NC IDEA announced its Spring 2014 grant winners on June 5, 2014. This piece is part of a series of stories on the six winners. Read about them all here.
Fred Stutzman is a technologist who took a break from industry in 2006 to dive into the study of social media. And once there, he saw its biggest drawback—constant connectivity affected our ability to work.
During graduate school at the University of North Carolina, Stutzman began to struggle with the exact problem he was studying—Facebook was distracting him so he began to study at a coffee shop without wi-fi access. But when wi-fi became available there, he knew a different solution would be necessary.
And that’s when he started creating his own solution. He built two apps starting in 2008: Freedom, which locks you from the Internet completely (while still providing access to services like Dropbox and Spotify), and Anti-Social, which lets you pick and choose which sites and applications to block. Over time, he released versions for multiple devices.
A business grew almost by accident. A full-time professor until last year, he worked on the apps during evenings and weekends. When he hit 50,000 paying customers and saw growing interest from people struggling with the distraction problem, he quit teaching, officially launched 80 Percent Solutions and moved to the startup incubator, Launch Chapel Hill. He took advantage of the mentoring service provided by SCORE.
Stutzman applied for an NC IDEA grant to help convert the entire software suite into a cloud-based service available for any device for a monthly fee (like between $5-9). To make that happen, he’ll use the funds to pay two additional full-time workers to start this summer. One will be dedicated to marketing. Stutzman expects to raise a round of funding in the fall.
There are competitors in the field, businesses focused on restricting others (like parents and kids or teachers and students) and some copycats. Stutzman believes he can stay ahead with the product upgrades.
“What we’re trying to do with the next version is really put a tremendous amount of distance between us and anybody who is competing,” he says. “No one is doing this on multiple devices and on the scale that we’re doing it.”
NC IDEA reviewer John Cambier calls Stutzman “a really compelling entrepreneur who really knows his business.”
Judges were impressed by his early traction with little marketing. It’s still hard to tell how big the idea is, Cambier says. How many of us are willing to pay to stay focused?
Stutzman admits it’s not a solution right for everyone, and it’s not full-proof. But the company’s name explains his thinking on the matter. It refers to the 80/20 Rule, that making a simple change can have a big difference.
“We’re pushing back on the notion that your devices should constantly distract you,” he says.