Episode 66 — Derek Brooks of Modest

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Geoff Wood: Welcome to the Welch Avenue Show, episode number 66. Today we talk with Derek Brooks of Modest, a mobile commerce company based in Chicago. Derek is a member of Gravitate and works from Des Moines. The core team and Modest, which includes Derek, all work together on the tech team for Obama for America in 2012. So we talked with Derek about what they they're doing now, what it was like to work on a campaign and how those 2 things have delved together. Speaking on building now, we're building an awesome audience for this podcast and we need your help in expanding it. A good way to do that is to go to bit.ly.welchavenueitunes and leave a rating for the show. Even if you don't use iTunes to listen to the show, most of us don't, it's still the best place for discovery and your ratings help that.

Thanks in advance, and now on to episode 66 with Derek Brooks.

Hey Derek, how are you?

Derek Brooks: I'm great how are you.

Geoff Wood: Not too bad. I think this is the first time we ever recorded a pod cast over again, so this will be a new experience.

Derek Brooks: Yeah, great.

Geoff Wood: If I hadn't said that, people never would have known. Let me just talk about a little bit to start, what is it that you guys are up to, what are you doing these day?

Derek Brooks: I'm working for a company called Modest. Modest in based out of Chicago, we're building mobile commerce software. We're building a whole commerce platform currently focused on mobile.

Geoff Wood: You say commerce platform, who is the user of the platform?

Derek Brooks: Retailers. We recently got RAYGUN. If they want to have a mobile app right now, they sign up with us. They can then generate an IOS app and have that downloadable within 5 minutes so they can try it out. Once they go through the flow, like they've seen their app and all that stuff, then they can launch it to the app store and be on their way. This is something that typically takes months and thousands of dollars to make happen. The fact that we can get a retailer with a native app, if they want it, in a matter of minutes is pretty exciting.

Geoff Wood: How does that work? Are you submitting individually ... native apps, so IOS app right?

Derek Brooks: That's right yeah.

Geoff Wood: Are submitting individually to the app store to get approved?

Derek Brooks: We handle that process for them.

Geoff Wood: Oh okay.

Derek Brooks: There are a couple of different ways you can do it. We have another brand called Intelligensia Coffee out of Chicago. We've built our IOS SDK in a way that they can integrate into an existing app. So they already had about how to brew good coffee, they have timers and all this fancy stuff to help you brew coffee. They wanted to start making money through their app so they used our SDK to them put their products within this app. So while you're brewing you could buy more filters, or do this kind of stuff. In that case they would handle their own submission and all that stuff. For people who want something quick like a stand alone store, like someone like RAYGUN. They could do it all through us, we have a bunch of scripts that push that up to apple and get that going.

Geoff Wood: Do you guys have like secret sauce that gets that approved faster or they still wait in the queue?

Derek Brooks: No, yeah, they still wait in the queue.

Geoff Wood: Oh okay.

Derek Brooks: The secret sauce is only if you have a security problem or something that needs to get through fast, and you don't get to use that that often. We haven't figured out a way to make this thing faster.

Christoper New: The lesson to the developers is to security problem in your software just in case, so you can push it.

Derek Brooks: Make sure you litter your apps with security problems so it can deploy faster.

Geoff Wood: Oh boy. That's really cool. You guys have working on this for how long now.

Derek Brooks: We've been a company since beginning of 2013. We started towards the end of 2012 trying to figure out what we were doing. Then we spent probably the next 6 months, me and 3 other guys that worked together before, just trying to figure out what we were going to build and then I would say we've been working on this about a year and a half.

Geoff Wood: Okay. But just kinda took the lid off publicly what it is that your working on in the last 2 weeks or so.

Derek Brooks: Yeah that's right.

Geoff Wood: Where did the idea or where did the need come from. Have you guys tried to build store apps and saw this problem, or where did it come from?

Derek Brooks: We have a lot of experience in commerce as a team. Our founders, kind of the founding team, we just noticed that it's broken. The shopping cart flow and the how many steps there are to buy things online. Most kids probably today, they haven't even used a real shopping cart in real life. The whole thing is weird that's it's online and especially on mobile because it makes purchasing and shopping on mobile super tedious. You have go through all these steps and when your trying to do that on a small screen. It's a giant pain. We've been thinking this is broken, this is broken, why isn't anyone fixing this. We're trying to make that better.

