After 10 minutes of looping around the same city block in a snowy January day I found parking right outside the downtown cafe in Kitchener, Ontario, I was headed to.
Kitchener is a rare city bridging the gap between manufacturing and the modern technology economy. Just driving through the downtown core on the way to the cafe you see factories transformed into lofts and universities taking up residence alongside banks, government buildings, and restaurants.
Even the cafe was built into the front of an old factory’s office entrance. That a cafe is where I was set to meet Ryan Faust.
Before I had a chance to reach the counter to order something Ryan had already recognized me and popped up from his seat headed my way with the sturdy gait of someone on a mission. It wasn’t friendly or unfriendly. Sheepish or aggressive. It was confident without the disconcerting cockiness I was expecting.
With his right hand firmly outstretched, a smile that would light up the dimmest of caves, Ryan grabbed my right hand and said, “Nice to meet you Jack! I can’t wait to get know you!”
Ryan has the look of a proto-typical startup founder. Relatively short and unkempt hair, a navy blue suit jacket that didn’t quite fit perfectly, a white t-shirt from a recently disbanded startup that he might have picked up at a launch party, dark blue jeans, 5 days worth of growth on his face that has been painstakingly groomed, and the unbridled enthusiasm of someone who thinks they have the next big idea that no one else has.
Before sitting down I did high-level background research on Mr. Faust and his current look has changed fairly dramatically from when he was leading his last company. Gone are the dress shirts, ties, and Italian loafers and instead have been replaced by t-shirts, Moleskine notebooks, and old slip on shoes.
“Can I get you a coffee, Jack?” Ryan asked as I sat down. I turned to answer but Ryan was already at the counter with his back turned to me. He politely asked the barista for a cup of the Sumatra blend before returning to his makeshift office AKA a two person table in the corner.
“You’re going to love the deep aroma of the Sumatra blend they serve here probably more than most and it starts with the beans. They were picked to retain a strong taste, but subtle enough to drink without a glass of water next to you if you’re a novice coffee drinker happy with your third Tim Horton’s double-double of the day.”
I took the cup and saucer and sipped at it with a nod and smile of thank you.
“I’m glad you asked me and my company to be part of your series,” Ryan continued as I took my first sip of coffee. “It’s interesting how you plan on shadowing a startup over several months as opposed to trying to dig up the real story after the fact. I’m glad Jason could set this up.”
The Jason that Ryan is referring to is Jason Hamilton, a prominent Vancouver and Toronto-based venture capitalist who I must disclose gave me my first job at a media company he bought into about 9 years ago. He’s a little on the eccentric side and by that I mean he constantly thinks outside of the box so that he can throw you in it. Highly unpredictable, yet exceedingly generous with his time.
Mr. Hamilton is the primary backer of Merge and is a bit of a loose cannon when it comes to multi-million dollar investments. Of the last 8 documented, high profile investments in the past 3 years, 6 of the companies no longer exist, 1 founder is in jail for assault, and Jason’s Tesla ended up in the Pacific Ocean off a pier in Santa Barbara, CA. On the other hand, one of his venture-backed businesses resulted in a sizeable acquisition rumored in the 8-figure arena, and the other is currently on an IPO roadshow with an aim of hitting a $20 billion valuation.
He’s a little eccentric, but in a way that pulls people in instead of pushing them away. This eccentricity is part of the reason I’m here. As part of Mr. Hamilton’s investment in Merge, he has stipulated that the growth of the startup be covered by a journalist (i.e. me) and the three co-founders of the company must blog regularly about their day-to-day thoughts and activities about Merge. The timeline of the agreement appears to be open-ended, which means I haven’t booked a return flight to New York and I’m renting a room at a B & B y the month.
The cafe was active with conversation, typing, and the hum of music coming out of headphones. No one was nodding their heads as if they were actually enjoying the music. It was almost as if the music was there as filler noise where silence would have become the true distraction.
The other tech people were either in the middle of friendly conversations with a patchwork of dressed up professionals who were likely mentors or they were dialed into their laptops typing away viciously. You could almost smell the upbeat energy in the room. It was in the seriousness of discussions rampant with words like pivot and fresh wireframes and the focus of those actually working away in a busy space that sat 25 patrons comfortably.
If you’ve never walked into a tech community it can be hard to explain the energy that permeates those ingrained in the industry. It feels a like a mixture between the endless possibility of a classroom filled with 3rd graders when they first realize they could be astronauts one day and a testosterone soaked trading floor at a hedge fund. Optimistic insanity.
“Tell me a little about your company,” I asked Ryan.
