Freedom, a consumer technology startup in Durham, started out of a need for founder Fred Stutzman to focus.
When Stutzman was a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science, he would work out of a coffee shop with no Internet connection to keep himself focused and off social media. The plan worked until one day the coffee shop connected to Wi-Fi, leaving Stutzman exposed to the distractions of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
That’s when Stutzman went home and developed a plan to keep himself offline: a button for his computer that would block the Internet for about 45 minutes. Being generous, Stutzman uploaded the application, making it available to everyone to download for free.
“I just kind of let that ride,” he said.
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Today, Freedom is more than just Stutzman, 37, and his computer. It’s six people working both remotely and from an office in Durham. And that button has become an app users pay for – it is approaching 100,000 paid subscribers – that is available across Mac, Windows, Android and iOS platforms.
Users have flexibility in how they use the app, from being able to purchase a version just for one device or multiple devices.
Freedom offers a free version that only lets users block up to five sites and is limited to one desktop and two subscription options. A “Plus” package, costing $24 a year, allows users to schedule recurring sessions and block an unlimited number of sites on multiple desktops. For $45 a year, users can get a “Premium” package that gives them both desktop and mobile access.
Freedom isn’t the only company that sees opportunity in developing online tools to help people stay focused.
SelfControl, an opensource app for Macs only, lets users block certain sites for a chosen amount of time. Cold Turkey, an app for Windows, blocks an unlimited number of websites for a certain amount of time. Both SelfControl and Cold Turkey are free, although Cold Turkey also offers a $19 Pro version that lets users block applications, set recurring blocks and add exceptions to the block.
Stutzman said competing apps might only work on one kind of device and also don’t offer users the same amount of flexibility as Freedom.
“Nobody’s doing it across devices,” he said. “If you want to do it across different devices, you have to download a bunch of apps.”
“A lot of these apps are built by hobbyists who are working on them when they have time,” he added. “So our goal is to create a professional category here so you know when iOS 9 comes out, you know it’s going to work.”
Stutzman wrote the freeware program in a couple of hours, solely for Mac users, in 2008.
Within its first year as freeware, it was download a half million times. Feature requests from users started pouring in. Some wanted a Windows version. Others wanted more flexibility with blocking certain websites or blocking for different periods of time.
Stutzman heard the requests and took each suggestion one at a time.
Still in graduate school, Stutzman told his academic adviser he was taking a week off from his dissertation to create a Windows version and that’s when he started charging for the software.
“Over that time, I saw just how big the problem is,” he said. “All of these forces created an opportunity for me to do what I was doing at a larger scale.”
In 2013, two years after completing his Ph.D., Stutzman left his job as a visiting professor at UNC to work on Freedom full time. He moved the company into Launch Chapel Hill, a startup accelerator in downtown Chapel Hill.
Dina Rousset, Launch Chapel Hill’s program manager, said Stutzman has a clear vision and a clear plan.
“Fred is an incredibly bright guy. He’s just very thoughtful, purposeful,” Rousset said. “Often enough you see entrepreneurs, and they have a thousand ideas.”
Stutzman stayed at Launch from June 2013 to October 2014, meeting potential investors and working in shared office space.
Freedom broke even a month after launching, and Stutzman moved the company to Durham after realizing he needed a space of his own. The company raised $350,000 in seed financing in June from a group of angel investors and New York’s Pilot Mountain Ventures.
Ask Stutzman about his managerial style, and his eyes grow large.
“(It’s) running around with your hair on fire,” he says jokingly.
Life in the office can be a bit quiet but not from a lack of brainstorming. Most of the six employees work remotely, with one based in France this year. Others work around the Triangle, coming in on some days. Apps like Slack, a messaging service designed for team projects, and Github, a collaborative software building tool, are the backbone of the company.
“At a very small company, having people be remote is totally fine because you have the time for one-on-one communication,” Stutzman said.
Stutzman comes from research and development. He has one other startup under his belt, an identity managment website, ClaimID.com, but it was more of a side project that he and fellow grad student Terrell Russell started together in 2006. The two shut down the site in 2013.
A former software developer turned entrepreneur, Stutzman is still trying to figure out his managerial strengths and weaknesses.
“It’s not like this idea was started with three people in a bar who all have a different skill set,” he said about the founding of Freedom. “We try things, and everybody has input.”
For most of the staff this is their first startup so everyone’s learning still, Stutzman says.
“You hear these startups who talk about how things are perfect all the time,” he said. “The reality is that it’s challenging.”
Mark Easley, a Research Triangle Park-based angel investor, said the ideas that make money are the ones that save people money. That’s why he invested in Freedom.
“Whenever you come up with a software that saves time or saves money, those are usually the most successful,” Easley said.
Stutzman talks with his advisers and investors constantly. He talks about the next steps, about both how to spend the money he’s raised and when he should start seeking out investors for the company’s next round.
Stutzman’s goal is to expand Freedom to about 10 employees and add additional features that will help attract new users. He needs to hire more engineers all while trying to find ways to bring in more revenue.
“You just figure out where you want to be and then walk back,” he said.