Geoff Wood: Part of your platform is that there is no cart right?

Derek Brooks: That's right. We're trying to really streamline for mobile. As few steps as the user can take to get to a transaction, is what we're going for.

Geoff Wood: Cool. How's the reception been? There's a big media poster or at least of people interested.

Derek Brooks: The receptions been great. There's an ongoing question of why does a tee shirt store need a mobile app. And maybe there's not. I personally think there is. It's broken so much now that people aren't shopping on phones, but for people that are super fans of RAYGUN, they might love this app and they might buy more shirts now because it's less steps.

Geoff Wood: I assume RAYGUN does a healthy amount of business online. My first purchase from RAYGUN, back when they were called Smash. We were in Indianapolis, I saw the Des Moines, Hell Yes shirt. And I was like, I need to wear that in Indianapolis. So I bought it online, but people don't buy online on mobile. The idea is to move to native apps.

Derek Brooks: We've been playing with mobile web solutions and stuff like that, but it's a little harder to integrate with their existing stores when you go that route.

Geoff Wood: Okay.

Derek Brooks: We're really excited about some other things, where we're going to start integrating with email so if they have a big email send. You can email that's like Geoff, we know you like this Des Moines, Hell Yes Shirt, check out this Des Moines, heck yes, for your children or something like that.

Geoff Wood: I think the have one of those too.

Derek Brooks: The idea there would be that since you shopped with them before they already have the token stuff to allow you to purchase. So you can purchase directly form that email without a shopping cart and all that.

Geoff Wood: Cool.

Derek Brooks: Yeah.

Geoff Wood: You can out of that gate with 5 or 6 brands as your initial ones, including RAYGUN here locally. What sort of traction are you getting since the public announcement of what your doing?

Derek Brooks: We've seen lots of sign ups, which have been really exciting. A lot of people getting in there and playing. We had one person jump in there and had an app submitted to the app store within 2 hours of sign-up. Which is just great. That was really cool to see. 

Geoff Wood: What's the business model?

Derek Brooks: It's kind of a fremium kind of model. Right now everyone gets 6 months free and beyond that, for smaller stores it will remain free. There might be modest branding on the launch screen, other than that it's 200 bucks a month.

Geoff Wood: Okay.

Derek Brooks: We're offering native push notifications and all that support through our software.

Geoff Wood: Part of the press announcement this last week was the venture capitalist behind the company. There's some familiar names in there, can you talk about those at all?

Derek Brooks: Yeah, Eric Schmidt was on board really, really early. The four of us that got the company started all worked on the Obama campaign. Coming out of there Eric Schmidt helped fund a few start-ups that came out of that.

Geoff Wood: All from the tech team?

Derek Brooks: That's right.

Geoff Wood: Okay.

Derek Brooks: That's how we started.

Geoff Wood: Did he get tied into the campaign like as a donor?

Derek Brooks: He advised us a little bit on some tech.

Geoff Wood: So he funded a couple start-ups, including you guys. What's it been like. Do you get to work with him or is that more. You have the technical perspective, right?

Derek Brooks: He can give some high level things. He's also not the most accessible person. It's been awesome to get started and he's a great guy, but he's also a very busy guy.

Geoff Wood: Probably most big name VC's and folks like that are tough. I can remember ... Yeah, we won't go to that story. Yeah, they type of thing like where when you do get his time you have to take advantage of it right?

Derek Brooks: Yeah. It's more high level, which is always awesome. We're about to start to going to for more funding and when we do that we'll target so smaller VC's, someone who can get us more contacts and stuff like that.

Geoff Wood: Okay. Talk a little about the four of you that founded the company.

Derek Brooks: Harper Reed, which I think a lot of us are familiar with. He's from Iowa, he spoke at I/OWA Conf last year. He was the CTO of the Obama campaign in 2012. Dylan Richard was the chief of engineering or director of engineering or something like that. They are official 2 co-founders. Then 2 of the lead engineers Clint Ecker and myself were also part of that team. 

Geoff Wood: You all came from the campaign?

Derek Brooks: That's right.

Geoff Wood: You've known Harper since college right?

Derek Brooks: Yep, he was my RA.

Geoff Wood: That's pretty cool. We talked about that before. It was in the Verge article, the TechCrunch article, I was reading. I don't remember exactly how they described Harper. It's that's picture, if you haven't seen a picture of Harper, you won't miss him when you do see it. He's an eccentric looking dude. It was an great presentation at I/OWA Conf, I thought. I think he really had the room there. It was really funny, it was hipster-something they described his as.

