Q&A: Charles Armstrong, Spark Labs, Tampa

Spark Labs, one of the Tampa Bay region's most progressive tech firms, is run by CEO Charles Armstrong, a transplant from Baltimore and graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Arts.

Armstrong, CSO Michael Peters and CMO Tony Miller will soon announce a merger that promises further success for Spark Labs' TourWrist. The new web app launched in September saw more than 40,000 downloads in November. The creative team also spawned WeoGeo and will soon launch a new web app called T.imelin.es.

Armstrong sat down with 83 Degrees to talk about the company's successes and what more is needed in the Tampa Bay region to create the critical mass necessary for more tech firms to thrive.

83D: What does Spark Labs do?

CA: Spark Labs' entire focus is web applications development with an emphasis on user experience design -- putting the user first.

83D: How did TourWrist come about?

CA: We started development two years ago. TourWrist tracks your viewing, creating a "remote reality.'' It is one of the most complex apps being developed for mobile apps. We've literally just undergone a merger. It will be announced in January.

83D: Can you tell us anything about it?

CA: A national photography service will be an extension of Tour Wrist.

83D: What would be the practical application?

CA: It would be good for any business looking to reach out to its customers in a more immersed or tactile manner. Tours go up one week and the next week have 7,000 views. Something we'll soon be charging 10 cents a day for.

83D: Who will you charge?

CA: Photographers end up being the sales force. By providing our platform, they sell the service. The end user never pays for anything. Some of this won't be rolling out till January.

83D: Where do you get your ideas for apps?

CA: My role requires that I not over-think things. I'm representing the end user who doesn't understand technology, doesn't care about the revenue model and doesn't care about the decisions behind the creative side. I have to play the politician between technology, business and creative. As we put it, anyone's grandma can pick it up and understand. If the end user can figure out how to type into a Google bar, they should be able to figure out our apps. There's a quote on our website that says it all: "Perceived complexity is simple. Perceived simplicity is complex.'' That pretty much describes my business.

83D: How do you decide which ideas to pursue?

CA: Generally, people are not willing to pay upfront. So if you want to introduce something new, you have to develop a platform that allows the end user to participate or engage before being invited to pay for it. We call that fremium (rhymes with premium).

83D: Define fremium?

CA: TourWrist is a good example. We launched in September. In November, there were 40,000 downloads, which is ton of traffic that we wouldn't have had if we had charged upfront. People have to really like it before you can charge. So there are other ways that we can monetize it. If you want to advertise your business next to ours, you pay for the opportunity. If you want a private label, we can allow that and limit distribution to your own contacts. AmaTour allows people to paint in surroundings and post to TourWrist as immersive views.

83D: Who would want immersive views?

CA: For a real estate agent or a biz that wants to market itself, it's a game changer. For an individual, you're on vacation and want to relive it later. It's in a space between video and photo. It's not three dimensional. There's no depth. It's the fact of the perspective.

83D: How are the images captured?

CA: With a standard tripod and a panoramic tripod mount. Using a sigma 8 mm lens, you can do it in four shots in 30 seconds.

83D: How are you getting so many images?

CA: There are two ways that this is coming to life. One is professional photographers who have portfolios provide images. The other is growing our own photographer base through a merger.

83D: How many people are employed at Spark Labs?

CA: Ten. Eight have BAs.

83D: What do you have invested in Spark Labs so far?

CA: Over two years, approximately $250,000.

83D: How would you describe the business climate here?

CA: Tampa Bay offers companies a very comparable experience to San Diego at a fraction of the cost. 

83D: What special challenges do you as a tech firm face in the Tampa Bay region?

CA: Finding creative talent is not hard. Fortunately, the Ringling College (of Art and Design in Sarasota) is in our back yard. Finding development talent is difficult. Tech people, programmers, app developers. We need more computer engineering, computer science.

83D: How would you characterize support from the community?

CA: The Tampa community could make a big difference by doing more to acknowledge and support companies that are a work in progress, that haven't quite made it yet. The infrastructure is set up to acknowledge movers and shakers, but does little to bring attention to startups and independents.

83D: Do you have access to venture capital or loans?

CA: As soon as you're making lots of money, venture capitalists are willing to buy their way into your company. It's ironic. You have to make a ton of money before they'll take a chance on you. We have obtained a $200,000 line of credit from a local bank.

83D: Which bank?

CA: I can't say because we promised not to yet.

83D: Is there anything about the community that you would change if you could?

CA: We'd love to have other companies like our own here. We realize that the more we can build critical mass, the more we can attract talent. Florida is supposedly the 4th largest tech exporter in the nation. When you strip out government contracts and the big boys, we're not as diversified as are other successful markets. Other places think global. Austin. Boston. They get it. Instead of depending on a handful of goliaths, they have lots of little things going on.

83D: Where do you plan to be in 5 years?

I already feel like Tampa is home. But it's reasonable to consider that we might end up in Palo Alto based on that is where the appetite is.

83D: What would it take to keep you here? How can the Tampa Bay region create a similar appetite?

CA: We need more of what Malcolm Gladwell calls "connectors,'' people able to be the facilitators to help large opportunities come to life. In Silicon Valley, if you have a great idea, you're likely to bump into someone else nearby who has a great idea that you can build on. Here, if you have a great idea, you can shout about it as loud as you want and you may never get noticed.

83D: Then why stay in Tampa?

CA: I chose Tampa because I saw an opportunity to stand out from the crowd. For the same reasons I can fault Tampa for not being Palo Alto, I appreciate the fact that Tampa has given me an opportunity to be recognized locally.

83D: What's next?

CA: T.imelin.es. We're starting to attract the right players to it. You can get a taste of it on our website. Take a look but I can't talk about it yet.

Diane Egner, 83 Degrees publisher and managing editor, shares insights from thought leaders by conducting interviews and editing their answers for succinctness. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Diane Egner.

Diane Egner is the publisher and managing editor at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. 
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