BLOCKY’s mission is to help people trust data by making it easier for companies to secure user data using blockchain-based immutability. We sat down with CEO Taylor Heinecke to learn how BLOCKY got started.
Q: We're just going to start off with question one: your name, age, business name and location?
A: My name is Taylor Heinecke. I am 33 years old. My company is BLOCKY Inc. and we're based in Bozeman, Montana.
Q: Can you tell me more, what is BLOCKY Inc.?
A: BLOCKY helps people trust data. We do this by leveraging blockchain technology to create a suite of tools that help people see the history of data, what has happened over time to data that they're using to make business decisions or gain business insights.
Q: Tell me about your role with that business, position, title and what you do?
A: I am the CEO of BLOCKY, but we're a pretty small company at this point. We've got four employees. I manage, generally speaking, I manage business outreach, looking for new business opportunities, the financials, a lot of sales and marketing. Pretty much any hat that I have to wear at any point in time is what I'll be doing on that day.
Q: Startup world. Could you just explain yourself in a couple sentences as well?
A: I have always been interested in business and it's starting businesses. I have a degree in writing, which eventually led me to working at a tech company here in Bozeman. At the tech company I worked with my first developer and I thought that looked like a pretty cool job. So I went back and got a master's in computer science and out of some of those connections we started researching blockchain technology with some MSU professors. And it is those two professors, Dave Millman and Mike Wittie, who became the founding partners of BLOCKY with myself.
Q: That actually leads me to my next question: how did you get into this business and what was the moment you decided to do it? So that is a good jump in point for us.
A: So I went back for a master's in computer science to MSU. When I was going, I thought, what is the coolest thing I could possibly do with understanding any computer science? And obviously that was robots, and so I did all this research into it. Obviously. Right? I did all this research and started working on some robotics teams and got my feet wet that way and just over time realized that if I would drag my feet, I would procrastinate. I was not having fun in that world of artificial intelligence and machine coding, things like that. And so that was about halfway through my master's and I was like, "Well shoot, what am I going to do? This doesn't seem like it's working out."
Right about that time is when Athyrium, which is a blockchain that hosts programmable code, started becoming really popular. This was early 2017, so I started getting into it and it pulled together a lot of really interesting ideas, like game theory and distributed systems, which is how computers vote or even just communicate with each other. It brought a lot of my passions into things, like more of a human element in computing, and so I got really excited about that. I started talking to different groups of professors on ways that this could be brought into a research program and eventually I landed with two professors, David Millman and Mike Wittie, who were also passionate about blockchain technology with me.
We were working on my master's research projects, but also wondering how we could leverage this technology into something that we could build a business around. We kicked around a bunch of bad ideas until something surfaced and eventually applied for an NSF, National Science Foundation SBIR phase one grant, that became the seed funding for BLOCKY, and we've been working on this company for approximately two years.
Q: What was that first year like? Was it focused on getting the SBIR funding? Was it building out the concept?
A: It was identifying a worthy project that we could pitch to the NSF. Even before that, it was identifying funding that we could get. So we identified some funding, worked really hard to figure out a good problem to work on as a startup company and then wrote the grants. In that time we actually started our The LLC was BLOCKY McChainerson and that started in January 2019.
And then that company lasted until we just changed over to a corporation. So now we're BLOCKY Inc. But that first year was just a lot of ideation, a lot of spit balling different ideas, and then finally writing the grant, which took a substantial amount of time as well. That was all during my master's, so there was a lot of that going on too.
Q: So you've mentioned those two professors and this next question is focused on inspiration. I'm wondering if it was them or if there was anyone in particular that inspired you to create BLOCKY?
A: That's a really good question. I think the first one that comes to mind is my dad. I remember when I was in my undergraduate, early 20s, maybe even late teens, I had this moment of realization that my dad is pretty awesome. He accomplished a lot of really cool things. He was a business owner himself for a really long time. He was a mechanical engineer. Eventually he set that business aside and got picked up by another engineering group in Montana and then led this mechanical and electrical team and he's done a really good job with that.
So that really inspired me to start actually pushing pretty hard in life. I was originally shooting out. I thought that farming was a really cool way to go. I was writing grants around starting farms. I was able to start one farm and that was my real first sink into, how do I get a project off the ground just by myself? What does it take to do that? I worked on that farm for a while. Eventually I transferred back in the hands of the actual owners of the farm and I stayed on to just help out with the different processes.
But at one point the owner of the farm, the actual owner of the land was like, "You need to go do something more substantial." And not that farming's not substantial, but I think he saw me sinking my teeth deeper, deeper into this project that he didn't see having a real tangible end goal. So that was actually a really weird and hard conversation. But it turned out to be another one of these watershed moments where I was like, "Oh, I should go do something harder."
