Marvin Scaff has been an important part of Tampa’s tech ecosystem for years. He has recently switched gears from mainly tech companies to a really cool kids show, Dear Doodles, focused on inclusivity. Marvin sat down for some drinks with us at The Independent, and we talked about this project at length. We also touched on his career as a whole, including his time in California.
Roxanne Williams: It looks like you got start as a developer. What did you code in?
Marvin Scaff: BASIC on an Apple II, then 6502 assembly, then Pascal, and then C.
Matt Vaughn: What were you building?
Marvin: I used to be one of those kids that took stuff apart just to see how it works. I grew up in a really small town in Kentucky, and there was a high-end stereo store that moved into town. They sold Apple computers, and I would go there every day and pester them. I’d walk up there when I was 12 and just play with their computers. And then I ended up talking them into letting me work there one summer doing car stereo installations. I could climb under the dash and hook up the wires with my small hands.
I got an Apple II just from saving up my money, and taught myself how to program.
Matt: You got your start as a developer and you grew to a C-level over at series of different companies over the years. What’s an average day in the life of Marvin Scaff? Do you still do any coding at all, or is it mostly high level or operational?
Marvin: I still do some development. I call it recreational programming, just to keep fresh with the tools that I’m using for the projects I’m working on. But I think as far as time efficiency, it’s better to leverage a team. That’s the philosophy now. The project I’m working on, we’re using a game engine to do the animation for the show, and we built some software for the iPhone to do facial expression capture and voice capture. I did some development on that, but I had other developers working with me.
Matt: So the voice capture then is similar to the 2D animation where you pre-record an animation to syllables? Which game engine are you guys using?
Marvin: Unity, and we’ve done stuff with Unreal.
Matt: That’s awesome. Tell us a little bit about Dear Doodles, the kids program you’ve been working on.
Marvin: Dear Doodles was started by the daughter of friends from California that I’ve worked with for over 20 years. She’s 17 now, and a freshman at Stanford.
When she was about 14, she was bullied at school really badly and ended up having to change schools. She got really interested in what she could do to encourage younger kids to be kind and inclusive, and to not grow up to be bullies So, she’s been doing research. She developed all the characters for the show.
Her name is Devon, her nickname is Doodles, and it started out as a letter writing service. Kids would write her letters and she would write them back and send little stickers. Devon developed these characters called Oodles, and each of the Oodles have different personalities. For example, one of the characters is named Quiet Quinn. Quinn’s an introvert. There’ll be learning moments on the show to teach kids that some people are just quiet and need to be left alone to recharge.
It’s targeted at 3 to 8 year olds, and it’s based on research from Stanford’s Social and Emotional Learning Institute and from Bing, the nursery school program at Stanford.
The people who have gotten involved are incredible. Tom Kalinske is the chairman of the company and he used to be the CEO of Mattel, Sega, Leapfrog, Knowledge Universe, etc. He’s really an impressive guy. Mark Valenti is the creative officer, and he worked for Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. He worked on LazyTown, Rugrats, and a bunch of other popular kids’ shows.
Matt: Glad to hear it’s getting that response from great leaders in the space.
Marvin: It’s a cool project, and the goal is to try to get kids positive content to consume. We’re also going to be doing interactive toys with it, where kids can be sitting on the floor playing with plush toys that have electronics that can listen to the show. We’re also developing for virtual reality and augmented reality.
Matt: That’s incredible. Is it for California TV, or is it going to be a web series?
Marvin: We’re probably going to start out on YouTube. The path a lot of these shows take now is, start out on YouTube, get a following, and then get on Netflix. Apple TV is coming out with their own streaming service and Disney pulled all their content from Netflix, they’re launching their own video on demand service. So, there’s a bunch of them, but initially, we’re just going to start off on YouTube.
Matt: YouTube is a great place to start a following and branch out these days.
Marvin: It’s where the kids are. I’ve been working on it with a bunch of college kids here in Tampa from UT and USF. There’s an animation program at UT, so I got a couple students and former students that are working on it, and 3D models, and Unity development.
Matt: Is this your first foray into Unity development or have you worked with it in the past?
Marvin: I’ve messed around with it some before, but not a whole lot.
