From Google to One-Gig Opelika
A former Silicon Valley entrepreneur marries into Alabama, incubates more than 20 new enterprises, and cruises a quartet of his own startups on Opelika’s one-gigabyte fiber.
Kyle Sandler skipped college, describes himself as a “ramen noodle-eating entrepreneur” and believes anyplace in America can spawn tech greatness.
As Kyle Sandler works to turn Opelika into a startup hub, he might be surprised to learn that he shares his driving force with Booker T. Washington.
“Cast down your bucket where you are,” the Tuskegee Institute president famously declared in his 1895 speech that laid the foundation for the Atlanta compromise between blacks and Southern white leaders. In other words, make the most of any situation you find yourself in.
That’s the premise behind Round House, a business incubator Sandler opened last year near the tracks in downtown Opelika — that innovation can take root and flourish far from Silicon Valley, even in a small Southern railroad town.
Says Sandler one recent afternoon after a game of foosball in a Round House lounge room: “I speak and mentor (entrepreneurs) across the country, and I always preach ‘Start where you are.’ There are lots of resources in Anytown, USA.”
Named for the circular building for housing and switching locomotives, Round House occupies a former Woolworth’s and, more recently, an antiques mall, with 22,000 square feet of space for co-working, incubation and acceleration, user meetings, seminars and mentoring. Twenty-two companies are currently at Round House — he’d like up to 30 a year — with 11 of those in the incubator. The longest a startup can stay is two years.
“If they haven’t made it happen by then, it’s not going to happen,” declares Sandler, who, like any techie worth his salt, checks his smartphone about every three seconds.
The 39-year-old Baltimore native is so unassuming it’s hard to grasp that he held a key position at Google — where he resigned after eight years, with an enviable chunk of its stock — and has taken three multimillion-dollar technology exits.
Young moguls and entrepreneurs who eschew a suit and tie often appear to cultivate their sophomoric look. Take Mark Zuckerberg, who always appears impeccable even in hoodies and T-shirts. Sandler’s polo shirt and jeans suit him better than a suit and tie.
“I’m more of a grit-and-grind, ramen noodle-eating entrepreneur,” observes Sandler, who never attended college. “There’s a part of entrepreneurship that can’t be taught, the risk-taking part.”
Sandler moved to the Bay Area in 1996 to work in radio and lived above a popular ice cream parlor in Menlo Park where Google employees hung out. He landed a job in marketing at Google and worked with Marissa Mayer, who became Google’s president of products and is now president and CEO of Yahoo.
Assigned to open a Google office in Washington, D.C., he found he didn’t fit the stiffer D.C. culture — “Too many suits.” He sold most of his Google stock and, in 2007, started The Droid Guy, the first consumer-facing blog to provide news about Android products, which he sold in 2010 for $5 million.
He met his wife, Allie Fox, while she was writing for The Droid Guy. Once a couple, Sandler offered her the opportunity to live anywhere she desired. “Sweet Home Alabama” could have been written for Allie, who grew up in Birmingham, had family in Opelika and wasn’t about to leave her beloved state.
So they settled in Lee County and purchased the Auburn home of Trooper Taylor, the former Auburn University assistant head football coach and wide receiver coach.
Every weekday, Sandler drops their 7-year-old daughter off at school and heads to Round House. Allie recently opened MusicTown Records just a few storefronts down and drops by. Sandler’s electronic cigarette is malfunctioning and she tries unsuccessfully to fix it. Both turned to “vaping” after kicking regular cigarettes.
Round House isn’t the first time Sandler has promoted the notion that brilliant ideas can hatch outside Silicon Valley. In 2009, he started Nibletz, a blog marketed as “The voice of startups everywhere else.” He took a $2 million exit from the company in 2013 and in January 2015 bought it back for pennies on the dollar. He’s now rebuilding the devalued company out of Round House.
Round House is attracting investors and advisors, such as pioneer computer anti-virus software developer John McAfee. And Round House investor and Auburn University Management Professor David Ketchen, who says, “Kyle is the only person I know with Tim Cook’s cell phone number.” Tim Cook being CEO of Apple and a graduate of Auburn University.
“It was a very risky thing to do, opening Round House in Opelika, without knowing what the outcome would be,” admits Sandler. “It’s a giving back thing. I’m really trying to spur a startup culture here.”
He gives back in multiple ways — from mentoring young entrepreneurs to hosting a major technology conference at Round House this spring. Round House serves as a feeder system to commercial landlords in downtown Opelika and the local economy by attracting and growing technology startups, and helps grow the Opelika tax base.
In return, Sandler gets free Internet service from the city of Opelika and not just any Internet service. The city’s new fiber network is another reason Sandler favors Opelika. “Opelika is one of only seven cities with one gigabyte fiber and one of only four cities with symmetrical one gigabyte fiber, meaning it has the same speed up and down.”
Superfast Internet and free Red Bull are two of many reasons why entrepreneurs are setting up shop at Round House. Auburn Social Media founder Tyler Thompson commutes from LaGrange to operate his social media marketing startup out of Round House. Complimentary energy drinks didn’t lure him. It was the collaborative environment. “There are people to help with websites, graphic design; anything you need help with is here.”
Along with Nibletz, Sandler operates his other businesses out of Round House. Autonomous Armour is his privacy and safety software company. His company ABC Safety makes a sensor device built into an infant car seat that sends notification through a smartphone app when a child has been left in a hot or cold vehicle. He has a license agreement with Graco Children’s Products.
Still in development is Fun Funder, his crowdfunding portal that raises money to buy gifts for terminally ill children. Unlike Make a Wish, rather than experiences, children receive items they need or want, like an Xbox One.
Fun Funder could be Sandler’s most personal venture, having suffered from AML (acute myeloid leukemia) as a child. “I was a very sick kid and spent lots of time at Johns Hopkins, but I’ve been in remission for 31 years.”
On a mid-March afternoon, Sandler leaves work early to host a pool party for Round House members. Allie jokes that the party is just an excuse to heat their pool early in the season.
But first, he offers a quick tour of the capacious building. Scooters, arcade games and Red Bull dispensers are nearly as prevalent as office equipment. Clearly, all work and no play isn’t Sandler’s way to run a startup space in Railroad Town.
Jessica Armstrong and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Auburn and he in Birmingham.