Dominick Ard’is is Domi Station’s newest recruit.
Serving as Director of Incubation Programs and Operations, Dominick Ard’is, or Dom as he’s known around the coworking space, is a dynamic individual with a rich experience in startups and the business of technology.
In the past, Ard’is has founded and operated a startup, taught leadership and professional development at FAMU, and consulted fortune 50 and 100 companies with Booz Allen Hamilton. He’s also a certified User Experience (UX) Architect from the Nielsen Norman Group. Now, he’s bringing all of that expertise and more to Domi Station. Read about his story and his thoughts on the Startup Capital below.
What’s your background? Where are you from?
I’ve had a very interesting past. I lived life as a military brat. I was born in San Antonio, Texas, back in the 80’s. I spent a year there, and then we moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, then Maryland, then our family found ourselves in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for four years.
We lived on base in the city, with lots of protection of course, mildly speaking. But it was a great experience.
It was the first place, in my developmental years, that I ever called home. As a military brat you travel everywhere, but at the age of seven we came back to the states, made a quick stop in Savannah, and then ended up in Tallahassee, Florida. So I’ve been here since 1994. I spent one year away in Minneapolis last year, but I guess I would say that I’m from here.
Did that upbringing, moving around a lot, affect your personality or outlook?
I think it has. Most military brats, depending on how you adjust to the lifestyle, can really become an individual that knows how to mold to the environment. Or understand how to actually develop relationships with people, because they’re going to leave very fast. So you have this intrinsic need to connect with people because you know you’re going to move. So honestly, I didn’t call Tallahassee home until 2009.
Now in 2009 I graduated from undergrad, Florida A&M University, and in January 2010 I walked into a dual master’s program at Florida State University. I didn’t really call Tallahassee home until I interned at the City of Tallahassee for now Mayor Andrew Gillum, who was Commissioner Gillum at the time. That was where I first found a place, in Tallahassee, that I could call home.
What made you stick around?
You have a slight advantage when you’re from Tallahassee, to stay in Tallahassee. But you also have an intrinsic desire to leave Tallahassee. When my parents put it on the table that “if you stay here, you’ll get a car” I was like “I’m all in!” [laughs] A free car was a huge impetus for me staying here.
And on top of that, I was exposed to both sides of the track. But as far as staying and making that conscious decision? I did have the option to leave and go to grad school somewhere else, I think my other option was American University. But for me I knew I wanted to have an intimate experience with local government. And Florida States’ Askew School of Public Administration was top 25.
I actually met Andrew Gillum in D.C. in Spring of 2009, and he invited me to work in his office during the Summer. I told him I was actually going to go work with Eli Lilly and stack my paper for a bit. Then I ended up interning for him that Fall semester.
When you think about grad school, it’s not necessarily about the degree, it’s about the experience. So that was one of the first reasons I decided to stay, because there was a clear line to Florida State, a clear line to link knowledge to action – to take what was learned in the classroom and implement it right on site, which I think was very important.
The second time I decided to stay in Tallahassee was when I was graduating. As I changed degrees from Public Administration to Urban Planning and International Affairs, I found myself diving deeper into citizen engagement and technology on the urban planning side, and thinking about “How do we engage people, especially millennials, with the city?” What do we provide students and millennials that shapes their experience of the city?
Is it really about their municipality? Is it about the public official, or their living and housing options? Is it about the nightlife and the scene that they’re exposed to? As I dove deeper into that research, I found that many people begin to shape their opinions of their city and even their elected officials based on the experiences that they’re having in their city. So, how do we begin to expose people to their city and bring them in and engage them? These are all questions that I wanted to find answers to.
Also, public sector technology is a little bit dated when it comes to user experience compared to the private sector. So for me it was having a desire to exploit that and create the technology side of urban planning. That research spawned my desire to stay in Tallahassee a second time, and immediately after I graduated, I started a startup.
While you were in school, did you plan on going into the public sector?
