He’s a tech whiz, the anti-CEO and, at thirty-two, a self-made millionaire many times over. Now, Angus Davis aims to use his golden touch to revolutionize the way we shop, make Providence the Silicon Valley of the east and — in his spare time — fix the mess that is Rhode Island’s public school system.
Photography by Pat O'Connor
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In the early nineties, Angus Davis was one of the lucky kids with an Internet connection. “I was at his house with Jonathan DiOrio,” says Seth Fandetti, who attended Providence’s Moses Brown School with Davis. “Being two fourteen-year-old boys in a room with a computer, we tried to look up some questionable material. Angus walked in, saw us and said, ‘This is the most powerful tool of the twentieth century, and this is how you two choose to utilize it?’ He was so disgusted that he walked out and sat in the other room.”
At thirty-two, Davis still reveres technology. It’s the medium for his success, but not the secret. The hidden ingredients are part genius, part mad scientist, and — as the saying goes — 99 percent perspiration. Wearing khakis and a boyish smile, he’s not typecast for a CEO and you won’t find him in a corner office. His desk is one of thirteen in a room where engineers tap code, black blinds cursing the sun’s glare. The Providence-based Swipely, a tech-based social shopping service, is his company, but being isolated or too boss-man is not Davis’s way. With his dressed-down style, sandy hair and apple-pie good looks, he’s more collegiate than corporate. Staff missives begin, “To the merry band,” and he endorses their ideas with “Sweet!” He’s often found pacing the hall in his Chuck Taylors or crouched on the fire escape, speaking staccato into his iPhone.
Davis talks at the pace his mind downloads, which is gigabytes faster than most mortals. The garage ambience of a startup feels like home: before hatching Swipely, Davis co-founded Tellme, a software and network company that is the speech recognition platform for the automated assistance you hear when dialing companies from American Airlines to Verizon and 411. (“We revolutionized those annoying touchtone systems,” he says.) He logged zombie hours, crashing in a bunk bed he built above his desk at Tellme’s headquarters, a 3,000-square-foot former auto body shop in Palo Alto, California. He was twenty-nine when Microsoft acquired the company in 2007 for what is whispered to be $900 million, give or take a million (a Forbes article during Tellme’s infancy said the tightlipped organization was known as “Don’t ask, Don’t Tellme”). After he cashed the check, Davis splurged on a used Jeep. The climax was telling his employees, the majority of whom were shareholders, that they now had global opportunities with Microsoft.
Davis could have retired. “Money has never been the motivator for Angus,” says DiOrio, who is now Swipely’s vice president of business development and “chief consigliore.” “He sleeps much better at night knowing that he’s been impactful and moved the needle, whether that’s through education, social causes or business. Smart people can make money a lot of different ways; once you have it, it’s not very motivating.”
“Sitting on a beach somewhere doesn’t interest me,” Davis agrees. “I love collectively solving a problem; you try to break it into tangible pieces and put those pieces together to overcome what initially seems like a really insurmountable challenge.” During their online application, Swipely candidates respond to a multiple choice question that asks if they could accomplish one thing in their lifetime, what would it be. The correct answer? I was on the Apollo 13 team. “The Apollo 13 was trying to get three people on the back of the moon on a broken spaceship. We’re looking for people who want to be part of a team with incredible odds stacked against them.”
NASA called the mission a “successful failure,” an ethos that Davis would like to nurture in Rhode Island. A geeky James Bond, he skis, scuba dives and owns a power boat called Rowdy. At sixteen, Davis set sail for Nantucket in his grandfather’s boat — after being denied permission for the trip. The fifteen-hour odyssey was successful but, Davis says, “I was in the doghouse for a long time.”
Davis is equally steadfast about his latest adventure. Swipely, which launched last August, allows users to “turn purchases into conversations” by linking their credit or debit cards to the site, then importing purchases and giving users the option of sharing their buys with friends on Swipely, Facebook and Twitter. Some of Davis’s friends were skeptical at first because they didn’t get the concept and security was a concern. Blippy, a Swipley competitor, was shamed when someone was able to find members’ credit card numbers using Google. Unlike Blippy, Davis’s startup doesn’t reveal the dollar amount of the transaction.
The founder explains that his business is more focused on helping people save money on purchases made offline whereas Blippy concentrates on online purchases. “For some people, participating in social media is valuable, while other people find it more compelling to save money at places they shop. One of the best ways we learn about new places and things is from our friends, people we trust. Our friends are more likely to influence our decisions than advertising — people go to Yelp and Tripadvisor to read what people say, but those reviewers aren’t your friends.”
Davis, who invested some of his own money in Swipely, won’t disclose user numbers or revenue; he says the yardstick is different for early-stage technology startups, which entail a research and development growth phase. “One subjective indicator of our success is the fact that Swipely attracted $8.5 million from Silicon Valley investors who backed eBay, Twitter and Facebook. And we’ve gone from zero to employing more than fifteen people in Providence in less than a year.” Davis defines success not by the number of users or the money they spend at businesses that use Swipely’s services. Rather, success is determined by how much value they can add to the consumer and businesses’ transaction. “If our customers are not excited and satisfied, then we won’t have the opportunity to boost revenue and stock prices or create jobs.”
The company, like many tech startups (Youtube started out as a dating service, Davis says), is constantly shape-shifting. This spring, Swipely will launch a version exclusively for the Rhode Island market. Tech businesses often roll out these products in Silicon Valley, home to a demographic known to embrace technology the rest of the country might reject. Swipely will launch a program where users can unlock rewards from local businesses: for example, they can get half off their initial purchase at a local store or cafe and accrue points for future rewards and discounts each time they shop there.
Josh Kopelman was Swipely’s first investor. The founder of Half.com and managing director of First Round Capital says his concerns about the business concept were “nothing out of the ordinary when you fund an idea from the back of a napkin. We look for entrepreneurs who are heat-seeking missiles, and that’s Angus. A missile on a launch pad is just aimed in one direction, but a heat-seeking missile is trying to find the biggest and strongest target. They’re constantly surveying the horizon, ‘Should I change course? Should I adjust my strategy?’ Angus can adapt to change: How Tellme started and how it ended up were very different.”