JT Lidell is the Founder of Promenade, which seamlessly matches and connects military veterans to the resources, people, and organizations that matter to them.
Chad talks with JT about being a mission-driven, bootstrapped organization, the problems that he's encountered and hopes that Promenade solves, and aggregating people, tools, resources, and funding to make it happen.
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CHAD: This is the Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots Podcast, where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Chad Pytel and with me today is JT Liddell, the Founder of Promenade, which seamlessly matches and connects military veterans to the resources, people, and organizations that matter to them. JT, thank you so much for joining me.
JT: No, thank you for having me. Excited to talk to you about what we're building over here and having this conversation. So thank you so much for having me on today.
CHAD: I love mission-driven organizations, and Promenade falls right into that. How did it come about for you?
JT: Yeah, this has been...the inception of it really truly began many, many years ago when I first joined the military straight out of high school. So I went to The Naval Academy, actually, started there then went to the army. Fast forward 7, 8, 9, 10 years, and as I was getting out of the military and trying to join the civilian workforce, the civilian world, that's where a lot of the problems and challenges that I'm trying to solve through Promenade started.
And then, working in the technology space in corporate America really allowed me to identify some of the solutions and tools that I'm working with now. But to answer your original question, the beginning of Promenade or the inception of Promenade really began with my entry into the military.
CHAD: What were some of the problems that you encountered and that you hope that Promenade solves?
JT: Back in 2000...I left the military officially in 2010 but went straight into defense contracting work from there and worked there for a few years. And it was, as I was leaving, I went literally from Afghanistan, and 30 days later, I was sitting in an MBA classroom. And leaving Afghanistan, I thought there was literally no problem, no challenge...after going through three deployments to Afghanistan and being deployed to other parts of the world, I was like, there's nothing that I'm going to come against that I won't be able to tackle. That was the furthest from the truth.
So there are a number of issues when it came to relationships, when it came to navigating the workforce, when it came to just understanding how drastically different the civilian world was from being in the military and the defense industry. So those problems are umbrellas, and there are many, many things underneath those that I came up against.
CHAD: What are some of the ways that, you know, I speak as someone not having served in the military. What are some of the big ways in which civilian employment is different?
JT: It wasn't even necessarily...well, obviously, there are huge differences obviously from the military and civilian employment. But it was really even like, how do you get entry into the civilian workforce just from the very beginning? So, how do you craft a resume? It seems like a minor thing at this point in my life, but it's a huge one. When you leave the military, you have these 9, 10, 11-page resumes. And that's what you're supposed to do. You're supposed to put literally every single piece of experience that you have on this resume.
But when you come to the civilian world, you have to somehow condense all of that down to one page, and there's a science to doing that, and that was one of the first huge hurdles. Because a resume is just your ticket into the door, it's a ticket to that interview. That's just literally the first step. And that was something that I didn't realize was something I was going to have to hone my skill at.
CHAD: Do you think that a lot of companies overlook the value of military service?
JT: Yeah, that's a tough one to answer. So it's hard to say overlook when as a military veteran just taking myself, for instance, you know, in a lot of ways, I was not communicating effectively what my experience was in relation to the value I could provide to that organization. So as a recruiter or a headhunter, whoever is doing that initial review, they're simply looking...for a large part, they don't have experience in the military. So they don't understand the jargon and what some of these different jobs really mean with the impact they had on their organization. So there's still a lot of meat in the middle here.
So that individual needs to do a better job of communicating the exact value through a corporate sense how that value could contribute to corporate America or whatever type of organization they're trying to join. And organizations need to do a much better job of understanding that there's this untapped value in the military community and teaching and training their organizations or whoever is doing the intake process to look for the value that the military community can bring. So I don't think it's a one-sided thing. I think both sides need to come together and do a better job.
CHAD: So I said in the intro that Promenade matches and connects veterans to the resources, people, and organizations that matter to them. What exactly does that look like in terms of the product today and what you're doing?