Derek Brooks: He gets that a lot. 

Geoff Wood: Yeah, I would imagine. It was really cool. You did the funding, now your launched. What's next for Modest kind of after this?

Derek Brooks: Next, we are in the going to market phase right now, so it's just like finding adoption. We are currently trying to hire a sales team, so some of the people can get out there and help us get more leads. We're just growing.

Geoff Wood: How big is the team?

Derek Brooks: I'm sorry.

Geoff Wood: How big is the team?

Derek Brooks: We have 18.

Geoff Wood: Okay.

Derek Brooks: Three quarters of us are in Chicago. Otherwise me in Des Moines, we have a guy, well he was just in DC, he just moved to Cupertino. San Francisco, San Antonio and Virginia. Yeah we're kind of all over.

Geoff Wood: Is it intended to be distributed like that or are you just hiring the best people where you can get them?

Derek Brooks: When we find good people we have to get them.

Geoff Wood: Any hopes that they'll be other Modest folks in Des Moines at some point?

Derek Brooks: I would love for that to happen. I'm really excited what Bunchball done. Kasey was their first employee here and he's built a team. What are they up like 8, 6 or 8 or something?

Geoff Wood: Yeah, They just came back from the Iowa State engineering career fair with some folks they want to bring on this summer too.

Derek Brooks: Yeah, I would absolutely love to have something like that happen here as well.

Geoff Wood: What's it take to get that done?

Derek Brooks: It's going to take money, first.

Geoff Wood: Should I call Eric Schmidt? 

Derek Brooks: We are very strategically hiring right now, to keep control of our burn?

Geoff Wood: Okay. It's always good, we've seen start-ups gone and not pay attention to that, quickly disappear as start-ups.

Derek Brooks: We're trying not to do that.

Geoff Wood: Very cool. I'm curious to know a bit more about the campaign too. I know we've talked about this before, but what was experience like for you?

Derek Brooks: It was very intense. It's the hardest job I've ever had, longest hours I've ever worked, but at the same time, I was working with a bunch of great engineers that came from Google, Facebook, YouTube. All these great companies, so I learned a lot. Which is really exciting. I'm glad I did it.

Geoff Wood: Are you a political guy, or were you before this?

Derek Brooks: I'm not.

Geoff Wood: Still not?

Derek Brooks: Not really, and I was not before. If I didn't believe in the candidate I not have been in the team. I voted twice and it's both been for that President. 

Geoff Wood: Okay. So your batting 1000.

Derek Brooks: Yeah, I'm batting 1000 that's right.

Geoff Wood: It was more of the technological challenge for you than it was pure belief in the candidate that motivated you to it.

Derek Brooks: There was definitely belief in the candidate but it was technical and the experience that really drew me to it.

Geoff Wood: Yeah, do you keep in contact with folks. I imagine the techs game now is scattered all over.

Derek Brooks: Yeah, it's scattered all over. I keep in touch with not all of them but quite a few. We've hired another 2 or 3 people from the campaign.

Geoff Wood: There's some other folks here in Des Moines that are ... 

Derek Brooks: Nick Leeper whose at Dwolla.

Geoff Wood: Somebody else, too?

Derek Brooks: He was doing a lot of our financial stuff on the campaign, and Todd Makinster, also. I worked with him at Red Five before and now he is working for Groupon. His company got acquired by Groupon after the campaign.

Geoff Wood: Okay, very cool. What are your thoughts on future campaigns. Would you want to do that again?

Derek Brooks: I don't think so.

Geoff Wood: No.

Derek Brooks: I've done it. It was cool. I think that I've got experience I wanted out of it, so I'm very satisfied with that. I would help advise a little bit if asked upon.

Geoff Wood: Can we talk about what you did, what your pieces of...?

Derek Brooks: I did a lot of the voter contact and protection stuff. This was things like voting look up tools.

Geoff Wood: Like what's your district?

Derek Brooks: Yeah, we put in your zip code and we tell you where you go vote, stuff like that. kIt sounds super simple but it's not. Just the data is terrible. Some states will give you a PDF of where you go vote and you have to turn that data, that's query and all that stuff.

