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BusinessCreative

Jul. 9, 2014 8:12 am

Wham City Lights goes big

One of Baltimore's most interesting startups was formed by an arts collective. Now Wham City Lights is expanding into cosmetics conferences, country music concerts and, soon, amusement parks.

From left: CEO Keith Lea, Office Manager Drew Swinburne, Engineering Intern Charlie McGeorge, Designer Katie Duffy and Relationship Manager Ben Cronin.

(Photo by Christopher Wink)

The team behind the mobile app startup Wham City Lights, which spun out of an underground Baltimore arts music collective, is excited about doing something daring at an upcoming Mary Kay cosmetics conference.

It’s an odd venue for a crowdsourced, smartphone-powered light show that first emerged at the eclectic shows that gave electronic musician Dan Deacon, his Wham City crew and Baltimore itself a reputation for edgy arts.

Now Keith Lea, the soft-spoken cocreator of the idea, is charged with making a business out of it.

It’s the first venture the 30-something has led, but he has the pedigree to deliver on the product’s art-tech promise. Lea is a MICA graduate and artist himself who spent three years as an engineer at Google.

After selling the white-label version of the tool to national tours, and then raising a seed round in December, the now five-person team moved into offices in the Parcel Post Station building across Canal Street from Penn Station.

The team is now focusing on both product development and business development. After primarily selling to clients who found them, they’re now starting to charge outward, said Lea. With that focus, the team is near profitable, including salaries and rent. Its base of paying customers is growing, he said.

That means taking an experience formed in Station North warehouse parties and selling it to a more general interest community — Mary Kay conferences, Brad Paisley concerts and soon, Lea said, amusement parks.

But Wham City Lights hasn’t lost its soul just yet.

When Lea greeted Technical.ly Baltimore one morning last week, he looked more concert-goer than chief executive, complete with bandana and cut offs. The company’s young team, too, says Baltimore itself keeps them rooted.

“Baltimore is so close to all the big city cultural hubs, but you can have room to think here,” said Ben Cronin, who recently relocated from Brooklyn. “You don’t have to be in an over-saturated market but you can have access to them.”

Lea adds that Wham City Lights investor Shana Fisher of New York’s High Line Ventures has asked him why the firm has chosen to remain in Baltimore.

For recruiting, Lea responded, talent is more affordable and more invested in the company.

“We love Baltimore,” he said. “We want to work with people who have that same passion for something.”

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Christopher Wink

Christopher Wink is a cofounder and Editorial Director of Technical.ly, the local technology news network. Previously, Wink worked for a homeless advocacy nonprofit and was a freelance reporter for a variety of publications. He writes regularly about news innovation and best business practices on his personal blog here. The bicycle commuter loves cities, urban politics and squabbling about neighborhood boundaries.

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