Matt: It’s a heck of a platform for the price and accessibility.
Marvin: It’s pretty cool. Very extensible. It has a really powerful scripting language and you can write syntax for it. What’s cool is that we can use Unity to do the animation for the show, and we can also use it to develop the games for Magic Leap or whatever other platforms they want to target. Disney’s actually working on something now based on Big Hero 6. It’s called Baymax, it’s an animated series, and it’s all been done in a similar process to what we’re using, pipeline and everything.
Roxanne: Out of your entire career, if you could pick one highlight or one proudest accomplishment, what would it be?
Marvin: When I went to California in ‘94 and got to work with Regis McKenna for a couple of years. Regis is a Silicon Valley marketing guru. He helped start Apple and Electronic Arts. If you read the biography about Steve Jobs, it talks about Regis a lot. His whole thing was around marketing and competitive positioning.
I got to work on software for him for a project called Crush. It was based on the work that Intel was doing when they were competing with Motorola in the early ‘80s, late ‘70s. They brought Regis in as a consultant, and he helped them basically win the war against Motorola.
It was cool to meet him and to hear the stories about Steve Jobs and Apple in the early days. Regis’s printer wouldn’t print one day and Steve rode his motorcycle over to do tech support on it, and he’s running Apple. That was kind of cool.
Matt: A lot of people would kill to get a couple of minutes with him, and you got to partner together on a project. That’s awesome.
Marvin: I still stay in touch with him but he had both hips replaced and his health isn’t great now. He’s getting pretty old. But he’s got a lot of great stories.
Matt: Are there any nuggets of information Regis taught you that you think would be relevant to our readership as far as entrepreneurship or technology?
Marvin: The simplification of marketing, and not overthinking things too much. “Find a need and fill it” is sort of his mantra. And it’s about positioning, storytelling, the narrative that you build around what you’re trying to do.
Matt: On the flip side, what’s the biggest challenge or “oh crap” moment you’ve faced? How did you learn from that?
Marvin: When I came back from California, I started a company here with a developer I had met in San Francisco called Kinetoscope. I had a couple of other people get involved as co-founders, and it got kind of ugly. You think you know somebody and you think you can trust them, but you don’t really know their behaviors until you’ve been in the relationship for a while – just like any other relationship. Be really careful about the co-founder dating process and adding people to your team. Less is better.
Florida’s a sunny place for shady people. There are sharks, there are dolphins, and then there’s tuna. So speak, be aware, and try to be careful about who you partner with.
Matt: Like you said, it can be hard to know a relationship or partnership will fail. Are there certain questions you can ask, or things you can do ahead of time to see how they would react to stressful business situations?
Marvin: If you’re the founder and you’re thinking about bringing in a partner, be really careful about allocating equity, be really stingy with equity, and make sure that you have really good lawyers to help with the vesting schedules.
It’s like having a prenup in a marriage. If it works out, great, but you have to plan for the worst. If you have a bad experience with a co-founder and you have to get rid of them, you don’t want them camping out on your cap table.
Check references, and check references on the references. Those are the most important ones. A lot of the time, people will get friendlies to take calls on their behalf, and you can usually tell that it’s not genuine. So, if you know they were at a company for a while, go find people that you know were there at the same time, and try to cross-check them. Talk to every elementary school teacher. Ask them, “Was Johnny a bully in school?” Those kind of things.
Roxanne: Given that you’ve been in Tampa for a long time, have you noticed a positive shift in terms of qualified tech talent?
Marvin: In my experience, there has always been super talented people here. I think you just have to know who the network is, and who the connectors are. I’ve always heard that it’s hard to find tech talent here but I’ve never had a problem. When I started Kinetoscope, we brought a bunch of really talented people down from CMU in Pittsburgh, and they’re all still around here.
Roxanne: Do you see a lot of our talent leaving?
Marvin: I think it’s really the idea of remote work that doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s just work. You can live here and work for a company somewhere else. You might have to travel quarterly or every six months to go have an all-hands meeting with the team or something, but with Slack, Zoom, and Google Hangouts, good developers want to live where they’re happy. A lot of times, it’s based on family decisions. Live where you’re happy.