JT: Yeah, absolutely. So this really began as a grassroots operation through my own ecosystem. Many, many years ago, when I was first getting in the military, and I was starting to get traction and understanding how to navigate the civilian world, I started to reach back. People would reach out to me, and I would reach back. And they would ask me, "How did you get here? How did you do that?" And I would just help people, review their resumes for them, get them connected to different jobs and career pathways. And then I started to do that a little bit more officially, if you will.
And then, I realized this is not just a problem within my own ecosystem; this is a problem across the military community. So as I was working in technology, as I mentioned before, I started to identify tools, one of them being artificial intelligence, that could help me scale the work that I was doing. So the pathway that I started to set out on was how do I take this grassroots work that I'm doing, and then how do I scale that work to millions of people rather than just dozens of people? So that's the journey that I'm on right now. I don't know if that answered your question or not.
CHAD: So if someone is listening and they're a veteran, what is the product going to offer them now?
JT: So they'll come on, and they'll onboard to the platform. So essentially, we're just taking the process that we've been doing offline, and we're bringing it online. So they'll come on. They'll fill out some demographic information. They'll answer a few questions about where they are in their current post-military journey. They could even be thinking about getting out. The product will still help them as they're on their way out, thinking about getting out. They could have been out for a month, a year, an entire decade doesn't really matter. We'll help assess where they are in their post-military journey.
After they go through that intake process, we'll give them the option to talk to one of our coaches, which can make this experience a little bit more personalized. And that's one of the huge things that I learned as I've been building Promenade is when I first started tackling this, thinking about tackling this issue through technology, I was like, okay, this technology these tools that I've identified and I've researched these are going to be the things that solve this problem. That's what's going to do this. No, that's what's going to fix this.
[chuckles] And what I quickly realized is you can't remove that human component from this process. There are just things that technology doesn't understand about the military experience. So having a coach, having an individual or human to talk to at the very beginning of this process, or whatever that individual needs is extremely crucial and hugely beneficial to this process. So we put that coach in front of them. That's completely optional because we do want to allow this to be self-service and self-guided.
So if they choose to get in front of that coach, they'll be able to talk one on one and augment this process. If they don't, they'll go straight to our dashboard. And what the dashboard will do is it's going to help that individual identify different areas within their post-military journey where they can improve and get better.
And, Chad, we haven't talked about this, but we've got this social impact-driven product that we're building. But the lens that we're really thinking about this is through a healthcare lens. So what that means is there's this term called social determinants of health. And what that means is...the very simple version is a super simple concept. Every part of your life impacts your overall health. The health care system, like when you go to the hospital, only impacts 20%-30% of your overall health.
The things that truly impact your health are things like, do you have a job? Have you talked to a therapist in the last six months? Do you have food, you know, the right type of food? Do you have access to the right type of food? Not just food. Are you ordering Burger King every day, McDonald's every day? But are you eating healthy food? And do you have consistent access? Those are the things that affect your overall health.
So we look at all of these different factors about the veteran and how they're going through their post-military journey. And we give them a score on all these different verticals. So essentially, through that score, we're helping them identify what those gaps are, and then we're pushing them resources to help fill those gaps.
So they'll get a couple of things through our platform. They'll get that dashboard and that score and personally recommended or personalized recommended resources to them, and that's where the artificial intelligence component comes into it. And then they'll have sort of a search field where they can just go and keyword for things just like they would go into Google and search for something.
And then the third component to this is the community that we're building, and that won't be rolled out initially. But once we've got critical mass, we've got a community that we're building where they'll get connected to people within our community, maybe people with the same skills and interest, people that they were deployed with, people that they were stationed with, or people that they just came across. And we've got a method to do that. But that's really what it's about is bringing this community together, helping them assess where they are in their post-military journey, and then putting the right resources in front of them at the right time based on who they are. So that's the experience they'll get, to answer your question.
CHAD: Awesome. Who pays for Promenade?
JT: So it's going to be twofold. So there'll be a freemium model for the military veteran, so all those things that I just mentioned, minus one or two. They'll get free access to the platform. So they'll be able to log on. They'll be able to see where they're at in their journey. And they'll be able to navigate the platform and get those personalized recommendations.