I definitely wanted to be in the public sector, but I also had a knack for business. I was selling candy at a very young age. I was the youngest of four, I had three older brothers, so when you look at the economics and the dynamics of that family, you know that the budget’s going to be tight. The trickle-down economics was not really hitting the baby of the family. So I sold candy.
I bought everything from Sam’s Club, of course. My best margins were from Double Bubble. You get 360 pieces of gum for $4.98, and I said “ok, we can sell these for a nickel, but let’s sell them for ten cents.” And let’s sell them ten for a dollar, which is not a deal!
But it sounds like one!
It does. You put it in a bag and you only sell them for ten for a dollar. You never sell individual pieces. It keeps the transactions fast and you get a lot of margin. So here I am with $31 in profit after buying another box. I always had a knack for entrepreneurship.
Are you a hustler?
Not a hustler; I would say that I’m more of a businessman.
What’s the difference?
I think the difference between a hustler and a businessman, and I may be wrong, but my opinion is that a businessman is very methodical about the type of business and enterprise that he’s running. They’re looking at a longer term game, not necessarily the mindset of “how do I put money in my pocket for the short term?”
Sometimes if you look at hustlers they have three or four different hustles going on, and a lot of their energy is exacerbated in four different hustles, which may scale and may not scale. Compare that to the businessman who’s thinking about one or two strong enterprises. You look at Jack Dorsey and Elon Musk who are running two companies at one time thinking about: “how do we begin to scale this enterprise so that it leaves a bigger impact for a lot of people?”
Then you end up winning on the profit side as well.
You just started your new job at Domi, could you tell us a bit about that role?
I serve as the director of incubation programs and operations here at Domi Station. I started August 1 and came on board with an awesome team. Lucas Lindsey is our executive director and an amazing guy. He truly has a heart for the community and a pulse for the people, which is very important in taking Domi to the next level.
“Beyond just making a couple of introductions, how do you really think about it from a business consulting perspective?”
My role coming in was to think about how we can begin to beef up our incubation programs from a broader perspective – looking at pre-incubation, incubation, and then moving on to an accelerator model. Right now, our Get Started program, which I’m focused on managing and facilitating, is our pre-incubation program. But the idea when I come into the space is to grow and scale the types of programs that we have. We can look at taking entrepreneurs seeking capital and helping them take that business model canvas and putting it into motion.
Because you still need capital at the end of the day, but it doesn’t mean that you should build your business model and go seek funding. The best thing for you to do is to participate in the business of doing business – which is building a business and getting customers, not building a business and getting investors.
You want to attract investors because they see how happy your customers are and how your customer base is growing. So, a lot of my focus is to really raise the standard of excellence and collaborate with a lot of community partners to begin to think differently and collaboratively about how we partner for the facilitation of the entrepreneurs in our community.
And then there’s the operations standpoint – how do me make Domi faster? How do we make Domi leaner? And what I mean by that is in our operations, how well do we effectively work as a unit? How do we measure how effectively we work with our metrics and evaluations? Last year in September, I was actually in Vancouver, Canada, with the Nielsen Norman Group, which is a top-notch research firm of user experience (UX). They are the foremost authors and researchers that really put a lot of intellectual capital into our field. I went there for their usability week and their workshops and was certified as a user experience architect.
UX is something that’s very important to me. How are we providing value to our members that extends beyond opening the door? Beyond just making a couple of introductions, how do you really think about it from a business consulting perspective? That’s a lot of the experience I picked up at Booz Allen Hamilton. How do we begin to help companies think about strategic planning, set up quarterly goals, a weekly task plan and a daily walk where they can really focus on achieving what they need to achieve?
At the end of the day, if you’re in the business of doing business, you need to be profitable. And profitable doesn’t always mean money, because you could be a non-profit, but a business should be in the business of doing business. And non-profits still need to be profitable to sustain their vision.
So that’s my role at Domi. I’m really excited about it, the community has welcomed me with open arms which has been great, I still have a lot more hands to shake so it should be exciting.
And all of these goals you mentioned, making Domi faster, smarter, leaner – is that all tied into Domi 2.0?