I think Tampa’s being discovered more by other companies that are relocating here from the Bay area. It’s just gotten so expensive out there, so competitive for talent, the cost of living, everything’s ridiculous.
Roxanne: There was an article that came out a little bit ago where I think $120,000 is considered poverty there now.
Marvin: Yeah, I believe it. I mean, it’s $3,000-$4,000 for a 500 square foot apartment.
Matt: Regardless of city, it’s becoming a serious issue. If you manage to find the unicorn that is the skillset you’re looking for and in your price range and are not contractually locked in to their current role and in a metro area, if they live more than 10 miles away, that’s an hour commute.
Marvin: It’s a competitive disadvantage if your mentality about talent is they have to have a butt in a seat in a cubicle in your line of sight. You’re going to get mediocre people.
Roxanne: That’s the thing about being trusted too, not being micromanaged 24/7.
Marvin: I think a lot of it goes to just having process and a culture that’s built on trust. Once you have a cohesive team, then it doesn’t matter, wherever they want to be.
Matt: A sizeable chunk of companies here don’t have the processes set up, or have a bad taste in their mouth with a remote worker that tried it and performed poorly. What are your thoughts on how we can change the culture around remote work?
Marvin: It’s all about disrupting and innovating. Companies that have that mindset and that culture aren’t going to be able to compete for talent, and their staff is going to turn over, they’re going to retire, they’re not going to be able to keep up.
Every business is a tech business. When you look at the S&P 500, how many companies have churned out in the last 10 or 15 years? It’s a lot. How many big companies have gone under because a startup disrupted them? Blockbuster, Netflix. Marriott, Airbnb. There’s no reason why Toyota couldn’t have created Uber.
There are all of these big shifts that are happening, and it’s really disruptive. I think if you have company culture here where it’s like, “Here’s our hours. We’re going to drug test our developers,” all of that old-school mindset, you’re going to get crap talent.
Roxanne: I feel like companies can’t really be too picky anymore. The market is completely stacked towards candidates, so give the people what they want! There’s no reason developers need to be in an office.
Can you tell us about your current involvement in the tech community in Tampa? I know you did Ignite and you were on a panel at Startup Week.
Marvin: I don’t really do that much. There are a handful of other companies where I work with the founders pretty closely. But as far as getting out and doing events and stuff, I just kind of burned out on it.
I’d rather spend time with my kids when I have them. If somebody wants to meet up, usually I’m pretty open-minded about grabbing a coffee or a beer, but not that much out in the circuit. There are some people here that just seem so full of shit [laughter]. If they did everything they said they did, they wouldn’t be where they’re at. They just embellish so much about their past and you go, “Wait a second, you said you did this here. You’re lying.”
That kind of stuff hurts the community, and those people continue to get the microphone and they’re out there giving bad advice. And there are a lot of wantrepreneurs here, I think, where people think startups are sexy and cool and they want to go do it but they’re not really committed to it.
Matt: They get their co-working space membership, throw up a squarespace site, and now they’ve got a company.
Marvin: I always try to be supportive and help, not shit on people’s ideas. But sometimes, the reason you haven’t gotten funding is you don’t deserve to get funding. You’re not committed to it, you’ve got to make a lot of sacrifices.
Matt: Mike (owner of FST) did a talk at Startup Week a few weeks back titled the “Startup Survival Guide.” In one part, he talked about about how Tampa Bay is a little too nice when it comes to startups. I’ve never heard anyone be like, “That’s a crap idea. You shouldn’t do that.” Or, “Is there a market for that? This is exactly like another thing.”
Marvin: Daniel James Scott and I are close, and we’ve talked about that before. People just get a bunch of attaboys and not honest, brutal feedback like, “You’re wasting your time and your money, just go get a job or come up with a different idea.” Many startup founders haven’t really done any kind of research, even though they can pull up articles on TechCrunch and see, well, here’s somebody that did this exact same thing three years ago and they’ve already raised $15 million and have 500 customers. Are we really going to go try to compete with that?
Matt: On that note, you can get that kind of advice in the form of a mentor. How would you recommend trying to find a mentor or advisor?
Marvin: Be bold, be aggressive, and find a way to get to somebody. It depends on what you’re looking for, but there are people around here that have had a lot of success in business, and they want to pay it forward and give back. If you don’t belong to their country club or kids don’t go to the same school, you just have to be creative by getting to them.