I'd always tried to differentiate myself or tried new things and get after stuff. But oftentimes when you're in your early 20 and you're spitballing big ideas, people brush you aside and don't really take you seriously. And that couples was working at this other tech company here in town at the time was like, I should go back and get a really hard master's, have a degree in writing, but why don't I go back and get something that if someone's like, "Oh, you're just an idealistic 20 something" or "30 something" or however they want to do it, it's like, "No, I can stand on some very strong technical background."
That was the inspiration for getting a master's in computer science. But since then, there was a watershed moment with the owner of the farm, going back to college and then I am constantly floored by the level of intelligence and the pure ingenuity of my coworkers. Right now we're in the middle of writing another grant. I do have a decent background in writing, but every time my work gets reviewed by them, I'm just taking a step back and humbled again by just how brilliant the people are around me. So I would say those are some of the biggest inspirations in my life.
Q: With that being said then, success, how will you define or how do you define success professionally with BLOCKY?
A: Obviously we want to make sustainable lives for ourselves. But I think now is one of the best times to ask that question, because we're faced with what does success look like in general? I look around at a lot of the systems that are in place in our economy and wonder if there is a huge imbalance in incentives. So I was happy in my early 20s to start a farm and just be able to live off that farm, you know? And I don't think my goals have changed a whole lot. Now that I have two kids and a mortgage, there is more money that's required to make that happen.
But I think that success is more, for me, aligned with being able to do what I'm passionate about and being able to lean into what I'm doing and not be stifled by forces around me that maybe say, "Hey, you can't do that", or "Hey, that's not worth it, or "You're just spinning your wheels on something that's not going to do anything." I think that being able to be creative and work hard and do that sustainably is probably the biggest success I could ask for as a person.
So if BLOCKY were to go in a great direction, I would love to be financially capable of continuing to run this company. And if there's more to that, if there's more success in that, that's awesome. But I think the biggest thing is just being able to wake up everyday and be excited about the projects I'm working on.
Q: It's all about your perception, what your reality is. That was a great answer though, Taylor. With that being said, what's been your most important skill that you've developed by being a business owner?
A: I think communication is, I think it's probably what a lot of people would say, but it's just like this onion. I went to college to get a degree in writing because everyone was saying that was the most important thing you could do as a person is be a good writer. I thought it would apply generally to a lot of things and then thought I was a decent writer or a communicator out of that. Since then I constantly started peeling, getting into further layers of this where it's like, man, it just gets so deep. Being able to communicate effectively is your biggest challenge all the time.
I'm right in the middle of writing this grant and so getting the ideas out on paper is just something I'm doing constantly right now. But man, is it a constant struggle to get better and better and better at it. It's not like getting a degree in writing makes you good at it. It's a life skill that will never stop being a huge challenge.
Q: Well let's stay with that for a minute then, in that resource of communication. What are some of your resources for developing your communication skills that you could share? Whether it's online courses or working with other people or just taking track of what are those communication pieces I'm doing with my teams or what are resources you use to keep developing your communication skills?
A: In BLOCKY specifically, there's two I would point out that are really huge. One is to have people around you that constantly challenge you to communicate better. For me, I get nervous when I have to come back to the company and say, "Okay, here's my sections of this grant that I've written", or "I've got this really important email to send out. I want you guys to take a look at this and give me feedback", because I'm around super effective communicators all the time. They always have good ideas on changing things and so just having people to bounce those ideas off of and get feedback on, I'm constantly inspired by the people around me in regards to that.
The other one is project management, and this is specifically brand new to me in BLOCKY, but it's a skill that I'm surprised isn't taught more. Especially at the college level, especially around computer science and software engineering. But I think that project management is something that every worker should be good at. If you came into a company with zero skills but you could work in a team, you would be way better than the flip side of that. One thing at BLOCKY is that we have spent so much time putting together really detailed, really explicit project management routines that guide every decision making process. They guide how we make long term goals down to how I decide task to task what I'm doing.
I think that's this really crucial piece of communication that helps things flow super well in a team of people and I'm a huge, huge, huge advocate for project management and agile software development and all these buzzwords.
Q: Lean and agile methodologies work. There's a reason they work, right? I agree with you completely. We're going to shift gears a little bit. We're going to talk about quitting. Have you ever thought about quitting? If so, can you tell us the story?
A: Well, I don't know. I think that I'm one of the unique people that just never sees anything as an end. It's always just a journey. I don't know if that's unique or not. I don't mean to sound like I'm tooting my own horn on it, but how I look at... I know my partner, she is fantastic and I'm inspired by her all the time as well. But sometimes she'll invest time or energy into something and it won't come to fruition and it's like, "Oh, that was wasted effort", or something. And for me, I think it's more about never, nothing is ever a wasted effort. You're always constantly gaining skills or knowledge or challenging yourself. And that doesn't really ever stop. So quitting for me, I don't know if I ever do see it as quitting. I guess I see it as a series of transitions on things. I hope that doesn't come across like a dodger.
