Columbus-based Big Kitty Labs’ new approach to developing software

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When it comes to technological innovation and central Ohio, Big Kitty Labs comes up time and time again. The software foundry has been around for over a decade, but continues to innovate not only in what it does, but also in how it does it.

The two founders, Dan Rockwell and Tushar Kulkarni, say moving “on the line” is what helps their clients and has taken them from a two-person side project to a 55-person boutique-style lab applying technology to new frontiers for business big and small.

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Rockwell was working in the technology commercialization office at Ohio State University when he met Kulkarni at Startup Weekend in 2008. Kulkarni had a software and e-commerce background in India and Chase, and an entrepreneurial streak.

The two worked together on the team that won that event and launched a company that Rockwell says “crash and burn,” but they forged a partnership that has continued to produce projects and entrepreneurial products since.

They formed Big Kitty Labs in 2009 as a part-time business named after Rockwell’s wife’s cat, and created their own apps like CueThat, a utility that would allow users to add movies to their Netflix queue from many mobile apps, much like pinning to Pinterest. BKL was then able to pull user patterns to see what was popular, data that Netflix did not publish.

BKL caught the attention of industry publications like Tech Crunch and Hacker News, and around 2010 began attracting outside companies.

“People started saying, ‘Hey guys, can we write you a check, can you help us bring creativity, designs and rapid development?'” Kulkarni says.

In 2015, Kulkarni and Rockwell made the jump to Big Kitty full-time. By 2021, the company had surpassed 55 employees, but the desire to give momentum to ideas still informs Big Kitty’s methods.

Rockwell says a few strategies have been key to BKL’s success. One, which he calls “protobaking,” which harkens back to the company’s Startup Weekend roots.

Big Kitty is very fond of brainstorming and then building quickly, creating working prototypes in a rapid manner, say, days to weeks. The design then continues based on the user’s actual experience and experimentation.

“The whiteboard, the design, the branding, it’s key, let’s not overlook that,” says Kulkarni. “But you spend $20,000 in two months. Why not offer you a functional product by exploiting functional elements? And then you’re already using the product within two months, versus a six-month journey where you don’t even know if you have the product that users want.

Big Kitty also provides more than code for customers. Rockwell says that to work quickly, it spends a lot of time and effort with customers, helping them perfect not only their software, but also the fundamental ideas of their business.

“They’re also really connected with connections based on where you are, which could really help with different aspects of starting the business,” says Darren Jackson, founder and CEO of Surgicloud, a Columbus startup that Big Kitty recently helped launch.

Jackson originally wanted help building an app to help his surgical instruments and implant distributors schedule clinical consultations in the operating room. This type of planning, he says, was often done on paper and was a huge problem.

BKL designed his app and then helped him see that its use could be extended beyond its distribution and be useful to manufacturers, hospitals and others. Now its internal app is a new venture.

Both Kulkarni and Rockwell say they are happy with BKL’s current mix of around 60% startups and the rest of corporate innovation projects.

“There are a couple of investment companies that have said to us, ‘If you trust them, send them to us.’ We have become a first round of filtrations for VCs,” says Kulkarni.

It is rarer now for BKL to be able to carry out its own projects, although the company entered a new era by acquiring a startup, Redbud Software, which it helped start.

Towards the end of 2021, BKL acquired Redbud, a greenhouse management platform it originally helped launch in 2018 that now has huge growth potential in the cannabis industry.

Rockwell, who says he is emerging from the pandemic doldrums after losing both parents in the past two years, says focusing on startup energy is what has rejuvenated his love for the business.

“It’s part of the thrill – you know, every quarter something weird is going to happen. Today you work to better store cattle in a barn, yesterday it was sickle cell anemia, tomorrow it’s a vape sensitive connected to your phone.”

Cynthia Bent Findlay is a freelance writer.

Big Kitty Laboratories

670 Meridian Way, Suite 248 Westerville, OH 43082

bigkittylabs.com

Founders: Dan Rockwell, CEO and Tushar Kulkarni

Business: Software consulting

Employees: 55+

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