Being in the South and hearing a name like Ark Labs, your mind might immediately gravitate to the great state of Arkansas. But you need to think about that other Ark to understand the crux of this Northwest Alabama startup, which is flooding, in particular, in one’s home.
“It was really just a thought one day and it stuck,” says Robbie Hillis, founder and CEO of Ark Labs, which incorporated in July 2015 in the GIGTank accelerator. “The Ark is synonymous with floods so it made sense to flip it around and let The Ark be the one to save you from that flooded basement or house due to a major pipe burst.”
Hillis and his startup have been on our radar for some time now, and the fact that it took us a few months to connect probably says a lot about the plight (and available time) of most startup founders. But, alas, we connected, and were able to find out a lot more about his startup, the challenges of being in a consumer-facing industry and the benefits of being in a tight-knit startup ecosystem like the one of North Alabama.
In a nutshell, how does the anti-flooding system work? There’s a device and then there’s an app?
Actually we are touching all three worlds, mobile, analytic software and hardware. There is a device that is installed in a home, apartment, condo or business that monitors the flow of water. Inside this device is also a shutoff valve. Then, the usage data is transmitted to our analytics server where the software begins to understand the consumption behavior of the installed location. Every time water is flowing, the software begins to make a determination as to whether it is normal or not. If it is deemed abnormal, then the server sends out an alert to the owner through the mobile app. The owner has the ability to tell the system everything is okay or shutoff the water flow from anywhere in this world.
Do you have competitors? Or, is this pretty cutting edge at this point?
Yes, of course we do. There are companies that are startups like us, some in their infancy stages and major corporations that are all trying to address this portion of the global water crisis.
What has been the reception of your product? Is it available now, and who’s interested in it?
The reception has been tremendous. Every single person we have met with has asked “When can I get my hands on this?” or “I wish I would have had this when this event happened at my house.” We are launching a private beta in August. We have so many potential customers waiting for us to get them some hardware so we have had to close the beta to our initial partners. Lots of people are interested in our solution. The hardest part becomes how to convert the interest in sales and at the cheapest conversion cost since we are a startup. So we have some great strategies in place to guide us over the 12 – 18 months.
What’s your industry? If we had to take a guess, we would call it something like environmental tech. Are we close? Although it’s probably not strictly environmental, either, because it also provides benefit from a “My house won’t flood if I’m not there” standpoint.
This is an interesting question. As much as we want to gravitate to the Internet of Things market and be a cool technology startup, some view this simply as a plumbing product. Obviously the residential homeowners are going to be huge, and that segment is also going to be the most expensive group to reach. But there are certainly early adopters out there and we get inquiries almost every hour.
What would you say are the top two or three challenges facing your startup? And how do you go about on a daily basis, solving them?
I think access to talent is a challenge that we face on a daily basis. The only way to overcome this is to continue to network and keep making connections with people who have been around great talent. The other big challenge is getting people to understand the pace at with which I want to move. Our suppliers and vendors don’t understand how quickly we have been progressing and how fast I want to continue to move. They learn that quickly though.
Did you have startup experience before The Ark Labs? As you carry on, has anything about running your startup been harder than you thought it would be?
I started another business prior to Ark Labs. It was a company focused on digital marketing in North Alabama. Of course there have been many things that have in essence turned into much more major projects than we were anticipated. But we continue to navigate through them and pivot when needed. So far everything has led to a much better and smarter solution!
What would be your No. 1 piece of advice to a fledgling entrepreneur?
I have two sayings these days for our team and for others thinking about being an entrepreneur: 1. If it was so easy, everyone would be doing it… 2. Done is better than perfect.
You’re located in Florence, Alabama, not exactly what one thinks of as a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity, and yet there you are and we also know the Shoals Entrepreneurial Center is pretty active. Do you sort of roll your eyes at this point when people find out where you’re located? Or, is the struggle real? Is it harder to be a startup in Florence than it is in, say, Birmingham? If so, what’s the solution?
This also goes back to another saying that we have and that we are preaching in Northwest Alabama, “Start Where You Are, Use What You Have, and Do What You Can.” My thoughts are to just start and get going no matter where you are located.
What’s the startup scene like in Northwest Alabama? In what ways is being in a tight-knit community like Florence a benefit to your company?
Of course being from a small area, the startup scene is small. But with that being said we are starting to devote more and more resources to encouraging entrepreneurship. It is also fun starting in such a tight-knit community because everyone is rooting for you! Everyone has heard the story because obviously we have been in the local newspaper several times so it isn’t uncommon to be at the grocery store and have people walk up and ask me how things are going. The potential to make a significant impact on our local economy is also a huge motivating factor for our team. For so long this area has been focused on recruiting and retaining manufacturing jobs. We must change that mindset and having a successful startup, whether it is Ark Labs or one of the others in town, will go a long way in helping us do just that.
You pitched at 36/86—where we finally connected—and you also participated in Alabama Launchpad, as well as some other programs. Congratulations on all of the recognition! What do you get out of these experiences, besides the opportunity to secure funding as the big winner?
The question to participate in events is constantly asked around here. What are we going to benefit if we do participate and what might we miss out on if we don’t attend. All of these events have been amazing for our company and we continue to get invited to startup and idea events all over the world. We continue to walk away from these events with more partners, more connections and more friends! That is the important thing. The latest thing we have learned is that we don’t know who we don’t know yet. Meaning there are companies around the globe that might help drive our business in ways that we haven’t even begun to think about yet. So when we do attend these types of events, we have to treat every conversation equally until we can confidently decide if the company will be able to benefit us or not.