Nathan Martin never intended to be a technology entrepreneur. He was an artist, through and through, first as a punk rocker, then as one of the early digital-interactive artists of the 1990s. But Nathan found that his background naturally led him to starting and then running a growing company.
Deeplocal bills itself as a post-digital shop that helps brands create remarkable experiences that bridge the online and physical worlds. And its roots are intertwined with Nathan’s background as an artist.
Deeplocal’s main office is located in the heart of the East Liberty area of Pittsburgh. The office has high ceilings and expansive open space. It’s a creative space; it just feels that way. Nathan is tall and thin with tattoos and a great smile. I often see him running in Highland Park in the morning. I’ve known Nathan for a while because, in Pittsburgh, we entrepreneurs almost always know each other, but I didn’t know the depth of Nathan’s creative streak until more recently.
This post is part of a series about artists turned entrepreneurs. Previously, I featured Ty Morse of Songwhale, who also has roots in music. And I will have other posts coming up. It is a subject near and dear to me because my own background is in theatre. People always ask me how I made a shift from an actor to a technology entrepreneur and my answer is always the same: “I use the power of creativity to solve problems and grow companies.”
Background: Nathan went to Carnegie Mellon in the mid 1990s for fine arts. He worked with Stelarc (Stelios Arkadiou), a Cypriot-Australian performance artist whose works focuses heavily on extending the capabilities of the human body. Stelarc was considered the first robotics art professional in the world (in 1997 Stelarc was Honorary Professor of Art and Robotics at CMU).
The late 1990s was a fertile place for interactive media at Carnegie Mellon. The Studio for Creative Inquiry debuted as one of the first interdisciplinary labs in the country. The University also founded the Entertainment Technology Center (which spun off several startups including Etcetera Edutainment, featured in this blog).
In 1997, Nathan founded and ran a punk rock band called Creation is Crucifixion, whose music embodied themes around technology and society. Nathan kept the band going for ten years.
Starting in 1997, Nathan also ran an art group called the Carbon Defense League, a collective of media artists, technologists, activists and critical theorists “working to explore the intersection between radical theory, traditional activism, and technology subversion through the creation of tactical media projects utilizing communication system technologies.” Nathan describes it as, “ An anarchist-bent hacker collective. We would re-purpose technologies to create new ways to communicate. For our first project in 1998, we hacked the Nintendo Gameboy platform. Remember that people weren’t writing their own games then; only game designers were doing this. We wrote our own games, both the hardware and the software. We built a development kit in four languages and distributed it through AK Press. There was even a book launch.”
Nathan was still in college then but there are some recent publications that showcase Nathan’s media theories. Nathan considers himself self-taught in terms of writing software, building circuits, and creating interactive environments. Nathan tells me, “The community of people doing this type of work back then was small. What that meant for me was that I could really do something meaningful.”
In 1999, Nathan graduated and got a job with a startup called Mind over Media where he stayed for a year until the company was acquired. In 2000, at age 23, Nathan moved to SF and his whole band moved with him. To keep money in the bank, Nathan worked for MetaDesign (ironically, Nathan’s former boss, Terry Irwin, is now head of the design department at CMU). Nathan was the youngest employee at MetaDesign. He acted as a general technologist and built rapid prototypes. As Nathan tells it, “I did artsy work. I built stuff for clients. I wanted to work on technology but not on websites.”
Then, Nathan started to work with one of MetaDesign’s clients, Palm Computing. He ended up going full time with Palm for about six months. He brought in a group of friends in to Palm, one of which was his co-founder of Deep Local, Carl DiSalvo, who did his PhD at CMU in design and robotics.
On September 9, 2001, Nathan left SF. He toured with the band for five months and ended up back in Pittsburgh, where he spent long hours in a basement apartment contemplating what came next. The band was disintegrating, and it was time to move on. Nathan was surprised to get a call from Rensselaer Polytechnic (RPI), asking if he was interested in doing a masters degree in interactive art. With a full scholarship plus a stipend, Nathan jumped at the opportunity. He tells me: “They gave me $30,000 a year to do anything that I wanted!”
Nathan chose online collaborative mapping and eventually brought that project back to Pittsburgh and to Carnegie Mellon in 2003. In 2006, he spun that software out with two partners, Carl DiSalvo and Jeff Maki.
Nathan tells the startup tale: “We started off as a nothing company, with some software that we wrote that worked like Google Maps. Our product integrated with desktop mapping software. And we raised a bit of seed money from Idea Foundry, a regional economic development organization. But then, Google Maps was just getting out there too. You know what happened then.” The company floundered.
