JBJ: UNF alumni get venture backing for tech startup

UNF alumni get venture backing for tech startup

Jordan Walker and Hunter McKinley had something in common when they enrolled at the University of North Florida in 2013. At 17 years old, both were among the youngest in their class.

When they graduated, the pair, who roomed together for three years, had another commonality: a determination to work at their own company. As co-founders of YAC, along with CEO Justin Mitchell, the pair have already achieved that goal.

The pair worked at SoFriendly, an Orlando-based app developer founded by Mitchell, before launching their latest venture. Mitchell also previously founded NXT-ID Inc. (Nasdaq: NXTD), a company he took public in 2013.

Their product was created at SoFriendly for an online hackathon called Product Hunt in 2018. The product, an audio app somewhere between a conference call and a walkie-talkie, came about as an idea for SoFriendly's employees, many of whom work remotely. They dubbed it Yelling Across Cubicles, or YAC.

To SoFriendly's surprise, the product was a hit, winning the "Remote Workers" category and hitting a peak of a download a minute. Their prize: a 3D-printed cat trophy.

The victory also caught the attention of Silicon Valley investors, like BoostVC. Walker, McKinley and Mitchell decided to go all in with YAC, spinning it out as its own product.

The trio rebuilt the app, changing from synchronous communication, like a phone call, to asynchronous, like a voice memo, and adding features, like transcription. It also raised $275,000 in a pre-seed round and launched a beta used by CVS, Bleacher Report, Hubspot, Mailchimp, Invision, CBS and others.

The founders plan to move from beta to an invite-only platform soon and hope to close on a $2-3 million seed round this winter. They feel they've hit upon a niche in the collaboration space.

"Collaboration tools are becoming popular, but most are focused on real-time," said Walker. "That inadvertently promotes busyness."

Asynchronous communication gives power back to employees, Walker said, because they can get to collaborative work on their own time, rather than aligning their schedules to meeting or call times. Audio messages also convey tone more clearly than text, he noted.

YAC is unconcerned with the 800 pound gorilla in the room, Slack.

"A lot of people have told us, 'It's going to be hard to get people off of Slack,'" said McKinley. "That's not what we're doing. We're working alongside it."

YAC allows users to transcribe their audio messages directly into Slack, he noted.

The YAC team, which is about 10 employees (two in Jacksonville), is nimble because of their experience at SoFriendly, Walker added.

"We've built products for the last five years," Walker said. "We know that process."

Walker and McKinley have also leveraged their resources in Jacksonville, turning to UNF Coggin College of Business Dean Mark Dawkins and PS27 CEO Jim Stallings for guidance.

"Hopefully through YAC, this gives us the opportunity to help UNF and put it and Jacksonville more on the map for tech," said Walker.

By Will Robinson

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