Chris Bunnell has worked at a host of startups over the years, always drawn to the opportunity to take a clean slate and create something of value, something that solves someone’s problem, and potentially something that outlasts him.
“I feel personally that this is a way to potentially leave a contribution behind,” he said.
His current startup UniteGPS is a cloud-based solution that allows school districts and the parents of students to track the location of school buses via desktop or a mobile app. The company continues to improve the product, which it calls Crosswalk, and plans to add a feature that allows school bus drivers to track the students who get on and off the bus. UniteGPS has also recently launched a similar product to help public transit companies and their customers track their buses in real-time. Bunnell anticipates the company will reach $1.5 million in revenue this year.
Chris wass a former assistant administrator of Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, he left that job in 2000 to join his first startup, a company called HealthWatch Technologies, which had grown out of some work being done in the Medicaid program in Maine. That company eventually sold to Optum, a division of United Healthcare. After that, Bunnell worked at a few more startups, one of which he founded himself. In 2014, he was working as part of a team of developers at the University of California San Diego Supercomputer Center when he became intrigued by the possibilities of GPS technology. He fixated on how schools pick up and drop students with its fleet of buses, organized some friends he worked with at the supercomputer center to build a beta software product that could help school districts and parents track buses. He and three cofounders launched the company in April 2014.
In this interview, Bunnell speaks candidly about the personal challenges of working at a startup, why he hasn’t taken outside money from investors, the silver lining of bootstrapping, and his advice for new entrepreneurs.
What do you like most about the startup journey?
To me it’s really interesting. It’s stimulating. The fact you have a completely clean slate, you’re faced with a problem that really no one has solved in the way that you need to solve it. If someone else has solved it you’re just reinventing the wheel. So trying to do something that’s truly innovative, that helps people in a new way, that’s hopefully a better way. I feel personally that this is a way to potentially leave a contribution behind. That’s what I really like about it.
What are your lessons learned
You learn a million things along the way. You never know it all. That’s for sure. You run across problems and figure out how to solve them. So you become a really good generalist at solving random problems that come your way, but you never get to be a master of a single domain. You’re sort of an utility infielder, so to speak. You can play first base, third base, outfield, you can catch, maybe you can pitch a game. You kind of have to as an entrepreneur, right? You have to be the accountant, you have to be the marketing person, the sales person, the idea person. I don’t think it gets easier. You just become better at solving problems, but the problems might become more difficult.
At some point are founders ever prepared for startup life?
Prepared? No. But I think there’s a semi-delusional nature to all entrepreneurs. What could possible go wrong? I think most entrepreneurs that are successful aren’t completely based in reality—they’re somewhat based in reality. I think there’s a denial component of being an entrepreneur. I mean, hell, when I was 20 years old and in college thinking I’d start my own business, I thought I was completely prepared. I had no idea I wasn’t. But I would have to prepare myself along the way.
What’s been the largest challenge you and your team have faced in starting UniteGPS?
We bootstrapped and we’ve made this happen on our own resources. In the past, I’ve been in organizations that have had resources and I think there’s a tendency to solve problems with cash. I’ll give an example. We needed a component built for our system. A part of our solution was breaking down for actual live customers. So I found someone in Florida that could solve that; it was going to be $15,000 and the problem was going to be fixed. Well, we didn’t have $15,000 laying around, but we needed to solve this problem. So with some cooperation from my partners and thinking this through and finding a specific person overseas who was able to help us at an incredibly discounted price—at a price they could be comfortable earning—we were able to build that component for $2,200, and we were able to do it out of the cash we had at the time.
If I had been with one of these bigger companies that had some venture capital, hell we would have blown the $15,000 on day one when we had that opportunity. But we didn’t. So you find these ways around. I think there’s a tendency in life and in startups to solve problems with cash. If you have it laying around, it’s so easy to write a check and make the problem go away. So as a result we’ve been able to bootstrap this. We’ve tried to work off the cash flow we have from existing customers. That’s the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced: trying to bootstrap a company.
Have you raised any money from outside investors?
We haven’t. We looked at raising money and we went through the Maine Angels and we talked to CEI and the Maine Venture Fund and the usual suspects, but it became apparent to us that the rules are a bit onerous. They want to make a nominal investment, take 15% of your company and then control it. Well, there’s no way I’m letting that happen after everything we’ve done to get where we are. We probably could use some cash, but we would only do it for an investor who wants to roll up their sleeves and sit at the table just like the rest of the partners. No one is going to waltz in with a check and think they’re going to be running the show. That would defeat everything we’ve worked for. Not that there can’t be valuable contributions from an outside perspective, but we’ve all seen the Steve Jobs movie one too many times and we think to ourselves, ‘Nope, we can’t let that happen.’
Any personal challenges have you faced in running a startup?