It really is, and it’s really about coming to grips with the fact that Domi is not the answer. We are not the answer to all entrepreneurial problems in Tallahassee. Every entrepreneur has a journey.
I was invited by Keith Bowers, director of the Small Business Development Center (SBDC), and he invited me to facilitate their Breakfast of Champions back in 2014, and we had a lot of members across the community, from the EDC, the Chamber of Commerce, the JMI, Florida Access, all the stakeholders were involved that were focused on developing entrepreneurs.
I had some real conversations with them about their services and how they’re matching up to entrepreneurs. What they formed out of that was AERO, Alliance of Entrepreneur Resource Organizations. The importance of that is helping each organization understand: “What are we great at?”
For Domi, if our mission is to empower and educate early stage entrepreneurs, then how are we effectively doing that? If this is where people come to test out if they want to actually move on in entrepreneurship, then, are we properly vetting 1) the ideas coming in, and 2) the management and the people that are coming in, to make sure that we have a process that can actually develop a business that’s sustainable.
And when we can no longer serve them, how can we connect them to an SBDC, to a Chamber of Commerce, to Big Bend Minority Chamber or the JMI? It’s about looking at that the journey of the entrepreneur, our customer, and asking whether their matriculation through the entrepreneurial life cycle here in Tallahassee is productive.
And if we can do that, I believe that we’re achieving our goal of Domi 2.0. But furthermore, for our members we need to be asking: if you came in at ground zero, when you walk away from us, what impact have we made? It’s about setting up measures and different metrics in order to begin to assess that and make sure it’s successful. One to assess where we are, but two to make sure that we provide entrepreneurs our advice, and not our opinion. And there’s a difference there.
And how do you measure these goals, what are the metrics?
Right now we’re building a new metrics model, a data metrics model which is going to be pretty exciting. It’s invasive for some of these companies, but rightfully so. Domi Education is a non-profit and we sincerely focus on providing service with our hearts. But we think with our heads. And at the end of the day, it’s important to show our impact. We have a lot of partners involved that are sitting at the table working hand-in-hand with us and it’s very important that we provide value back to them.
So one thing we’re working on now is a company demographics assessment, so that if you want to come and speak with any of our consultants and mentors here, then there’s a demographic profile that begins to ask about your company: how long have you been working on your business idea, are you incorporated, how many interns have you had, how many W-2 employees have you had, 1099 contractors, what were your profit margins, and what was your annual revenue.
It’s important to get a sense of those things because when a mentor is providing council, it’s important that they have a baseline to understand where you are, and furthermore understand your strategy to provide you on-site advice that helps you reach your goals.
When I was pursuing my startup and I wanted to build a mobile application, I sketched out every single interaction in a storyboard book that I actually created myself at Target Copy on Tennessee Street. So, thank you to Target Copy. [Laughs] Shout out to them!
When I developed that and mapped it out, I wanted to come to a guy to just give me a quote and advice on building a mobile application, but he kept steering me towards a mobile website. But I already had all the research from Google. Not Google search, but Google Insights, which is a research initiative inside of Google, showing that users have more loyalty to mobile applications than they do websites.
And our app was much more than an informational hub. There was a lot of user and platform interactions that helped them connect their physical space with their digital world, and that was very important to us. But he kept steering me towards a mobile website and that wasn’t the strategy and it wasn’t informed by data.
So I walked out of that meeting saying “I didn’t ask for his opinion, I asked you for advice.” I think I shot out a quick tweet right after that and said “There is difference between opinions and advice,” and right after I tweeted it I was like, [laughs] “Oh shoot, I need to look that up in the dictionary real quick!” And sure enough, there is a difference. Opinions are more subjective and advice is very objective.
You really don't need everybody's opinion but you could use a select few s advice. Please don't confuse the two.
— dardis (@dominickardis) March 13, 2013
Tell us more about your startup.