By 2007, Nathan realized that a shift was in order. To bide himself time, he turned Deeplocal into a consulting company: “We had figured out that we didn’t know how to make money. So we rectified that and become a consulting company and bootstrapped our way up the revenue chain. We took any software development or design project; it was all about sales. I did whatever I could do to make money. And I learned a lot. It was difficult.”
Nathan was able to attract an angel investor and took in several hundred thousand dollars. The company kept doing projects, learning and growing and eventually figuring out that it was really good at advertising in the digital age. Deeplocal found its niche.
Deeplocal today. Deeplocal accidentally invented a genre in advertising: building experiences that bridge the physical and online worlds. Deeplocal’s projects are sometimes mechanically-driven, but the results show in marketing. Today, they count EA Sports, The Gap, Toyota, Volkswagen, Nike, LG Mobile, PNC Bank, and many others as clients. Their agency partners’ list is a who’s who of leading ad firms: AKQA, Independents United, Publicis, Saatchi & Saatchi, Venables Bell & Partners, Wieden + Kennedy, and others.
Nathan tells me that Deeplocal is “still figuring out our role in advertising.” He tells me that “We are collaborating with agencies that have 600 people, whereas we have ten. Go figure!” Deeplocal has a revenue run rate of several million and expects that to keep increasing. In 2010, Deeplocal raised a bit of capital from Innovation Works, another regional economic development organization, to fuel it on its way.
The company has garnered multiple awards relating to advertising. And they do some very cool things:
- In 2009, Deeplocal made world history with its Chalkbot, a chalk-spraying hydraulic robot developed in conjunction with Nike to write inspirational messages ahead of the bicyclists in the Tour de France. The Chalkbot won nearly every major international advertising award in 2009 and 2010. Deeplocal spun this project off in 2010 and sublicensed the IP to a third-party startup.
- For the 2010 Holiday Season, sales in retail Gap stores across the US were triggered based on the movement of eight live reindeer in a pasture in rural Minnesota.
- Leading up to the USA vs. England match on the opening day of World Cup 2010, soccer fans in America and Europe submitted messages taunting the opposing side. The taunts were printed on soccer balls in real time and launched out of billboards in City Walk in LA and Leicester Square in London. This project was sponsored by EA Sports.
- For Toyota Prius Projects, Deeplocal created a futuristic concept bike that allows users to shift gears with their minds. The bike helmet is outfitted with sensors to detect the brain’s neurological signals and communicate with the electronic gear-shifting system on the bike.
- RouteShout, a service that bus riders could use to find out next bus times by text message and smartphone, was sold to an Atlanta-based transit company. This is one of two products that Deeplocal has recently sold off.
Challenges. Like all of the companies featured in New Venturist, Deeplocal has struggled and constantly faces new struggles. While each startup is unique, including Deeplocal, it shares commonalities with other startups. Fundamentally, this is hard. Really hard. Hard to do, and hard to pull off. Nathan is doing well and Deeplocal is growing fast. But it’s not an easy road.
Nathan lists his biggest challenges:
- Culture. Nathan wants everything to be like it was in his band. He wants everyone be a part of his group. Work and friendship are intermingled. People that he works with become friends and vice versa. He puts it as, “I am still striving for the art collective. I want us all to do cool stuff, make money, and all be together.”
- Managing. Nathan is the only manager in the company. While everyone has a stake and Deeplocal wins awards for the best place to work in Pittsburgh, a lot rests on Nathan’s shoulders. He really doesn’t have a board or formal advisors.
- Growth. A big challenge is to grow but to maintain the current culture. Nathan tells me: “We use my past as a way of selling our uniqueness. So we have to continue to use that. We have been really good at grassroots marketing. It’s labor intensive but effective.”
- Mothership vs children. Deeplocal has spawned other ventures like Chalkbot and RouteShout that received a lot of press. But that was press for those products and services, not for Deeplocal. Managing the focus on the spinouts vs the source (Deeplocal) has been a challenge. Nathan tells me that “We are not building more product-based companies that will become spin outs; we are focusing on growing Deeplocal. We get paid for our ideas now, not just for building stuff.”
Conclusions. Nathan didn’t take lessons on how to do a startup. Let’s face it, many first-time entrepreneurs don’t. But he has figured some things out and his company is moving along in a very good way. I believe that much of the source of Nathan’s inspiration, leadership style, and salesmanship stems from his clear line of access to his creativity. And Nathan knows how to bring that out in others too.
Deeplocal opens their office on select Wednesday mornings to anyone to chat about whatever issue, idea, or project they’re focused on and to enjoy a tasty waffle breakfast with coffee. Get the creative juices flowing; go to Waffle Wednesdays!