Personally, your life goes through different phases and different people are in your life and I think for sure you can’t be highly successful if you’ve got chaos going on. If you have uncertainty and people who aren’t contributing or allowing you to do your work… if people are getting in your way and making demands of you as an entrepreneur, you’re screwed.
Tell me how your company gained traction in the first few years.
We started out doing pilots for free and you start to talk to people and, more importantly, to listen to what they’re telling you and really try to stand in their shoes and understand what they’re trying to solve. Our first paid customer was Lewiston Public Schools. They had a situation in the news where it was one bitterly cold morning a few years ago and a bunch of the buses wouldn’t start and they weren’t able to get the word out to the people on the streets, so there were thousands of kids left in the streets of Lewiston in this negative 30 degree weather and they were never getting picked up because these buses were still in the yard. So I made contact with the superintendent and he was willing to take a chance on our solution, so we started working with them. Once you have a customer, life becomes a little easier.
We then got Lisbon Falls here in Maine and from there we were picked up by U.S. Cellular. So U.S. Cellular is obviously trying to sell cellular service and they came to me and said, ‘Well, geez, we’re finding it difficult to sell the next cell phone or tablet because everyone has one, so we’re trying to expand in other ways, like these data connections you need for your solution. So would you be interested to talk with our folks in Chicago about us potentially reselling your solution?’ I thought that was great, so we started to work them and we ultimately signed an agreement with them and they became a reseller of our product around the country.
Suddenly we go from a couple customers to having a channel marketing agreement with a Fortune 500 company that has 133 business-to-business sales reps who have received a presentation about our product and are talking to schools in their footprint about our product. Then pretty soon Verizon figured this out and we get contacted through some of their partners to become a Verizon preferred partner and we started to work with them and they start to generate more leads.
We started 2016 with a single paid customer and at the end of the year we had 22 school districts from around the country. Of course, it’s cyclical with schools and their budgets, so you have to wait until the next year [before you can sign more schools]. So since last year’s season ended we’ve been in front of more than 200 school districts.
So that’s the product you call Crosswalk. You also recently released a new product for public transit companies. How did that come about?
Last October, U.S. Cellular brought a transit company in Washington state to the table called Gray’s Harbor. Gray’s Harbor had seen our mobile application for parents at a school district in Washington and were friendly with that transportation director and asked him how much it costs and they thought that price was pretty fair. They had just went out to bid for 29 transit buses and the lowest bid was in the $300,000 range and some were as high as $500,000. They said, ‘We thought we’d talk with you to see if you’d be willing to work with us. We’ll give you the knowledge to tweak your system to work for transit, you tweak it for us and then give us the nice price point you get for schools.’ We said okay and so we started working with them. They turned out to be fabulous partners, really knowledgeable.
One of the things that was important for me was how do we advance the science. We don’t want just another transit app. It needs to be better in some sort of material way, so one of the things you discover is that Google has got involved with this a few years ago and they created something called GTFS—Google Transit Real-Time Data Feed. But as it turns out, what they call real time isn’t really real time, it’s delayed time.
Imagine you have a device in a transit bus—most of those devices are updating every 30 seconds. In other words, reporting its location. Once that coordinate is reported, Google only picks it up every 30 seconds, so if you’re a person on the street your coordinate is going to be at least 30 seconds late and it could be as much as a minute late depending on where in the 30-30 cycle you fall.
So with our system we’ve not used the Google method, which is pretty much being used by everyone across the country. We’re putting our own device on a vehicle and it’s reporting to us every 5 seconds. So literally if you’re looking at our app and it’s telling you the bus is coming around the corner, the bus is coming around the corner pronto. It’s not going to be in 30 seconds, 60 seconds, 90 seconds, it’s going to be in two seconds. So that was the major innovation we brought to the table. We built this on the cloud, so anyone could use it. Once you build something on the cloud these days, it’s super cheap. You build it once and then it’s copy and paste for everyone else, so it becomes a very, very cost effective solution for transit companies. Since we’ve launched that, we’ve been in discussion with about 30 different transit companies around the country and most of them are very eager to move over to our solution.
If you could give two pieces of advice to someone thinking of starting their own business, what would they be?
Write your plan, write your plan, write your plan. I think that’s the number one mistake people make. They wander in nonchalantly and maybe over time figure out a plan, but if you really take the time to think through the important questions, what are we offering, why is it better, why would people choose us, what do the finances look like, who are we going to sell to, why would those people buy from us. All those business plan questions. I think it’s the last thing most people want to do, but it’s really the first thing that needs to be done because until you have a plan, you don’t’ have a plan.
And I think you have to have someone by your side who knows what they’re doing. Somebody’s been down your road and made a million mistakes and can say, ‘hey, that’s a landmine, don’t step on it.’ I mean, it may seem simple, but people who have done it before can easily do it again, the people who have never done it before are just guessing where the landmines are.
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