[Laughs] Yeah, The Town. It started out as The Town. I was so adamant about flipping government on its head and civic tech, which is a billion dollar industry now. I think I was an early bloomer in that space, which is okay, we learned a lot of lessons. But we quickly pivoted. I want to say most of our research was in 2012. I ended up presenting at a few different conferences and in January 2013, incorporated.
I said, “I’m going after this full time.” I had been adjunct teaching Leadership and Professional Development at Florida A&M in the School of Allied Health Sciences – shout out to Dr. Lewis – but the whole idea was connecting the community, the citizen, and the consumer all in one mobile app.
How do we highlight small businesses, how do we highlight community events and what’s going on? But then also how do we get people to focus on the citizen and get more engaged in the populace?
So what we did was design a game within it. We gamified it so that in The Town we would have Townaholics, you know like shopaholics, workaholics… We gamified it to ensure that people would feel some type of intrinsic value about how they were moving as a person within the city, a real human experience. And so we quickly pivoted because we realized our resources were very small. I applied to JMI, and, the first time, I was rejected. Then I met with Ron Frazier and we showed him the designs because he said, “How are you going to achieve this big idea?”
We showed him our designs, and we were so adamant about testing with users that we had color pencil designs first, literally a hundred pages worth – it was that detailed. And he said, “Oh, wow. Apply again.”
“There’s a human factor that has to be imbued with the technology so that we can really have those types of honest conversations, because technology can’t get us there right now.”
So next thing you know we were accepted and received the $5,000 Jessie Ball Dupont Grant and we pursued it. But you have to look at the market and look at where we have inroads. With Student Government Association [SGA] that I was a big part of, I had served on the Congress of Graduate Students and I really understood the big issues. What we have there [in SGAs] is that universities have student-funded events, but they’re really taxpayer-funded events. Activities and service dollars are actually going to students.
And so we realized that money was being funneled to these events but we’re not receiving any data back on how successful the event was. We can see that 100 people RSVP’d on Facebook, but did those 100 people actually come? Do we understand the demographics? We wanted to create a platform where you could.
So we pivoted to TAU, which was TownAholics University, where students would track their college experience, find events on campus, and then help organizers, administrators, and student organizations understand how successful their event was through a data analytics platform. Then, when they go back for funding every year, they can show their impact.
Right now there’s no measures or evaluations for a $2.5 million budget spent towards activities and service fees. I think the people are judicious, I’ll give them that, but I think it’s important that you have the technology that begins to add value to the human decisions that we make. Because technology can’t determine whether we need to have a conversation on respecting people in the LGBTQ community, or having conversations and events on campus about that, or having events and honest conversations about gun control or having honest conversations about education reform. There’s a human factor that has to be imbued with the technology so that we can really have those types of honest conversations, because technology can’t get us there right now.
So The Town, as it stands?
Oh it’s shelved, man. The story goes like this: we pivoted in the summer of 2014. That was in July, and my business partner, Enrique Morgan, had moved from Atlanta, Georgia, to Tallahassee, seeing the promise in this city and the value. We stayed in my parents house, I cleared out half of my closet, slept on my parents’ floor, and we ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and we pursued it!
But our timing was off. We had a commitment from Florida State, but we had some key decision makers leave in April. And we always struggled with having tech talent that stayed with us. I was the architect, he was the creative, the designer, but having programmers was a big hassle for us. And we only raised $5,000 after the grant. So it was important to us to really get after it.
But it shelved in April. It was a good run, but you have to know when to pivot, and sometimes put it on the shelf. Is the idea dead? No. Many people are going after the idea. Is the way that we did it dead? No, it’s just on the shelf. So one day I might get back to it, I’m not sure.
So what was missing? Technical talent?
We could recruit the best programmers, but keeping them was a challenge because of paying them. They definitely saw the value, which I thought was good, but when you’re getting poached from someone offering you a 50 or 60 thousand dollar salary in Tallahassee, as a student or a PHD student you’re pretty much going to take that money. So that was a big issue for us, and it impacted our timing.
