Big Kitty Labs' novel approach to developing software challenges the way we do business
When talking tech innovation and central Ohio, Big Kitty Labs comes up every time. The software foundry has been around for well over a decade but continues to innovate not only what it does but how it does it.
The two founders, Dan Rockwell and Tushar Kulkarni, say that moving “at warp” is what helps their clients and has pushed them from a two-person side project to a 55-person boutique-style lab applying tech to new frontiers for ventures large and small.
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Rockwell was working at Ohio State University’s Tech Commercialization Office when he met Kulkarni at Startup Weekend in 2008. Kulkarni had a background in software and ecommerce both in India and at Chase, and an entrepreneurial streak.
The two worked together on the team that won that event and started a company which Rockwell says “crashed and burned,” but they forged a partnership that hasn’t stopped churning out entrepreneurial projects and products since.
They formed Big Kitty Labs in 2009 as a part-time venture named after Rockwell’s wife’s cat, and turned out their own apps like CueThat, a utility that would let users add movies to their Netflix queue from many mobile apps, kind of like pinning to Pinterest. BKL was then able to mine user patterns to see what was popular, data that Netflix wasn’t releasing.
BKL got attention from industry publications like Tech Crunch and Hacker News, and around 2010, started attracting outside companies.
“People started saying ‘Hey guys, can we write you a check, can you help us bring creativity, rapid designs and development?’” Kulkarni says.
By 2015 both Kulkarni and Rockwell took the jump to full-time Big Kitty. By 2021, the company had grown beyond 55 employees, but the desire to give momentum to ideas still informs Big Kitty’s methods.
Rockwell says a couple of strategies have been key to BKL’s success. One, he calls “protobaking,” which hearkens back to the company’s Startup Weekend roots.
Big Kitty is big on brainstorming and then rapid-fire building, cranking out working prototypes in fast fashion—say, days to weeks. Further design then happens based on actual user experience and experimentation.
“Whiteboarding, designing, branding, that’s essential, let’s not discount that,” Kulkarni says. “But you go through $20K in two months. Why not give you a functional product by leveraging working stuff? And then you are already using the product within two months, versus a six-month journey where you don’t even know if you have product that users want.”
Big Kitty also provides more than code for clients. Rockwell says to work at speed, he spends a lot of time and effort with clients helping them hone not just their software but the very core ideas of their businesses.
“They are also really dialed in with connections based on where you are, who could really help with different aspects of starting the business,” says Darren Jackson, founder and CEO of Surgicloud, a Columbus startup Big Kitty recently helped launch.
Jackson originally wanted help building an app to help his surgical instruments and implant device distributorship schedule operating room clinical consults. That kind of scheduling, he says, often took place on paper and was a huge pain point.
BKL designed his app and then helped him see its use could be extended beyond his distributorship, and be of use to manufacturers, hospitals and others. Now his in-house app is a new business.
Both Kulkarni and Rockwell say they’re happy with BKL’s current mix of about 60 percent startup and the rest corporate innovation projects.
“There are a couple of investment firms which have said to us, ‘If you feel confident in them, send them to us.’ We have become a first round of filtrations for VCs,” says Kulkarni.
It’s rarer now that BKL gets to do its own projects, although the company did enter a new era by acquiring a startup, Redbud Software, that it helped get off the ground.
Toward the end of 2021, BKL acquired Redbud, a greenhouse management platform that it had helped originally launch in 2018 and now has potential for huge growth in the cannabis industry.
Rockwell, who says he’s coming out of the pandemic doldrums having lost both of his parents in the past couple of years, says focusing on startup energy is what has rejuvenated his love for the business.
“That’s part of the thrill—you know, every quarter something weird is going to come in. Today you work on storing cattle better in a barn, yesterday it was sickle cell anemia, tomorrow it’s a sentient vape connected to your phone.”
Cynthia Bent Findlay is a freelance writer.
Big Kitty Labs
670 Meridian Way, Suite 248 Westerville, OH 43082
Founders: Dan Rockwell, CEO and Tushar Kulkarni
Business: Software consultancy