play inside making sounds. Outside the box, other characters hear symphonic high-definition sounds, but when they look inside the box, it’s just Spongebob and Patrick. One of the characters asks them how they are creating such sounds.

“Spongebob pops out and says ‘imagination,’ and he makes a rainbow,” Slocum said. “That’s where the name came from.”

From there they decided to get serious about business. “We didn’t know that Greensboro had this amazing Triad Startup Lab, or Collab, or The Forge. We didn’t know that any of that was here,” Slocum said. “We thought we would have to move to (Silicon Valley), but we knew we couldn’t just up and move to the valley right then.”

 

Smith was researching angel investors in California and eventually came across an idea slam in Greensboro. The event, sponsored by the Greensboro Partnership’s Entrepreneur Connection, was held at Geeksboro Coffeehouse last summer.

The BrownBoxWorks team had several new app concepts, and pitched a couple at the slam. The response was overwhelming, with tons of requests for app development and people shoving business cards in their hands.

“Everybody wanted their own mobile app developed, basically,” Slocum said. “We were still young. We didn’t exactly know how to go about any of that. It was just nice to get all that feedback.”

By the time Slocum and Smith returned to their apartment that morning, Kathy Elliott, who was then with the Greensboro Partnership, had called to ask if they wanted to meet with potential investors. Elliott, who is now an assistant professor of entrepreneurship at High Point University, said she was inspired by their drive and passion.

She’s had the BrownBoxWorks team speak to some of her classes at HPU.

Elliott said she was impressed that busy students were hard at work on so many viable ideas.

“They were confident, clever, and took criticism and advice,” she said. “They understood the possibility of failure, but they kept going. I have known them for a few years now and they continue dreaming and executing. I believe they will be very successful one day.”

Elliott connected the team with Troy Knauss, a local entrepreneur who is vice-chairman of the Angel Resource Institute based out of Willamette Valley, Oregon. Knauss lives in Summerfield and is involved in several initiatives that support emerging business leaders. Knauss said he likes to support a handful of projects each year being pursued by entrepreneurs coming out of college. He tries to mentor them and see where they might go.

Knauss had attended the idea slam event at Geeksboro. “I really liked how positive they were and I wondered what would happen if we put a little money behind them,” Knauss said. “The thing that really drove me to them was how creative they were, and ultimately the fact that they had a full team involved was also a positive.”

Over the course of a few months last fall, the Brown- BoxWorks team settled on their next project, a platform for positivity, inspiration and gratitude that they dubbed TWAGD, or Today was a Good Day. Slocum described it as a positive version of what YikYak is, plus pictures.

The concept has expanded now into a platform on which a social network for family attractions, such as zoos and museums, could be developed. After months of planning and design, the team is beginning to market the concept to viable institutions.

“We’ve changed it around because initially, it wasn’t designed to monetize,” Smith said. “There was no monetization strategy. So we had an idea of how to monetize it and still keep it to its positivity theme that we designed it for.” The team recently visited the NC Zoo in Asheboro with a beta version of the app to conduct a field test. Earlier this month, the BrownBoxWorks team attended an entrepreneurial boot camp conducted by the Triad Startup Factory. The event was held at Flywheel in Winston-Salem’s Innovation Quarter.

A second project involves virtual reality and geospatial applications. Users will be able to check in photos and videos, called drops, at specific locations around campus. Passersby using the app will later be able to view the drops made within a certain distance of their location. The app is called ESPI.

“It’s like discovering campus from other student perspectives,” Slocum said. “In a sense, if I take a funny picture in my dorm room, people that come into that dorm room can see the photo once they enter that area. It’s not really like a feed that you would search, or this curated thing, it’s just you finding things on campus during your normal day.”

The BrownBoxWorks team continues to generate app concepts, but have implemented a strict vetting process before an app gets on the short list to development. Financial strategy and professional developer feedback are critical to a project’s advancement.

“ESPI has never been done before. It will be new,” Smith said. “That’s really what the concept of BrownBoxWorks is, we’re all about innovating something. All it takes is for the company to get one of those tens of millions of dollars investments and we are going to take off and change the world. Our ideas don’t stop with (the apps). We plan on doing big things with the company that haven’t been done before. We’re using the mobile app space right now to get us where we need to go.”

Both men credit the support network developed by the Greensboro Partnership’s Entrepreneur Connection as being critical to their success. The team began working out of the Collab co-working space on Greene Street.

“It definitely helped us with company structure and some great connections,” Slocum said. “When we came in here we were just some guys going about. We knew what we wanted to do so we just acted on that instead of mapping out steps to success.”

The real world business knowledge has helped them focus on recruiting what Smith calls “the A-team in Greensboro.”

So far the BrownBoxWorks team consists of Slocum as CEO, Smith as COO, Smith’s brother, Kendrick, as chief visionary, and Reeves as lead code developer. Two new members of the code team spent the summer interning at NASA. A board of advisors is made up of Knauss, Len Testa, and Greg Poole.

Working at Collab allowed them to meet UNCG student Madison Wolf, a marketing expert that’s already helped the team avoid mistakes.

The team is trying to gain acceptance into the Triad Startup Factory’s accelerator program, a 12-week process that could result in additional cash investment.

Both Knauss and Professor Elliott are impressed with the business acumen Smith and Slocum have developed.

“It took them a while to find those cofounders that have additional skills, but it seems like they are moving forward in a nice way,” Knauss said. “We are learning here in Greensboro that it takes a talented team, programming and an understanding of markets. You really have to find your niche and hit it hard.”

Elliott agreed, and pointed out that the two students have already embraced their own role as mentors.

“These young men get it,” she said. “They have spoken to students across the Triad. They are passing the baton on to other hopeful student entrepreneurs.”

BrownBoxWorks has big plans for the Aggiesland app this fall. They hope to begin marketing the attractions app next month. Plans are to develop the geospatial app for launch next year.

“It’s not what I came to school for, but I can honestly say that Everette and I have learned more just doing this that what school was able to teach us,” Smith said. “If we wanted to go into business classes then we probably wouldn’t be as far ahead as we are now just going out there and doing it. Just doing it, like ready, fire, aim. That’s what we did.

“We wanted to just come in and make things happen.

Nobody gave use permission to do Aggiesland, we just did it and people loved it. It’s better to ask for forgiveness than it is permission.” !

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