“I’m not going to bore you with a long winded response about disrupting existing industries and harnessing long existing synergies between hardware and software that will be exploited by the consumer so everyone can end the day off feeling good about themselves as they lay their heads on their white pillow at night thinking about how bad their Instagram photo was of their red wine reduction pork chop,” Ryan rhymed off in a single breath. “My two fellow co-founders, Alison and Jasper, and myself have created Merged to unseat convention.”
I paused to take in that answer. Ryan danced around my question like a prize fighter sizing up his opponent.
“And…” I replied after 20 seconds of silence pushing him along.
“Sorry, Jack! I’ve had 3 espressos already this morning and I’m a little keyed up! Merge is a brand new hardware and software platform that will make most existing computer interfaces redundant.”
Before I could ask a follow up question, Ryan slammed a mobile phone on the table and let it sit there for a minute and I looked at it.
It didn’t have any markings on it from what I could see except for a barcode on the front of it that revealed to me immediately that it was a beta device and the barcode was there to keep track of it. In case it was stolen and then recovered the company would know which employee to blame.
The device was about a half inch wider than the average smartphone and a little thicker too. It had a rough exterior and from the angle I was looking at it, the device was…mundane. Not a bad looking device, just plain. That’s a beta device for you.
“Is this a new phone you’re working on?” I said with a little too much skepticism in my tone.
“It’s our prototype for where personal computing is going.”
“A mobile phone? You may be a few years too late on that one. I think the boys at BlackBerry and Apple beat you there.”
“It’s much more than a mobile phone. Grab your coffee and follow me for a minute.”
I threw my jacket back on expecting to leave the cafe but Ryan started waving his hand little dismissively.
“We’re not leaving,” Ryan said with both hands out like he was a crossing guard. “You can leave your stuff here at the table. We’re just popping into the back office.”
I tossed my jacket and bag back down on my chair, picked up by coffee cup and followed Ryan through the back door of the cafe between a bathroom and a piece of art from a local artist that depicted a man with the uncanny likeness of Steve Jobs armwrestling Thomas Edison. Edison seemed to be holding his own.
The office of the cafe could be generously called a closet and in the corner was a simple desktop computer with a LCD display propped up on a desk that might have sustained another pen on top of it before breaking. Ryan slipped the phone in his back pocket and unplugged the DVI monitor cable from the old desktop computer, pulled out a small box roughly the size of a deck of cards, and plugged the monitor into it.
“This phone I showed you before can indeed work as a well rounded smartphone with all the bells and whistles you might expect and the ability to operate roughly 80% of all apps on the market right now,” Ryan said as he held the phone in hand and flipped through the apps showing me how the device operated.
I saw your basic social apps and few custom ones that were platform specific. It was a nice entry device for a platform built by a small team with comparatively no money.
“The real trick though,” Ryan continued, “is that this device is the only device the average user will ever need.”
Without another word Ryan tapped a button with his thumb that read “desktop” and typed in a quick code. Suddenly the monitor in front of us came alive. I was expecting him to be showing off the phone functionality on a larger screen, but instead what I was looking at now was a desktop version of the phone’s OS.
“Is this a secondary interface I’m looking at?” I asked as I peered a little closer to the screen.
“Kind of,” Ryan responded. “Merge has combined the computing experiences of desktop and mobile together.
“What you’re seeing is a layered OS that can operate as a mobile phone and as a highly functional desktop operating system and retains enough power under the hood so you no longer need two devices that you have to switch back and forth from. And this includes laptops too.
“As long as the peripheral devices used are wireless or bluetooth enabled you can pair it with the phone. My vision is that this device in my hand will put an end to a person needing a mobile phone, bulky laptop, home desktop, and a work computer.”
The OS appeared to be Linux based with a fluid and straightforward design. Clearly a BETA version though. There was some lag time between functions that likely won’t persist forever whenever and if ever it reaches market.
“Imagine walking into this cafe with this phone in the middle of an email, sitting down at a table and pulling out what appears to be the world’s thinnest laptop and start working immediately on the exact same email as if nothing changed.”
“You’re talking about the cloud though,” I asked.
“I would argue that this is better,” Ryan said confidently. “Yes, we have cloud backups available from day one, but this is the same device. No hiccups in the data exchange or frustration on trying to figure out which draft is the most up-to-date. It’s all on the same device and it’s right here in my hand. The only difference is in the way iyou interface with the software.”
“We’ve crafted the software in such a way that you can stack virtual systems on top of one another,” he said tapping another icon on the phone forcing the screen to switch to a different system with a different background and desktop icons. “This means a chief information officer at a company can lock down a system while allowing the user to have freedom on their personal sides.”
“Where are you hoping to take this,” I asked, with a little hint of excitement and skepticism.
“Everywhere.” Ryan held the device with a slight grin and narrowed eyes.
This is the story of Merge.
Next Post: #2: Coffee, Demos, and Wasting My Time