Geoff Wood: It's not always where you go right? I think for that election, or it wasn't that election. Yeah it was that election. We live 3 houses away from City Hall, in Windsor Heights, which is a voting place, but it's not our voting place. We had to drive to the other side of town. The city's so weird.

Derek Brooks: It's super tricky. The lines are all sketchy. It's different in different states. Nevada, the voting locations are actually vans that move. So you have to ... 

Geoff Wood: Oh really?

Derek Brooks: Yeah, some of them yeah. So you have to take that into consideration. It's interesting. It was really hard. We also had incident response for voting day. If things are going on in the field, we had this big map of where things are going on. Like there's not enough ballots at this place, or this place says their closing early but they shouldn't be. Let's get some people out there to try to fix it.

Geoff Wood: How does that work? The local election officials are not doing what they should do , so you have to notify someone or phone someone if there's an issue.

Derek Brooks: Yeah. We had a bunch of ways for people to report things, and in the software we were able to track the things that were going on.

Geoff Wood: Then Somebody from the campaign had to and ... 

Derek Brooks: Yeah we would make some calls and triage that.

Geoff Wood: Such a weird.

Christopher New: What's interesting about that is you have one election day, so everything your building goes up. You don't get a chance to do it over again.

Derek Brooks: That's right.

Christopher New: How did you have to re-wire your brain to think about that versus the consumer space where everyday is ... 

Geoff Wood: Your entering it.

Christopher New: Yeah exactly.

Derek Brooks: Are you miked up or do I have to repeat your question?

Christopher New: No, no, I am on mike.

Derek Brooks: It was really hard, on the tech team most of our software was about organizing and getting people to turn out. A lot of the stuff built way up front and it was not being used on election day. A lot of the team was hanging out, like okay we got everyone to register to vote, now just a matter of doing this. My software was totally different, because I did all the voter contact and protection stuff, so my stuff was just getting hammered on election day which was stressful to say the least. I stood up but ti was stressful. We had call tool, was one of the things I built. It was basically a phone canvassing tool, give people, people to call and it scripts and it would record all of their responses. It went from getting ... 

Geoff Wood: My wife used that tool.

Derek Brooks: Nice. It went from getting a few hundreds hit a day to literally a million calls on election day. So like this huge hockey stick that if we weren't prepared it could have been bad.

Geoff Wood: The next day, everybody got fired. That's one of the things I remember Harper talking about, and maybe it was kind of I read about the campaign too. Well talk about the you guys prepared for catastrophe, that was something people talk about a lot but don't actually do.

Derek Brooks: Yeah. We had this thing called "game day", which I'm still not really sure why it has that name, but that's what we called it. It was basically where we had a couple puppet masters just breaking everything. We practiced failure, they would take away a database or do certain things that should break software. We would see how our software responded to that. We would fit it and make sure all of our failure states were good. Then we'd do it again. It was kind of neat, where if one thing went down, Like some other tool, that wasn't call tool. If that was down the failure state would be like sorry this software's down, why don't you make calls, here's how  you get to the call tool. We'd do thing like that when things were catastrophic to try to get them to still be helping us.

Geoff Wood: How many times did you do that?

Derek Brooks: The game day or have these errors?

Geoff Wood: Game day.

Derek Brooks: I think we did it twice. 

Geoff Wood: Did things go down on election day?

Derek Brooks: Nope.

Geoff Wood: Okay.

Derek Brooks: We had one issue on election day that should have caused failure but since we caught it on game day, we were fine and it was very minor.

Geoff Wood: That's pretty sweet. How do you take that mentality into Modest?

Derek Brooks: We've done a game day at Modest, which was really exciting. We should probably be doing another one here shortly.

Geoff Wood: Did you catch things that way?

Derek Brooks: Yeah, oh yeah. It was great. I highly encourage any team that has public facing software to do this.

Geoff Wood: It's interesting that your doing it this early because I would imagine your software isn't at it's limits yet. Your not approaching your election day, whatever that would be in the context of Modest. You've got keep the ups for it. I'm sure they'll be a book or something by Harper in some point in the future on that or somebody on the team at least. That's cool. The other I remember reading about the campaign was as you said everyone gets fired the next day, so what happens to all of that code and all of that software you guys wrote.