I’ve had a lot of success just going back to writing a good old fashioned letter. People get emails all the time. Actually being thoughtful and writing someone a letter works. You just have to hustle, and that’s something you can’t really teach.
Matt: Tell us a bit about your entrepreneurial experience.
Marvin: Randy Pausch was a professor teaching at Carnegie Mellon. He did this thing called the last lecture. He knew he was dying and he wanted to leave something for his kids because they were really young. One of my favorite quotes from him was, “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” My friend from San Francisco and I, we had about 35 Java developers, and we had a bunch of people that we recruited from CMU. We were one of the first Java shops in the country. And we ended up getting hosed and we got the exit from that. There were bad actors that got involved. That was a good lesson on how not to do things.
I worked on a company with Dan Doyle Sr. and Tom Wallace called BrainBuzz. We had probably missed the window to go public by about 6 months because of the nuclear winter dot com boom. Timing is really important.
Roxanne: Tom Wallace as in the Tom Wallace of Florida Funders?
Marvin: Yeah. I worked with Tom and Dan at BrainBuzz. They had a falling out, and I’d describe it as the town was too small for two sheriffs. I’ve always been Switzerland. I maintain relationships with both of them. I don’t have any hostilities or anything towards either one of them.
Matt: Are you still involved with Dabbl at all?
Marvin: Yep, I am.
Matt: Tell us a little bit about your involvement with them.
Marvin: I knew Susan from a long time ago. I got introduced to her when she came to Tampa, probably around 2000. She was an executive at Catalina, we were just friends that would have lunch once every year, year and a half or so. And I was encouraging her to go do the startup thing, “You should go start a company. Go ring the CEO bell and be the founder.” After she exited Catalina, I finally talked her into starting the company.
At that time, it was called Mynfo. We changed the name to Adjoy, and then she changed the name again to Dabbl, which is what it’s called now. I was involved as a co-founder with her and helped recruit the original team, developers, marketing people, CFO, and I helped raise money. And again, the contact I had was somebody I’d worked with in California from 2001 to 2005, just part of the network. But it goes back to the roles and responsibilities for the founders. With Susan, in the beginning, I was helping get investor meetings. I would go out and get punched in the face with a lot of nos.
Roxanne: Do you think that raising adequate capital is an issue in Tampa?
Marvin: People always think that if you just get on a plane to San Francisco, somebody’s going to throw a check at you. If you have a good business, a good story, and a good team, you can raise money anywhere. Here, the education of the angel investor still needs a lot of work because there’s a lot of concentrated wealth in other areas where people have done well, like real estate, restaurants, or doctors. We need to teach them how to be angel investors and how to invest in a tech company.
I think there is a geographic bias for capital to come here from other places. I think it’s getting better. But you just have to hustle. Get out of bed in the morning and start firing off emails and making phone calls. It’s just selling, and in sales, you have to go and get meetings and just network.
Roxanne: Out of the 30-something interviews we’ve done so far, we always ask the question, “What do you think Tampa still needs to work on?” Capital has been, by far, the biggest answer.
Marvin: I think that’s a cop out. If you have a real business, a solid idea, a really good team to execute against the idea, and you’re tenacious and persevere and you have a lot of persistence, you can raise money here. You’ve just got to work for it.
If you meet somebody and they’re interested but they don’t bring their checkbook to the first meeting, don’t give up. Just be really methodical and disciplined about updating them on your progress. Every couple of weeks, send them an update. Because if somebody says, “No, not right now.” It doesn’t mean no is forever. So, come back later.
As you build momentum and get more story, there’s a trigger of fear of missing out. So part of the game with raising money is you have to kind of embellish about who said yes already, about choreographing the timing of that. If you’re going out to raise $250,000 and you have somebody that says, “I’ll put in 50 if you find the other 200,” you go to somebody else and you’re like, “Okay, I’m raising 250, I’ve got 50 soft circled, I need to raise another 200. If you’re in, I can get this other 50.” You have to start knocking the dominos over.
