Despite strides in business technology, acquiring credentials is still a manual process that can take weeks — a virtual lifetime in the current on-demand consumer climate.
That’s a problem Pingle wants to remedy. The Seattle startup uses a patent-pending machine learning verification engine to instantly provide credentials for professionals in maritime, construction, medical and other industries.
“We all come from places where everyone knew each other,” said Pingle CEO RedWolf Pope. “Our goal is to bring that same ‘small town’ trust we grew up with, to the global internet.”
Pope left behind a congressional fellowship and career as a tribal attorney to co-found Pingle with Kristian Alcaide, who left a position at Paul Allen’s investment firm, Vulcan.
We caught up with Pope for this Startup Spotlight.
Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “Pingle verifies peoples credentials, lets employers check compliance, and offers renewal options when they expire. So we facilitate communication with workers, employers and schools, but we also verify everyone and each credential, so that trust is added to the equation. It is complex, so I actually showed my parents this video about what we do.”
Inspiration hit us when: “We began as an idea for professionals to network (Professionals who Mingle = Pingle.) Our value proposition became that we would pre-verify an individuals’ credentials so you can trust the members you meet up with. Then inspiration hit when we realized how powerful automated verification was and based on user feedback, we discovered that several industries are certification-heavy and therefore needed verification the most.”
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “Bootstrap. HR automation and compliance was not trendy when we began, luckily we were ahead of the curve and the potential of this area has become more apparent over the past year. Additionally, Seattle is a younger fundraising market than Silicon Valley, so we have begun seeking out the angels and groups in the area, who fund big ideas at early stages. We are blessed that we have the resources in our founding team to bootstrap longer than most teams, so we don’t have to rush anything. We made a choice as a team to be strategically selective. We are now beginning to meet with investors, highly regulated industry representatives but have remained heavily focused on our customers.”
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “Our Double Verification Engine. We have a fully operational ‘Pingle Score’ which scans social and web data and uses machine learning to verify credentials instantly, and a second engine, which can find data not on the web, so we know we aren’t talking to someone’s roommate. This had never been done before. Hence the patents.
Additionally, I would have to say our other secret ingredients are our team members. Myself, who grew up in a Shoshone camp in the desert and became a recruiter and then tribal attorney, Amber Michel, a high ranking Native American female officer in the Merchant Marines, Kristian Alcaide, a Latina who came from being a political refugee to working at Vulcan managing a portfolio of entities and assessing their compliance, and Abed Jawad a Lebanese entrepreneur and former Microsoft Software Engineer. We have no shortage of diversity or experience, and we all learned the will to succeed despite all odds. Additionally, we have some other amazing team members who are full or part time, Jeremy Crawford, a designer, Dalin Kongseri, a former bank VP, David Savage, one of my law school colleagues, and amazing mentors and advisors.”
The smartest move we’ve made so far: “Choosing to ‘take the plunge’ when some would have played it safe. We chose to accelerate the pace by moving to WeWork, attending all the events, and meeting everyone. We have been rewarded with new knowledge, connections, and mentors. Recently, we plunged again by joining the accelerator 9Mile Labs and our dive paid off with invaluable support. As a startup, you may face moments where you feel, ‘well, this is a make it or break it point’. So, do it! Because playing it safe never gets anything off the ground.”
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “Growing too soon. Our vision is strong so we found that we were amazingly successful at getting people to join us. Unfortunately, once we began getting close to the point of funding, we realized there was no way to launch with ten full time people. Downsizing is always hard, but even harder when you are so small and everyone works in the same room. Now that we have reduced to a small core group, we face a new issue of ‘too many Chiefs and not enough Indians.’ (As a Native, I can get away with saying it.) However, everyone’s titles now match their strengths, and I think the strength of the team speaks for itself. As we say in law, Res Ipsa Loqitur.”
Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “I’m going to step outside the box a bit here and say Jobs. It is a little known fact that he wasn’t always a lone wolf (Says the guy named RedWolf). He changed a lot after being removed from Apple. I feel the film about him didn’t show this enough. At Pixar, he learned how to run a collaborative team, and he brought that back to Apple. We run that way. I’m not the best coder, or detail person, or salesperson on the team, but I know all the roles, and I believe that the key to success is leveraging talent and motivation — and I see the whole field. The quarterback is nothing without someone to pass to or a defensive line to avoid being sacked. It’s the team cohesion that is making Pingle succeed.
Additionally, I studied Jobs’ presentations for my pitch methods. He played the long game in development. He introduced the iPhone before the iPad to get people used to the idea, and we are starting with verifying certifications, to get people used to a place where they can verify everything. Lastly, Jobs had an intense focus on design, and I believe in that as well. People expect more these days, and Pingle has always had a member-centric focus. In fact, we already have a detailed rollout plan for enhancing our customer and member experiences and making the interface more beautiful, useful and intuitive with each iteration.”
Our favorite team-building activity is: “Going out for pool or bowling. Although, Kris ran a good one – building towers with marshmallows and spaghetti once. Sometimes, we watch an episode of Silicon Valley in the office for a mental break when we are working late. Recently, Fremont Maritime (one of our schools) offered to let us try one of their nationally recognized courses – Advanced firefighting (rushing aboard a steel ship simulator and, as a team, going inside to put out a huge fire). Think going into an oven to put it out. I am really looking forward to that as a team building exercise. Beats a ropes course any day.”
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “Culture fit, and experience in a startup environment. Startups require different skills than regular business, and change and adaptation is constant. Think of the world of business as being an ocean. Anyone can board a cruise ship, some can board a freighter, or even a tug boat. But it takes a certain type of team member to get out there in a canoe that is smaller than the waves and pull together believing we can beat a ship (established co.) to a destination (a product). So we look for those people…the optimists.”
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Know yourself and your product, and you can never be defeated…. How? First…go to a hackathon. Then if you like it, start attending startup events, find co-founders who can take a full-time plunge for at least a year, and get space in a startup incubator and attend all the events. Network and work like your life depends on it. For your company’s life does.”
Then check the pain, if you don’t know of a pain, go ask people, walk into offices or go have coffee with friends and say “what’s the worst part of your day?” Or “what do you wish there was an app/website for?” If you aren’t solving a pain, you are wasting your time.
Lastly – yourself: Founding a startup is everything you hope it will be and everything you hope it won’t… all at once. I survived law school and this is honestly harder, and there is no financial aid. You will go through more ups and downs than a rollercoaster, and nine out of ten startups fail, so do not think you can make a dream a reality unless you are willing to work ten times harder than most people. However, just remember that everything around you was once a dream as well, so it is possible. Creating something out of nothing is never easy, but then, nothing worthwhile ever is.”
Editor’s note: GeekWire is featuring each of the companies participating in the 9Mile Labs incubator spring cohort.