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.
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“A lot of people have problems relating to Angus because he is so smart, can be direct, and has a low threshold for excuses, so they can’t slip anything by him,” he adds. “He’d say his biggest challenge is the ability to execute ideas that he knows can fix problems due to his inability to interact with people. But what some see as brash is someone who is actually caring and trying to get things done. His approach is more straightforward. Many people abuse the [union] system, and Angus is in trouble because he says it. In politics you can’t say the right thing; you have to say what people want to hear.”
Before he was revolutionizing touchtone phone systems for Tellme, Davis was suspended from Phillips Andover Academy in New Hampshire for tampering with its phone line. Davis, classmate DiOrio and a few other students discovered a redundant phone line on campus that was created in case of emergency during wartime. DiOrio says the discovery went viral after he mentioned it to members of the Spanish club and Korean student union, who started calling home for free. It took administrators months to discover the long-distance plan and cost the school tens of thousands of dollars. After the suspension, Davis attended Portsmouth Abbey School, where he credits the monks with straightening him out.
After designing what was reportedly the first Web-based college application, Davis took a year off, planning to enroll at Emory University following an internship with Netscape. Upon hearing his product pitches, Davis was offered a real job, and soon became product manager in charge of a team of twenty-five people — at age nineteen. The advantage of his age was that “instead of saying no to an idea, Angus would say, ‘Why not?’ ” says DiOrio.
“The main thing I missed by skipping college to join Netscape University was the social benefit of learning how to get along with roommates, girlfriends and the like,” Davis says. “A lot of what you learn in college is that sort of stuff, so if you skip college, you need to find other ways to learn this stuff.”
Rhode Island has always been a homing device for Davis: friends and family are paramount, and he is the consummate host. He even had a bar (“the crow’s nest”) built on the third floor of his house so friends could gather. As soon as he had the resources to work remotely, he came home. “I knew this was where I wanted to end up and where I wanted to raise a family. So I thought, ‘Why not start where I want to end up?’ Last summer, he married longtime girlfriend Joanna, a native Rhode Islander who teaches elementary school. According to Davis, her perspective and classroom experiences are part of why he is so emotionally vested in education reform.
Davis’s friends share his loyalty. Their hackles grow taut when they hear detractors, and they are bodyguards for his idealism. Countless people would like something from Davis — his time, his mind, his money — so he must prioritize. “When you have someone who’s very successful and very bright and has a lot of resources, not just monetarily, and they want to fix something as important as education, you let them in and let them do what they do best,” says DiOrio. “A lot of companies would pay a lot of money for someone of his caliber, talent and energy to tackle their problems. How many other people, who could do anything in the world, decide to spend their resources on fixing education for other people’s children?”
It would be premature for Davis to grade Swipely on its performance, but he’s “psyched” about its prospects. This niche of online marketing that attempts to influence offline purchases (where 95 percent of consumer spending occurs), could be the next big thing. “Groupon [a website that offers a local deal of the day on food, merchandise or services] is the fastest growing company ever,” says Davis. It’s the thrill of the sky’s-the-limit potential that fuels these startups and the entrepreneurs behind them.
A poster at Swipely implores Let’s make better mistakes tomorrow. “The embrace of failure and willingness to try is a key element of Silicon Valley’s success, but there’s less of that attitude in New England,” Davis notes. “People say past performance is no indicator of future results, but it is a decent indicator. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that most startups in this industry fail. There’s a sense of vulnerability that my next company won’t be the billion-dollar success that Tellme was, but I’d much rather try to do something challenging than not take that risk.”