Investors here will due diligence founders to death. If they keep asking for you to provide certain metrics or milestones or things to happen and you do that, they’ll invest. Be aware though, sometimes, you do that and they’re like, “Well, that’s great, I wanted you to get 3 customers, but I think you really need 5 before I’m going to give you a check.” They keep kicking the can down the field a little bit. I see that happen a lot here. But I think if you have 3 conversations and you’re not getting them to say, “Hey, I’m interested, what are the terms? Send me your term sheet, I have some buddies I might bring in,” you need to move on.
Roxanne: Good to know. I don’t think we’ve ever gotten an answer like that before.
Matt: What do you hope to see in the next few years when it comes to tech in Tampa?
Marvin: I like all the young talent that I’ve been meeting from this project, and I love giving them an opportunity to get experience and work on a project where they can now go out and say, “I have a credit in this show.” Or, “I have a credit in this game.” A lot of times, people will go to college and think that now that they have a degree, job offers will just come at them. People have a bias about hiring junior developers, but I think it can be an advantage if you’re not biased by it. I always try to find young talent and help pair them up with more senior people and then just let them learn from each other. I’m excited about some of the people that I’m working with. They’re super young, but they’re future rock stars.
Matt: And this isn’t something that is new at all or exclusive to Tampa, but everyone wants the elusive ‘junior person that has two years of experience.’ What are your tips for somebody that is coming out of college, or a boot camp, or that has the foundation from a self-study standpoint?
Marvin: I always look for curiosity, what your other areas of interest are, and what your passion projects are. What is it that gets you out of bed in the morning, what is it that you like to do? A lot of really good developers I worked with are musicians. They like to make music, they are curious about electronic music, or they’re curious about culinary or whatever – they have outside interests that are more diverse.
I think finding people that just have a raw talent that need to be paired up. It’s not that different in the trades. Growing up, my grandfather was a pipefitter, my dad was a pipefitter, my brother was a pipefitter. You get an apprenticeship, and then you have a journeyman paired up with you from the beginning. Create that type of mindset with developers, where you have somebody who’s more experienced that can bring junior people onto the team, mentor them and coach them, and help them learn and grow.
Roxanne: AgileThought has a program like that. They have a Junior ITA program where they bring in a group of 30 or so new grads and they train them, they give them that 2 to 4 years experience. If they stay, great, if they don’t, also great, then they have that experience. I think we definitely need more programs like that. How do you feel about programs like LaunchCode and Suncoast Developers Guild?
Marvin: I think they’re great. Anything that encourages opportunities to learn about technology helps the ecosystem in the community.
Matt: Outside of Dear Doodles and Dabbl, who is a person or an organization that’s doing something cool and innovative that you’d like to do a shout out for?
Marvin: There’s a company in East Ybor called AbleNook, and I’d describe the founder as if Steve Jobs and Elon Musk had a love child and they were going to build tiny homes. He builds custom modular homes, like a yacht on land as far as the infrastructure. I’m really excited about that. My idea for that is, people that have land that’s not being utilized could buy them and use them for family when they’re visiting, but then put it on Airbnb so they can generate passive income. If you own an AbleNook and you’re not using it, it can create money for you and cash flow.
The founder was an architect student as USF and he started working on AbleNook while he was at USF. He’s just one of the most passionate, talented, and hardworking founders I’ve ever met.
Roxanne: Are there any further thoughts you’d like to share, anything exciting coming down the pipeline for you?
Marvin: Just working on trying to make kids not be mean to each other. Social media exacerbates the problem. You have these young girls that are on Instagram and they’re cutting themselves and posting pictures and they’re being bullied at school and it just makes it worse. We’re basing this on the science of social emotional learning, and trying to create a modern Mr. Rogers / Sesame Street that resonates with kids based on the technology that they’re used to. Trying to create a model of good behavior, that’s something that I’m really passionate about. Keep little kids from growing up to be narcissistic assholes later in life.
You just want kids to be pure and wholesome and genuine and learn from each other and have this idea of collective empathy that you’re teaching them. That, to me, is the most important thing that needs to be worked on. It’s a good use of technology.
About Marvin Scaff:
Marvin is a CxO executive with extensive entrepreneurial experience leading software development teams and creating 1.0 products. He has experience working with entrepreneurs, taking ideas from back-of-the-napkin to launch.
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