Cafe Carolina founder embarks on tech venture

Cafe Carolina & Bakery founder takes skills to a different field

dranii@newsobserver.comDecember 1, 2012 

— The founder of the Cafe Carolina & Bakery restaurant chain has gone in a whole new direction with his latest venture, a technology startup with star appeal.

Rob Autry’s company, Vstrator, markets its video technology as an instructional tool in the athletic arena and beyond.

Vstrator recently launched its first app for Apple mobile devices – Reggie Bush Workouts, an exercise tutorial featuring the star Miami Dolphins running back. Along with watching Bush’s workout routine and listening to his instructions, users can video themselves doing exercises and compare them alongside Bush’s to make sure their technique is sound.

In mid-December, Vstrator is launching a tennis instruction app featuring tennis great Rafael Nadal, and the company anticipates teaming up with other celebrities as well.

The price hasn’t yet been set for the Rafael Nadal Tennis Academy app, but the Bush app costs $4.99. About 2,000 have been sold since the app went on sale two months ago – with hardly any marketing. Autry is looking for a jump in sales after football season ends when Bush, who also is an investor in the business, will be free to promote the app in earnest.

The apps also play another role for Vstrator: They’re a vehicle for spreading the word about the Vstrator brand and its other product line – video analysis technology.

That technology, also called Vstrator, enables instructors to video a student and then draw on the video – just like those football announcers do on TV – and provide voice-over commentary to point out the good and the bad in the student’s technique.

“It’s a technology platform that is built to educate and accelerate performance,” said Autry, founder and president of the Raleigh company, which has 15 employees in temporary space in North Raleigh and 10 contract programmers in Russia.

Such technology has long been available, but it’s traditionally been a high-ticket item, Autry said. Vstrator is currently available for free, although the company will move in mid-December to a so-called freemium model – offering a free version plus a more robust version for $4.99 a month. Premium users will be able to customize their personal pages and track their progress, among other features.

The free version of Vstrator can be downloaded as an app from the iTunes store. It can also be used online at www.vstrator.com, where the company is gearing up to sell advertising.

Sam Paul, coach of the UNC-Chapel Hill tennis team, considers Vstrator “a great training tool.”

“The reason we like it: It is very simple,” Paul said. “You can video on your iPhone and iPad and use it immediately,” – as well as email it to the players afterward so they can review it as needed. Paul also likes that the slow-motion feature allows a frame-by-frame analysis, and that you can run now-and-then videos side byside to show how a player has progressed.

More than 100,000 people are using the free version of Vstrator, which was launched last year, Autry said. And although it’s mostly being used for sports instruction, the company is reaching out to other arenas where it could be useful, such as medicine and the military.

“This has great potential in so many different areas,” said Dean Jordan of the Raleigh office of Wasserman Media Group, a global sports and entertainment marketing agency that is working with Vstrator. “People who see the technology are impressed by it and immediately grasp its potential.” Jordan is the former president of the Carolina Hurricanes’ corporate parent, Gale Force Holdings.

Robert Butler, assistant professor of physical therapy at Duke University, has been using Vstrator with patients for a couple of months to help them make sure that they’re doing their exercises properly, track their progress, and for a show-and-tell that can help them reach their goals.

“People love it,” Butler said. He added that Vstrator enables him to communicate effectively with patients “in a time-efficient and really patient-centered manner.”

Autry said that to date Vstrator has been bankrolled with more than $3 million raised from friends and family, including more than $1 million of his own money. Those investors include Rory Read, former president of Lenovo and current CEO of computer chip maker Advanced Micro Devices.

Read couldn’t be reached for comment. But he posted a comment on Autry’s LinkedIn profile that said he is “confident the technology and team has endless possibilities. With Rob at the helm and his highly talented team tirelessly supporting his vision, I know my investment and the company are in very good hands.”

Autry also is optimistic about raising $2.5 million in new venture capital funding by the end of the year. He plans to use the money for marketing and to hire at least 10 more employees in 2013.

“We already have a verbal commitment for the lion’s share of that,” Autry said.

The company’s marketing efforts include targeting sports clubs.

“These pros and coaches see this as a money-making opportunity for them,” Autry said. A golf pro at a country club, for example, could charge an extra fee for a video analysis of a lesson.

Vstrator isn’t the only local startup that has waded into this market.

PowerChalk, a five-employee Cary company that last year raised $1 million from investors, offers inexpensive Web-based software that enables a coach and player to upload and mark up videos of the player in action and compare them to similar videos of a top professional.

Founded by serial entrepreneur Chaz Henry, the company has licensed its software to two Major League Baseball teams and Little League Baseball, among others. Henry also said the company, which is seeking $2 million in additional funding, is on the verge of signing a contract with a major camcorder maker that wants to sell its devices pre-loaded with PowerChalk’s software.

Vstrator grew out of Autry’s volunteer work on a local tennis tournament for the Jimmy V Foundation. Autry, who played tennis at the University of Central Oklahoma, teamed up on the tournament with Don Johnson, a former Wimbledon men’s doubles champion and a one-time member of the UNC-Chapel Hill tennis team. In their search to offer something different at the tournament, Autry approached a programmer he knew – Rob Zelt, now Vstrator’s chief technology officer – to come up with a video analysis tool that could be used as a fundraiser.

Autry and Johnson went on to form Vstrator, which was incorporated in 2010. The tennis contacts of Johnson, who remains a partner, helped the company link up with Nadal.

Autry – who founded Cafe Carolina with his wife, Lisa, in 1995 and ran the chain until 2004 – said he had no restaurant experience and really “had no business going into the restaurant business.”

But his background in sales and marketing, including stints at Phillip Morris and Coca-Cola, held him in good stead then. Now he is betting that his marketing skills, and what he says is a knack for hiring “the best people,” will serve him well in the technology arena.

Ranii: 919-829-4877

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