Building businesses from a quirky Chicago condo
BY SANDRA GUY firstname.lastname@example.org February 1, 2013 3:12PM
Updated: March 3, 2013 6:06AM
A south Logan Square product-development company, Polymathic, has quietly helped launch six startups in the past year by using an innovative business model that empowers founders, senior-level programmers and creative, multi-talented tech management.
“I want to start honest conversations about what it’s like to build a company, to build a trustworthy team and to help everyone along,” said Marcy Capron, the 25-year-old CEO, founder and partner who started two of her passions — taking photos and writing computer code — at age 12.
Capron this week launched a company blog, “The Art of the Internet,” at http://wearepolymathic.com to expose a little-discussed culture gap between Chicago’s business founders and the city’s tech and design talent.
“If you don’t talk about what’s hard, it just gets harder,” said Capron, who grew up in the Hollywood Park neighborhood and won just about every youth photography award in the nation while she attended Loyola Academy high school, including the Scholastic Art Award, the National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts Gold award and the Presidential Scholar of the Arts award.
Capron started Polymathic — named about a “polymath” who is skilled in a variety of subjects — three years ago to create media for small businesses that couldn’t afford high-cost help. Indeed, Capron transitioned into a technology entrepreneur after she earned a BA degree in film and communications at Northwestern University.
She wants to see startups grow in Chicago, but the model is changing.
“I am rooting for more early-stage funding in Chicago,” Capron said. “The traditional model of co-founding in exchange for equity — and usually no pay — is dead in Chicago. Cash is king.”
Based on Capron’s work experience as a freelancer and with a big ad agency, she set up policies at Polymathic that seem obvious, but whose details make a huge difference for startups. For example, Polymathic employs expert, high-level programmers, pays them weekly and assigns them project lead status on startup campaigns while allowing them to be as autonomous and creative as they want to be.
The so-called “developer in residence” program lets the programmers work wherever they want, including at Polymathic’s headquarters — a three-bedroom condo outfitted like a design studio displaying retro patterned furniture, Capron’s photography and artwork, and a homey air where Capron makes cupcakes and goodies in the open-air kitchen.
Two of Capron’s original coworkers became partners of the company this year.
Joe Poeschl, 27, a Milwaukee resident, serves as project manager and is skilled in design and branding, and Matt Manske, 27, a Madison, Wis., resident, is known for his coding skills. Poeschl serves as chief operating officer and Manske is chief technology officer.
Poeschl and Manske grew up together in Wisconsin and, as accomplished musicians, played together in a band.
The company’s focus is aimed at giving startups some absolutes that the partners believe result in secure sites with gold-plated infrastructures.
Polymathic takes 10 percent royalties for a six-month period from company founders because Capron believes it’s better than taking equity that startups need to grow.
At the same time, founders put down a deposit based on the project’s highest estimated cost. Polymathic puts the money into a trust fund to pay the programmers.
Other policies include legal documents in plain English and fees that range from low to high for a set period of time but are never specified because of each project’s unknown variables.
The result: Web apps that are intuitive, work across platforms (mobile, desktop and tablet), can attract a proven audience, have no legal or intellectual-property pitfalls and provide real-time, interactive feedback. Company owners come away understanding their company’s software platforms and figuring out how best to give their customers information.
Polymathic’s biggest success stories are NexVex, an online marketplace that lets roofing contractors use remote aerial measurements to bid for jobs without ever making house calls, and PrettyQuick.com, a reservations system for nail and hair-salon appointments at high-quality sites such as Allyu, Cellular Intelligence, Maxine’s, Paul Rehder, Marianne Strokirk and others in Bucktown, the Gold Coast, Lincoln Park, River North and Wicker Park.
NexVex recently closed on a $500,000 round of funding.
PrettyQuick.com’s app alerts users within minutes of open slots, price ranges and quality rankings, and shows photos and distances of the salons.
Coco Meers, who founded PrettyQuick.com two years ago when she was an MBA student at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, figured salons and spas needed a more efficient software-based calendar system to replace their pen-and-paper appointment books.
But the mom-and-pop salon and spa owners and employees didn’t bite. Their first priority is driving revenues and keeping customers happy, and they couldn’t see how a calendar switch would help.
Meers turned to Capron and Polymathic in spring 2011. The two worked to build a software solution that the salons and spas wanted.
After testing, tweaking and retesting, it took off.
The response was a swift pickup among customers who found it “fun, dynamic and exciting to see the matches (for appointment openings) come in” and the salons and spas join to resolve their No. 1 problem — filling their seats, especially during off-peak times, Meers said.
“One (customer) said it felt like winning the lottery — you choose the service you want and the spas and salons respond,” Meers said. “And we have a solution that doesn’t require the spas and salons to change their behavior.”
Meers credits Polymathic with focusing on “lean startup” methods and learning from customers.
PrettyQuick.com’s goal now is to expand the Chicago operations from the four-neighborhood pilot to the entire city.
Capron offers advice beyond software solutions. Though most of Polymathic’s projects cost less than $60,000, she encourages entrepreneurs to save at least $100,000 to $250,000 to cover the costs of building their product and then getting people to use it, and to make sure they’ve planned for life itself.
Polymathic aims to build upon its business-creation success by offering community building events:
• BetaGiving, a yearly fall event that lets product and project makers share what they learned, where they failed and what keeps them going;
• Product 101, a one-day workshop for non-technical business founders to learn more about design and development.
• A “Bridge the Gap” party in Logan Square with no suit-wearing allowed, bartenders from neighboring watering holes and a chance for businesspeople to talk with designers and developers about building product.
And finally, what about the question Capron gets when she speaks in public — why aren’t more women leading the tech community?
“Women have to learn to learn to get along with boys, and vice versa,” she said.
“We’re a bunch of dorky kids,” she said of Polymathic. “We rode together in a mini-van to a conference in Atlanta for 10 hours. We don’t fight. It comes down to trust.”