Derek Brooks: Yeah, some of it was open sourced, our voting location look up tool was open sourced. A lot of it is just in the hands of the DNC maybe. I don't know where it's at. Some of it probably just went away. It's super hard with elections because the cycles are so long, the next time this codes going to be used is 2 years or 3 years from know. Code just goes stale, the service you were connecting to are probably all changing. You need to have a team to maintain it the entire time that it not going to be used or it's kind of inevitable that it'll just go away.

Geoff Wood: Is it documented?

Derek Brooks: Oh yeah. That's one thing we really ... after I got fired, I then got rehired to document things for the next month. 

Geoff Wood: Is that a different organization that rehired you?

Derek Brooks: I don't remember. 

Geoff Wood: Okay.

Derek Brooks: Yeah, I don't remember. I don't think so, I think it was still the same.

Geoff Wood: I wasn't sure it flipped from the campaign to the DNC or something.

Derek Brooks: I think it was still the campaign. OFA. I basically spent the next month or so just documenting, like here's the things we tried, here's what worked, here's what didn't work. More high lever, than like actual code sample stuff. I think that going to be the most valuable thing, those docs.

Geoff Wood: That I would assume is proprietary to the DNC of the next democratic. Cause the stuff you open-sourced the other party could use, probably will use the next time.

Derek Brooks: Yeah, we wanted to opensource everything, but I think that was a big concern. As technologists we thought it would be cool to doubt I don't think everyone agreed to that.

Geoff Wood: What's you prediction on the next election as far as technology. Will Republicans catch up to that?

Derek Brooks: I think yeah. I think their probably in same. The story that came out of it was that they were so far behind. They named on of their tools project Orca because we had a tool name Narwhal, and apparently Orcas are the only things that can kill Narwhals.

Geoff Wood: Okay.

Derek Brooks: They were totally different tools, but that was the marketing that went behind it, or the message behind and then it flopped. It failed. I think that they probably are going to want to kill it next time and the story is that they didn't do it right. I have a feeling a lot of money's going to go into it.

Geoff Wood: Do you think the Democrats will do the same thing? Or do you think they'll get lackadaisical based on how well it went before.

Derek Brooks: I'm not exactly sure. It's also totally different because there's not someone sitting in office. These are both new parties that have to come through. As they weed out in their own parties there's a very short time to build for the candidate at the end. They all have their individual fundraising and then once they decide on a person they're going to have a mush shorter time-span to build crazy technology. That's going to be challenging as well.

Geoff Wood: Was Harper on board ... Harper I assume was hired first amongst the tech team right, and then he kind of assembled you guys.

Derek Brooks: Yeah, he was one of the first. They hired 5 people right away and made them leads. 

Geoff Wood: You may not know this, but how soon into the first campaign that they hired him for the second one.

Derek Brooks: Yeah, I don't know.

Geoff Wood: Cause if you know your going to ... 

Derek Brooks: Yeah.

Geoff Wood: We're in a political town, we're starting to see candidates at least Republicans show up here, I don't think we've seen any Democrats yet that have been campaigning. Is anybody reaching out to you about tech team questions for the next elections. 

Derek Brooks: No not yet.

Geoff Wood: Do you want them to?

Derek Brooks: Maybe.

Geoff Wood: I'm just curious. This whole thing has been fascinating. I think I met you after the campaign, but had been in the same circle beforehand, so just kind of hearing this whole thing has been good. Yeah, as far as Modest and things like that. Anything else you want to get out before we wrap up.

Derek Brooks: No, not really. You can check us out at Modest.Com, we have a lot of the things I already talked about on there. You can see what it looks like. If you have a store and want to create an app you can go there and check it out.

Geoff Wood: And it's free to do so right?

Derek Brooks: It's absolutely free.

Geoff Wood: Cool. And if anyone wants to find out more about you, where do they go?

Derek Brooks: You can check out broox.com. I am @broox on twitter. B-R-O-O-X. I think that's ... where do you tell people to look for you at? Google me.

Geoff Wood: That's it. Google plus. What's your string of characters.

Derek Brooks: I have no idea. 

Geoff Wood: If people want to find your dog on twitter where do they go?

Derek Brooks: Follow garthbroox, that Garth B-R-O-O-X. On twitter.

Geoff Wood: Perfect. Well that knock, kind of tells us our next interview is here. So I think we'll let you go from here.

Derek Brooks: Sound good.

Geoff Wood: Sounds good. Thanks Derek.

Derek Brooks: Yep.