John Davis is used to an audience.
As a public defender and then later a federal prosecutor, the Seattle native and former D.C. professional is comfortable on stage. But along his entrepreneurial journey, he’s been thrown. Like one of the first times he pitched an angel investor.
“The guy stared at me,” said Davis, 58. “I couldn’t read him.”
So he’s made mistakes and learned along the way. But the founder of Notice and Comment, a government regulation data startup, has soldiered on. Like when he was first turned down pitching TEDCO, the state-backed investment fund, in fall 2014. And then again just a few months later. But he improved his pitch, gained a bit more traction and in early 2016, he finally earned a $100,000 investment from TEDCO. Later that year, the Baltimore Angels put $125,000 more.
By then, Davis had found his way into the Emerging Technology Center and was building a network. That’s where earlier this year Technical.ly profiled Davis and his company, after he had raised a $275,000 seed round, most from the Maryland Equity Participation Investment Fund and a bit from Harbor Bank. The company now has a staff of six full-time equivalents, Davis said.
Working from the popular Haven Street incubator, Davis found himself overhearing other founders taking sales and investment calls. Davis heard Sickweather cofounder Graham Dodge describe his company to an investor and it struck him. It changed how Davis spoke about his own company. It’s an example of lots of little changes Davis has made from learnings from the Baltimore tech community.
He’s needed the help as he has grown his company over the last five years. (Notice and Comment won a Baltimore Innovation Award for Tech Startup of the Year and was an honorable mention in Technical.ly’s inaugural RealLIST.)
— N&C Inc (@NoticeComment) October 9, 2017
At its core, the Notice and Comment product “Regendus” uses artificial intelligence and natural language processing to sift through public comment on government regulation. Allowing for government agencies and private sector stakeholders to find trends beyond a keyword search is an enormous cost saving – enough to warrant a hefty subscription.
“In the digital age, where you now get hundreds of thousands or millions of comments, it becomes a huge budget issue,” Davis told the Dept. of Commerce.
But a funny thing happened this year. After 70 years of ever mounting federal regulation to sift through, the Trump administration has kept one promise.
“The amount of regulation and comment completely stopped,” said Davis. So, once again, the federal prosecutor who was lured to move to Baltimore by love simply continues to evolve. Now he’s focusing on building out strength in state government regulation, too, where the volume of comment remains.
— Technical.ly Baltimore (@TechnicallyBMR) October 3, 2017
His journey is an interesting one for understanding how and why young companies grow where they do.
Davis moved to Baltimore in 2006 to pursue a relationship Jennifer Foster, a former Suntrust Investment Services executive, whom he met on Yahoo Personals. Soon after, Davis asked her to get married, but she said no. Just a couple years later, Foster asked him.
“I wanted to do the same thing and say no so I held out as long as I could, which was about 30 seconds,” Davis said. They were married in 2009 and now live in a renovated former butcher shop near Patterson Park that the Sun called a “dream home.”
Davis incorporated Notice and Comment in 2011 and launched the site in 2013, as he was beginning to form his idea. It was only with his network-building and resilience that led to investment, and allowed him to further build out his initial product. Tied to the seed round, early this year the company formally launched the “Regendus” product.
The son of a Jamaican immigrant father and an African American woman who graduated from Boston College in the 1940s (“sorta unheard of at that time,” Davis said.), it hasn’t been the most direct path from idea to product, but that might be perfect for a performer like Davis.
A fellow member of the ETC incubator said to this reporter: “John has probably never walked tepidly into a room in his life.”
Now you might find Davis in Baltimore driving either his Cervelo Italian “kick your ass road bike” or his Corvette “turning homeboys heads and causing moms to huddle their kids as I rumble by,” he said, in a playful followup email.
Speaking at a Baltimore Innovation Week event, Davis is, as he so often is, well-dressed in a three-piece suit. He’s fluid on stage, charismatic and self-effacing. For all of his ‘the show must go on’ performance spirit, he also shared challenges he’s faced as a Black founder.
“I didn’t put my face on my company’s about page,” he said, not wanting some stereotype or bias to keep him from getting that critical investor meeting or a meaningful business development outreach. He says those are realities he has to confront, but they don’t phase him. He’s looking for the next customer, the next growth point. He can’t change how others see him, but he can keep working and growing his company.
It’s something he says he knows from presenting in front of audiences for all of his adult live. Ultimately, whether it be a jury or an investor group, the “pound and ground” of hard work can win out. Do the work and, as he said: “Tell your story and go sit down.”
The results will come.