On the organizational side, they will also pay to access the platform. And then there's some other work...back when I mentioned a couple of minutes ago that organizations need to do a better job of understanding the military community, we help organizations better understand the military community, attract and retain military veteran talent if that's something that they're in the business of doing. So there are multiple ways to do it.
CHAD: And organizations would pay for that.
JT: That's right. Absolutely. Yeah.
CHAD: Is that a significant or a fundamental part of the business model?
JT: Which part?
CHAD: The organizations paying.
JT: Yeah, it is. So it depends on which part of interacting with the organization that we're talking about. So there are two ways we can do that. There's A, giving them access to the platform so just, for example, on the jobs portion, careers portion, recruiters. We'd give them access to the platform to get access to the talent. But on the let's help this organization think about how they're even reaching out to the veteran community, how they're recruiting them, the process that veterans are going through in order to apply to these organizations, once veterans are in these organizations, how are they supporting the veteran community?
And maybe even after they've left, depending on which organization you're talking about, how are you supporting that veteran community once they've left so they can be...you want them to be ambassadors for your organization. How are you supporting the veteran community even after they've left? So that's two completely different ways that we can interact with the organization. The fundamental one would be those organizations getting access to our platform and interacting with the veteran community. That for sure would be fundamental to what we're building.
CHAD: So who's funding Promenade right now?
JT: [laughs] Yeah, that's a great question. So this is definitely up until maybe a year or so ago; it's definitely been bootstrap built for sure completely out of my pocket. But thanks to some of the visibility we were able to get, in the work we were able to do, organizations were able to get in touch. We've gotten a couple of grants, one huge one from Google for Startups last year. That was $100,000 from Google for Startups. That's been obviously huge for the work and the momentum.
And what I always tell people is, you know, Chad, you've been doing this a while. [laughs] You know that $100,000 can get run through pretty quickly in the tech startup space. That was huge, and I don't want to downplay that by any means. But that wasn't even the biggest impact to what we're doing. It's just the visibility that it created for our organization.
We've had just the veterans that we work with; we've had so many reach out just because they heard about us but organizations as well that have reached out to us. They want to work with us. They want to support us. That was huge. But to answer your question, it's a combination of grant money, cash awards from different organizations, and bootstrapping it from me JT here.
CHAD: Well, thanks for doing that [laughs] and bringing this really important service to life. What are some of the barriers to achieving the success that you want to achieve with Promenade?
JT: What we're doing is essentially we're aggregating information. We're aggregating people. We're aggregating tools and resources. We're bringing all this together. I didn't think it would be easy by any means. But it's definitely much harder than I imagined it would be when I set out in this journey a couple of years ago. One of the hardest things about this is you've got all of these different areas that you're trying to assess veterans and getting these tools and resources and organizations in front of them. How do you consistently and with quality put those organizations and tools and resources in front of the veteran?
I want all of them to have the same experience. I want them to have an amazing experience. I want them to get connected quickly and with quality to the people and organizations and tools that they need to get connected to. So how do you make that experience consistent and standard across the board? And how do you control as much as possible the quality of that interaction?
Building these partnerships has been challenging. It's been difficult. But every time, I get frustrated...just like, every startup goes through those barriers. You get frustrated. I just think back to those moments where I was down on my post-military journey. And I'm like, I never want another veteran to have to go through that. That's what keeps me pushing when those barriers do hit.
And I'm like, this is going to be hard. How do I keep that organization, or how do I ensure that organization is doing A, B, and C? How do I ensure I'm keeping this veteran pushing forward and motivated when they get frustrated? Those are some of the barriers. But as I said before, I just look back on when I was going through my journey. And I don't want any veteran to have to go through that experience. So that's what keeps me going.
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CHAD: So you officially started Promenade in May of 2020. Is that right?
JT: I came up with the idea actually in 2017 sort of the framework for what I'm doing now. And I'm in Atlanta, Georgia, and I don't know how much you know about the tech startup space in Atlanta, Georgia, but it's booming right now for sure. That'd be an understatement. And I have a few different people around me, a number of people around me in my ecosystem that are in the tech startup space. And I watched them going through their own personal journeys and finding success.
