Editor’s Note: In honor of 10 years of the IDS program at the iSchool, Alexandra Archambault will be leading you through a 10-episode podcast series. Each episode highlights a different successful startup company from the program. 

What is Density and How is it Used?

Alex: In our penultimate podcast episode, I chatted with Andrew Farah about his company: Density.

Andrew: Density is an anonymous people counting system. We build both the device and the analytics to measure how buildings get used. We get deployed in very large corporate offices and physical spaces – tens of millions of square feet of space – to figure out how people will use that space without invading their privacy.

We’re deployed with dozens of Fortune 1000 companies. [For example] a large telecom that has fifty million square feet of space globally. They’re using us to figure out what space they don’t use because they have all these very expensive leases and they’re trying to understand what is underutilized or vacant.

It’s kind of crazy, actually. In the US there’s 10.9 billion square feet of leased or owned office space, but 41% of it is vacant – but paid for. Every year. That amounts to 4.4 billion square feet of space that is empty, and the cost of that to US corporations is $150 billion.

A well-known tech company uses us to anonymously count the number of people who go through an access control door. If you have a badge reader, you badge in. If there is a discrepancy between the number of people who enter – so, two enter but only one badges in – in real time, they have a security guard show up and make sure the checked-in person is authorized to be in the space.

That’s called tailgating. In that one building, we stop 20 tailgating incidents per day – or 100 per week. It’s one of the largest problems with security globally. Pretty much every major corporation has access-controlled spaces.

We work with a very well known company – I can’t say who, but this is emblematic of a number of organizations we work with – that has around 50,000 employees or greater. We get deployed in their cafeteria too. We provide their employees a real time mobile application that shows them how busy their cafeteria is. It’s really cool, actually, because this is how we got started.

Cafe Kubal Started it All

Andrew: We wanted to know how busy our favorite coffee shop was. And we finally, 5 years later, are back at the founding problem: I don’t want to wait in line. It would be nice if I could, from my desk, see how busy a space is before I show up.

So we do that for that company. It’s really cool because in the application you can actually choose “notify me when it’s quiet.” So you don’t even have to check the application. You can just say: “let me know when there’s no line.”

Alex: For those listening from Syracuse, you’ll be interested to know that the coffee shop that Andrew was referring to was actually Cafe Kubal. The idea for Density literally started in the fall of 2013 with what Andrew calls “laziness” of not wanting to walk through the snow to see if there were tables open at Kubal.

What he and his co-founders found was that counting people in the space was much more difficult than they had anticipated. This led to years of hard work to create the product that Density is today. But Density actually wasn’t the first company that Andrew and his co-founders started.

From a Side Project to a Tech Start-Up

Andrew: We started a … you can call it a product studio, or an R&D company, or an agency. But we had a company called Rounded while I was in grad school. All the partners in Rounded built enterprise applications and mobile apps with a fee for service. We then would use the extra cash to invest in side projects.

Density was the seventh side project. Some of the previous ones included building a gesture controlled drone. You could put your hand over a device that looked like a harmonica and you can fly a drone from anywhere with your hand: bank right, bank left, go up or down. It turns out it’s pretty hard to sell that (laughs). So we eventually landed on Density, and we’ve been doing that ever since.



Andrew’s Day-to-Day

Alex: During our conversation, Andrew could not say enough about both his team and what he gets to do in his day-to-day. It was apparent to me that he feels strongly how strongly – both about the company and that it offers him an opportunity to wear a plethora of different hats.

In a startup, if things are changing the way they’re suppose to be changing – which is rapidly – then your job will change every six months.

Andrew: Yeah, I have the best job in the world. I work with people that are orders of magnitude smarter than me.

I get to have exposure to some of the most bleeding-edge of technology in the world. Everything from infrared lasers, to large scale hardware manufacturing in the complexities of a global supply chain with 137 unique vendors and suppliers that we have to manage, to advanced depth sensing; stuff that contract manufacturers had never really worked with before we came out, to on-board machine learning and deep learning, to labeling – which is a method of training algorithms – all the way down to the consumer experience, or the customer experience, of the interface design and how that data gets presented.

Even though I care very deeply about the details, I try very hard to fight the instinct to control lots of little things. However, I would say that my day- to-day is reasonably varied.

[One moment] I’ll be in a meeting about what we’re doing about a paid leave policy with our head of personnel. Then 30 minutes later I’ll be in a conversation about a new industrial design we’re considering. After that, I’ll take a customer call.

I’ll also have a period of time where I’m reaching out to contacts because I’m going to be flying into New York for an event and I’d like to sit down with some locals from the area. After that, there’ll be an issue with one of our employees who’s trying to do something but can’t and they’re struggling to get the resources they need. Then there will be an issue with a device, so I’ll have a conversation with someone who leads our customer experience team.

In some cases, I’ll be doing a physical installation myself. I like to make sure I’m still a part of the process and I can be familiar with the problems within the company. So, it all varies pretty widely. But the role is definitely something I love and it gives me a good opportunity to learn.

In a startup, if things are changing the way they’re suppose to be changing – which is rapidly – then your job will change every six months.

Advice to Young Entrepreneurs

Alex: When I asked about his advice for young entrepreneurs, Andrew said you can’t just keep talking about your ideas. You actually need to start building things. He also had a few other tidbits of advice including what aspiring young entrepreneurs should be reading and consuming.

Andrew: Building something, anything, to show real users speaks volumes. Talking about an idea is certainly fun, exhilarating, and if you have the right group it can be something you really enjoy doing all the time. But there’s a very big gap between those who build an initial product and show users to get feedback and those who just have a long list of really great ideas.

I would say measure things in days, not weeks in the early stages and show it to users in the first three weeks of starting something. Don’t show it to users if the product’s done.

I would say read everything Paul Graham has ever written. He has a remarkable set of essays. He’s the president and founder of Y Combinator, which is one of the popular incubators in Silicon Valley. He has this body of work that just spells out how to start.

There’s a great YouTube series called “How to start a Start Up” that is put on by Y Combinator, I also strongly recommend watching that. It’s some of the best and the brightest talking about what it takes to build a company.

There are so many great ideas on how to build a company. There is no one right way. If you polled 15 to 25 of the most valuable startup CEOs, you would find that their stories are very different. The only thing that’s consistent among them, typically, is that users wanted what they built. They really wanted what they built. Figuring out how to get that quickly is typically the thing that separates companies that succeed and companies that don’t.

Special Thanks to the iSchool Masters Program

Alex: Despite all of his success, Andrew can not say enough about Syracuse and his iSchool masters program.

Andrew: For the record, I owe the iSchool an enormous debt of gratitude. Liz Liddy, who was my dean and now a friend of mine, supported me building my own program for my second year. 19 of the 42 credits of my IM program that I did back in 2010, are in Rounded. I designed coursework that was a mixture of a lot of IST 500+ courses and the work I was doing at Rounded (essentially my first start up). Because of this, I got to graduate with both a degree and a functioning company. I owe all of that to the iSchool.

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

by Alexandra Archambault