Houston software startup pivots to provide digital networking solutions

What started as a way to protect your company from a sketchy business partner has turned into a digital networking tool. Getty Images

Several years ago, David Grimes had a business partner who played dirty. It wasn't until the trial that followed the business wrongdoing that Grimes discovered the man had a history of cheating companies out of money. Grimes envisioned a software service that used public information to research potential investors or associates before signing on the dotted line of a partnership.

"I wanted to find a tool that would alleviate that pain and that risk of doing business," Grimes says. "I couldn't find that tool."

When Grimes met private investigator, Daniel Weiss, at a Christmas party, he picked his brain about this idea of vetting business partners or investors. Turns out, that's exactly what Weiss did already. Together, the two co-founded Houston-based Snap Diligence, a software-as-a-service company that uses its custom algorithm to digitally investigate these potential associates.

The technology would data mine various public information avenues, such as Secretary of State documentation of business owners, managers, and directors, state district court records, and insurance records. It would look at all filings and legal cases of both the person and all the companies they have been associated with. It would even look at that person's contacts and see who you have in common and who you don't know about.

Unintended technology
Now that the tool the Grimes wanted finally existed, and Snap Diligence went into beta in April of 2017. The team reached out to all ages and industries to use the software. In January of 2018, they reconvened and looked at who was using the tool and how they were using it.

"They were mostly people in their 30s," Grimes says. "I didn't think they would have enough experience with risk to appreciate the tool. But what they were using it to connect to new opportunities."

Snap Diligence allowed the users to access new business connections and potential clients based on their already established networks.

"It's not LinkedIn where you sat next to your connection four years ago at a breakfast club," Grimes says. "This is information on people who are actually involved in a business together."

A banker approached Grimes and asked him to datamine all his clients to see all the potential business he could have by finding other companies a client is involved in but that doesn't yet use the bank for.

So, with this new tool, Snap Diligence pivoted about 3 to 4 months ago and now looks at first and second degree of existing relationships for the purpose of targeting new business clients.

"We started running this customer analysis work — and we had to rework our algorithm some — to spit out this batch mining process for customers and how you expand an existing customer relationship into a new opportunity," Grimes says.

The tool has been most popular with commercial insurance and commercial banking, Grimes says. Private equity has been a big player too, although it's not as big as a proponent since they have smaller client bases.

Growth plans on the horizon
The company has a few major clients coming in, Grimes says, and also expects to be able to mine third degree connections soon too. Snap Diligence operates in several states, but as more information is able to be pulled in, the tool will soon grow to more markets.

"SEC data is something we want to add fairly quickly, as well as real estate data," Grimes says. "The key is just importing more and more data that can further fill in the picture of someone's footprint."

With growth on the mind, Grimes recognizes that Houston has with venture and talent. Both are aspects the local innovation community has but needs more of.

"We have plenty of talent here in Houston, but it's harder to find the talent that doesn't mind going into a startup with the risk that comes with it," Grimes says. "Finding the right talent is difficult."

Coding camps continue to grow and expand in Houston. The most recent comes from the University of Texas. Getty Images

As Houston's innovation ecosystem grows, the need for tech talent grows too. It's why the University of Texas and workforce accelerator Trilogy Education decided to bring a series of coding boot camps designed to teach Houstonians the skills they need to excel in the fast-paced world of the tech economy to town.

"Too many working adults lack the skills to succeed in the digital economy," says Liliya Spinazzola, the senior director for professional education and strategic initiatives at the Texas Extended Campus of The University of Texas at Austin. "And that means that employers are lacking a talent pool."

The Houston Coding Boot Camp aims to change all that. The 24-week sessions teach web development and coding skills, allowing adults to take classes even as they're working. That kind of flexibility helps them increase their knowledge as they continue to build career paths.

Houston's seen a good amount of growth when it comes to new coding camps. Digital Crafts, for instance, grew from an inaugural class of eight students to 125 people in just two years. Women Who Code saw a need for female coders in Houston to have a network, and now the city has a newly launched chapter.

Student success
So far, 260 students have completed the programs, going on to work at companies such as JP Morgan, IBM, and Deloitte.

One of those is Rebecca Gemeinhardt, now a full stack developer at Shell. She graduated with her bachelor's in graphic arts from the Kansas City Art Institute in 2017, and found that she missed being in a classroom. When she started the boot camp, she was immediately drawn to the challenge the subject matter offered, as well as the flexible schedule.

"The boot camp was just as formidable as the curriculum promised but extremely fulfilling," she says. "Going into boot camp, I didn't tell anyone I was doing it — what if I struggled and couldn't get through it? I kept it a secret until I found the confidence to identify as a developer."

Once she completed the program, she was hired at Shell.

"My life had changed so much in just six months but definitely for the better," Gemeinhardt says. "By focusing on the ability to adopt new technologies, [the coding boot camp instructors] left us with the invaluable skill of being adaptable and fast-learning full stack developers. This has helped me immensely at my current position as we are always incorporating new languages to our architecture depending on individual project needs."

Filling the need
Spinazzola says the camps deliberately try to create environments that foster the level of problem solving and exploration Gemeinhardt describes. The program partners with employers to discover what skills are most needed, and tailors the curriculum to dovetail with them. She says the skills most in demand right now are coding, cyber security, IT project management, and digital marketing.

"We also look at job description data here in Texas to see what skills are listed," she says. "And while students are in the program, we have a robust network that engages with them upfront, talking to them about what jobs are out there. And we host career fairs where they can show off their portfolios and discuss their skills set with potential employers."

Spinazzola says that students come from all walks of life and employment backgrounds, and that 26 percent of the participants are women. With 25 students per boot camp session, the small classes make for deep instruction. UT offers between three and fours sessions in Houston each year. She says that she finds participants are looking to either break into the tech sector, learn new skills or re-train to be able to advance their careers. The average age of students is somewhere in the low-30s, she says.

"We had a student who owned a cooking school and wanted to start a new career," she says. "[Rebecca] trained as a graphic artist and wanted to be a developer. One student shut down his medical practice and says that he wanted to learn coding so that he could go work for a pharmaceutical company. To me, that's the beauty of this program. These skills are in demand, and our students are able to take what they already know and enhance their abilities to be able to take on new career paths."