Hang up to hang out

This Houston app wants to connect outdoor sports hobbyists with its new platform

A brother and sister team have created a digital tool to connect people on their outdoor adventures. Getty Images

Jeff Long had plenty of professional connections, but he struggled to find a network of people with similar outdoor hobbies.

"I'm a climber and I had no good way to meet other climbers," he says.

His sister, Sarah Long, had a similar problem when she was skiing at the Whistler Resort in British Columbia.

"I was alone and I was looking for people to ski with," she says. "So, I actually got on Tinder and made it a point to say, 'Not looking for a hookup, but if you're here and want to ski, so am I.'"

The siblings weren't alone in their dissatisfaction, and, within a few months of launching Axis Earth, the Houston-based app has over 1,500 users.

The app is part location finder, part social media channel and part professional networking tool. Designed for enthusiasts and professional athletes of individual sports (think: skiing, climbing, surfing, etc.), Axis Earth connects them with others in their area who share their interests, giving them running or climbing partners.

"We use information input by the users and geolocation software to find them the best connections," explained Jeff. "And our algorithm filters through what they've provided us about their interests and level of participation or competition so we can give them the people who seem most compatible."

The app launched on Sept. 15, but the siblings have put in nearly two years of development.

"The first year was really fleshing out the idea, and creating a business plan that allowed us to feel comfortable being able to bring it to market," says Sarah.

The pair divided their tasks for creating the app based on their own strengths. Sarah, who's based in the Washington D.C. area, handles the business development, logistics, and operations. She founded her marketing and communications services firm called Breck — named after the Colorado skiing resort, Breckenridge. Jeff, who Sarah calls "the face of Axis Earth" and is naturally more outgoing, dealt with marketing and brand awareness.

She and Jeff did multiple interviews with athletes about the kinds of things they wanted to see in a site like this. Software teams spent six months building the back-end mechanisms that would put those opinions into practice. Then came all the front-end design.

The result is an app that can appeal, the Longs feel, to users across multiple disciplines and at multiple skill levels. Users select the sport they're passionate about and choose their level of of participation from beginner, intermediate, or professional.

"And for those who select professional, we independently validate that," says Sarah.

The app is designed for those who enjoy being active. Jeff said that they wanted something that would use technology to get people away from technology.

"I want people to be able to use their phones to put down their phones," he says. "Whether you're using the app to find other people who want to do what you do, or if you're looking at a photo someone posted and it inspires you to get out there and be more active."

Nesh's digital assistant technology wants to make industry information more easily accessible for energy professionals. Photo courtesy of Thomas Miller/Breitling Energy

When Sidd Gupta's friend lost his job and struggled to find a new position after the major oil downturn in 2014, Gupta noticed a systemic problem within the industry.

"A company rejected him because he was unfamiliar with the software they used in their operations," Gupta explains. "In our industry, companies will judge a potential hire's technical capabilities based on which software they know how to use rather than how good they would be at the job."

While software requirements for oilfield jobs are common, it made Gupta consider how we can make complex data and knowledge more accessible.

Gupta saw something else brewing in the energy industry that also piqued his interest.

"There was entrepreneurship in the oil and gas space and an interest in data science during the oil downturn. We saw startups created in Austin then Houston. There was an infectious entrepreneurial energy at that time," he says.

Last year, he took the entrepreneurial leap, quit his job and founded Nesh, a smart assistant like Alexa or Siri, but specifically for oil and gas companies. Nesh sources information from public data, vendor sources, technical papers, journal articles, news feeds and more to give answers to complex, technical questions related to energy.

Nesh explained
Because this tool is meant for businesses and not personal use, the software must be trustworthy, Gupta says, and he asked himself what he needs to do to make an engineer or a CEO of an energy company believe Nesh's response.

The answer: transparency. With Nesh, users can see how the smart assistant came to its answer. The software shows the data and workflow behind the answer as part of the user interface.

And Nesh learns from its users too. If an unfamiliar question is posed to Nesh, users can add new training phrases to teach Nesh what to do next time the question is posed.

"We created Nesh as something super-simple to use," Gupta says. "There's no learning curve, no technical knowledge required, you just need to speak plain English."

Gupta, who was raised in India, came to the United States to pursue his master's degree in petroleum engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. After working in oil and gas for over a decade, he started Nesh last year with co-founder and CTO Seth Anderson.

Gearing up for the future
This year, Nesh is in the process of fundraising, and, with the new funds, he plans to expand his workforce, which is currently five employees (including Gupta himself) based in Houston. Due to its size, Nesh currently can run only one pilot program at a time. With more employees, Nesh will be able to scale up its pilot programs and run multiple pilots in parallel. The larger user pool for these pilots will give Gupta and his team better insights into Nesh and allow them to continue refining the tool.

Right now, Gupta wants to commercialize in those operations where Nesh is already running pilot programs. He says he hopes for Nesh to have both internal and external growth, with the next surge of hiring and an expanded user pool for the product.

He plans to make Nesh available as a commercial product in fall of this year with a target market of small to mid-sized oil and gas companies.

Gupta says Nesh is different from anything in the market.

"With enterprise software in general, it can be very hard to get a demo version of software without talking to a sales representative—something that people dislike," he says. "I want to bring the B2C aspect of trying a software to the B2B world."

The business model goal for Nesh is for potential clients to be able to test the software themselves, Gupta says, and then contact the company if they're interested.

"I want transparent pricing to be visible on our website," he says. "I want potential customers to be able to experience the demo just by giving their information."

As Gupta sees it, one of the main advantages to being in Houston is the important support networks as well as the potential customer base. He's grateful to local organizations such as Station Houston and Capital Factory for connecting him with many resources.

"I'm seeing a lot of innovation here in Houston," Gupta says. "There's a lot of oil and gas companies, so as we begin looking for potential customers, that's a very important advantage of being here."