Q: No, I don't think so. I think that that goes back to your earlier answer of perception and you're basically saying your unique perception of the experiences mean that the outcomes are never at an endpoint and never relate negatively. You can always transition them into something positive. I think that's a great message to take to our audience for sure.
A: I guess maybe it's that it's not so much that there's no quitting, but it's also, there's no ending. There's no succeeding either. It's a journey, there's no end point. It's just get happy with what you're doing and don't worry about how the outcome is. The outcome is the process.
Q: We're going to move on to the next one. Talking about struggles. What was a struggle that made you feel like you needed someone or extra support to help you during BLOCKY's creation or during the business as usual?
A: I think probably the biggest day to day struggle is balancing my home and work life. These are two things I'm immensely passionate about and I want them to compliment each other really well. The fact is that when you're a founder and you set your schedule like it's not a problem to work at three in the morning and then take more time off for your family, it balances these things. But it’s one thing to say that, it's a whole other thing to do it and realize that you can create these balances. You can make it challenging for yourself to manage all of that if you're not supported.
The person that helps me through those kinds of struggles is definitely my wife. She is so, so, so good at understanding that things are dynamic. Appreciating the benefits of being dynamic and how we can get things done. Then just communicating between each other for expectations and needs and wants and stuff like that. I think that she is a crucial element of my own support and without her and my family it would be really, really, really hard to manage all of it.
Q: Yes, that's a shout out to all the moms out there. I agree completely. Last couple of questions, a little bit more focused on C2M. What unexpected value did you gain from going through the C2M accelerator program?
A: I worked really closely with Joe Fanguy and Jeremy Brown on the whole thing. And honestly I didn't know that I was going to come out liking those guys so much. Not that I had a bad taste in my mouth going into it or anything, but honestly I'm to the point with those two guys that I'll call them up when I have a question at this point. They're such a good resource, but I've just developed a really strong friendship with those guys.
Even in a sale for BLOCKY products, I'm never looking to just hand over something and call it done. I want to make a friend out of somebody because they're going to be the advocate that sticks with you over time. But those two especially were just so reciprocal in that mindset that I've been able to lean back on them multiple times since C2M ended and pitch to them and say, "Hey, what do you think?" Or say, "Hey, I don't know what's going on. I don't know what terms to look out for. Could you help me? Could you point me to some blogs?" And they both almost instantly, every time come back with really solid answers. I think it's because we've grown close and grown our friendship.
Q: They are awesome guys. What's one big accomplishment your company has had since going through the accelerator?
A: Big accomplishment. One, we came into Missoula for the culmination of the C2M incubator and it was this event where we spent a bunch of time with Jeremy and he gave us the whole rundown on what venture capital investment looks like. We joke internally that this was the birds and the bees talk for entrepreneurs, where we all walked in as little business boys and we all walked out as businessmen.
It was this watershed moment in BLOCKY where it was like, okay, this is what an investor wants to see, this is how we need to be thinking about our company in long term stretches. It comes back to incentives. These are the incentives that everyone's working around. It was a huge pull back the covers moment for us as a company. That was really big in terms of our growth internally. I also met a bunch of investors through that whole thing. I think that our pitch and our presence at that event, especially being honed with Joe and Jeremy leading up into that, really kicked off a bunch of conversations.
We're literally working on this same stuff right now that emerged out of that event, so this could be the forward path for BLOCKY. I think that it's likely going to be the forward path of BLOCKY that emerged out of some of the connections made through that. It was huge.
Q: Back to last two questions. What is one piece of advice that you'd give another business owner that is about to join an accelerator?
A: Just be tenacious. This is something that I constantly work on, but don't let your inner fear that you're going to be bugging someone or that you're taking too much of someone's time. I mean, maybe you can probably take this too far too, but go get what you need and go leverage the people that are around you to get what you need. I think that the incubator did a great job of finding, matching, bringing people that they really wanted to help. So when we needed help with this or that, not being afraid to just go and ask for it and not being afraid to be like, "Oh, am I stepping out of my lane to go ask for something that we've never talked about before."
That for me was a big thing for this incubator, and also other incubators that we've looked at where it's like maybe you get matched up with someone. This was not the case with C2M, but we were looking at a different incubator and maybe you’d get matched up with someone that actually isn't a great fit. Go back and be honest with the people who put on an incubator and be like, "Hey, I want to get matched up with this other person. I think they are more in line."
And that's not being rude. That's actually coming back to them and being like, "I want to leverage you guys in the best way possible", which is the reason it was set up. So don't get too nervous about knowing what you need and asking for it.
Q: Last question. Any last words on C2M, startup life or life in general?
A: I was really happy with C2M. We came out of there with a ton of good connections, with a bunch of new friends, and had a lot of growth as a person in a company through that whole process. I think that life is just a never ending series of cool events. So getting to leverage that cool event with those awesome people was a big part of it.
Thank you for sharing your story with us, Taylor!
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