So even though I was new to the tech development space, I sought as much wisdom as I could. And we made sure that we had those real honest conversations about it. So it was a challenge for us, but I think Tallahassee is turning around now. Hopefuly with a lot of these coding education programs we’re finding tech talent that’s out there.
Do you think that’s a pretty common story?
For most startups in Tallahassee, absolutely. Finding programmers who think outside the box is difficult. But furthermore, finding people and business minded folks who know how to work with programmers is very difficult. Sometimes I feel sorry for programmers. Our programmers had it very easy because we had everything designed and mocked up. We even had the doggone algorithms written out for them. So a lot of people come to developers and say: “Hey I had this idea, I want to create this app.” And it may be a good idea, but developing a mobile application is not magic. It takes time.
You guys at Cuttlesoft know that very well. I can only imagine. So it’s definitely important to begin to educate people about how we work together as teams. What should you do before you even go to a developer? Flesh out your idea and spend time with it. Love on it. Write it out and make it plain. A lot of people don’t do that.
That was very important for me to do because 1) I knew that at the end of the day I had a limited budget, and 2) I knew that if my app didn’t come out right I would have to look at myself in the mirror and say, “What did I not communicate right to this person to where they didn’t get it?” And if I had all of that checked-off, then we’re going to have an honest conversation with that developer. But if I didn’t check off the list, then I need to look at myself.
“It was rare to find, when you go for it and start eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and sleeping on the floor, you have a little bit more to fight for.”
I think a lot of startups struggle with that, but I think now the climate is changing. Since Ryan Kopinsky started TechNole, we’re finding more people and more programmers coming to a central hub from the university campus. FAMU is also getting involved. They just had the FAMU App Challenge, which is a very high-profile program, and they’re doing well with it. It’s been very interesting to watch, but I think things will change.
Do you think that if you had started The Town in 2016 that it would have been the same story?
No, it wouldn’t have been. For one, I don’t think the story would have been that great. To see Enrique and I walk to the JMI incubator, Enrique holding an iMac in his hand – not a Macbook but an iMac, in his hand – and not the latest edition where the screen is thinner, but the heavier one, It just would not have been the same. I don’t believe it would have been.
If I had started it now, do I think we would have had a better chance of success? I couldn’t tell you. Because one, I may have not had the experience of failure as an entrepreneur to now know business hurdles, like I did in ‘14. So, to ask whether I’d be successful in this climate, I’m not sure. Do I believe that we would have had more access to programmers that were willing to see a vision and hang on a little bit longer, yeah, I do believe that. But I don’t know if all of us would have had that same level of energy and drive.
It was rare to find, when you go for it and start eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and sleeping on the floor, you have a little bit more to fight for.
What’s your final advice for a startup entrepreneur?
Oh gosh. [Laughing] Know what you’re getting into. And don’t think that you’re going to do a million dollar exit in two years. If you do, congratulations to you. I don’t think you’re a unicorn, I just think you had a really good idea and you found out how to hit it out of the park.
But I would definitely say to get smart about what you’re doing, really spend time with your vision and make sure it’s connected to your passion and purpose. Because when it’s connected to your passion and purpose you’ll never forget about your idea and you won’t be so quick to abandon it. If you can find things that you’re very passionate about and are intrinsic to your purpose, I think you’ll really begin to nail it.
Most entrepreneurs who find that one idea or topic that they’re excited about, they’ll go after it. So for me it didn’t matter that a venture capitalist said, “I won’t invest in government startups or anything to do with education because of the sales cycle.” It didn’t matter to me because I knew that our idea was good, and after we validated our product with the customer, it would be better. And so I think if you find that passion, you won’t quit so fast.
And come to Domi. We’ll help you out.
Thanks to Dominick Ard’is for sharing his story and giving his thoughts on Tallahassee startups and technology. It’s easy to see why Ard’is was a perfect fit for Domi, his experience and passion make him the man for the job when it comes to executing Domi’s long-term goals. We’re confident he’ll leave a big impact.
What’s the best way to get the latest Startup Capital interviews sent to you? Sign up for our mailing list below to get exclusive content.