And I was like, number one, I have all these people around me that are doing it, non-technical founders, technical founders, first-time founders. There's no reason I can't also do this. And then number two, I was like, if I looked on my phone seven years from now and I saw a Promenade built by somebody else, I'd be super pissed. [laughter] I'm going to be so pissed.
I remember this quite clearly December 2019; I was like, you have to do something; if you don't, you're going to regret it. So December 2019, I went, and I signed up for this organization here in Atlanta called ATDC. I signed up for my first intro to customer discovery class. And from there, I've been pushing ever since. I think I incorporated the organization around May or March or something like that officially. But the idea, inception in its current form probably 2017 and then really began building in January 2020.
CHAD: So, how do you think the pandemic has impacted the ability to start Promenade?
JT: Yeah, a number of different ways. But I would say net-net actually in a positive way in not like the actual of what the pandemic means but the environment. It showed me clear as day that there's a huge net need for digital services when it comes to the military veteran community. Because a large resource for the veteran community is Department of Veteran Affairs, you know, doing amazing work doing great work. But just like many other government organizations, many aspects of it were shut down during the pandemic.
So let's just talk about mental wellness because that's something that is highly visible in the veteran community as being an issue. The suicide rate increased exponentially during the pandemic within the veteran community. That's because people are isolated. They're already going through issues; maybe people are getting out of the military during the pandemic.
It just showed me that there's a huge increased need for digitally online for this veteran community, resources for the veteran community, and just giving them an ecosystem to interact in. And it just pushed me even harder to build what I was building. So the pandemic was obviously a very terrible thing, but in terms of Promenade and the work that I was doing, it just made me go even harder for sure.
CHAD: So right now, is it just you?
JT: Yeah, so it's me. I've got one personal assistant, and I've got several designers and developers that I work with.
CHAD: On a contract basis?
JT: Yes, all contractors. But in terms of people who are hands-on building this thing, I probably couldn't even count the number, as I'm sure you know when it comes to developers and designers trying to build these solutions. But in terms of being officially a part of Promenade, it's still just me going at this thing right now.
CHAD: And while you're doing this, you have another full-time job, right?
JT: I do. I do.
CHAD: I think that's a scenario that a lot of people find themselves in is wanting to do something new but not necessarily being able to, you know, you're bootstrapping something on the side. How do you make it work? And what would need to happen for you to take the leap to be able to just work on Promenade?
JT: How do I make it work? A lot of Red Bull, a lot of energy drinks, [chuckles] and a lot of late nights. But again, as I mentioned before, that's something I would put in as time as a barrier when it comes to building this thing. I just take it back to the many conversations I have with veterans as they've been going through their own personal journeys. That just keeps me going.
As far as what would it take for me to move away to work on Promenade full time, the only true thing I think it would take would really be line of sight and visibility on being able to drive this thing forward in a sustainable manner, just having a line of sight on that, on this thing. Okay, I've got the traction. I can see it. It's tangible. I just need to do A, B, and C to keep pushing this thing forward. I know that's sort of vague, but that's really what it would take.
CHAD: Do you think you're going to have to take funding from somewhere, or do you think you can continue to bootstrap and operate on the grants and awards?
JT: It depends. That's a good question. That's something I've gone back and forth with. Working in the tech startup space, that's something that's discussed a lot is angel investors and VCs, and you need to do this to attract funders and things like that. That's something that's discussed a lot in this space. But it's something that I've gone back and forth with. It really comes down to what I want this thing to be at the end of the day. This thing could be huge. There's a huge gap in the military veteran space in a multitude of ways.
This thing could be a unicorn if that's the direction I really wanted to take it. And I think if I go down that pathway, it's for sure going to take funding from outside sources. But if I want to keep this thing more small scale or maybe even local to that Atlanta, Georgia region where I live and only focus on that one region, that's something I could probably bootstrap until I've got the revenue necessary to work on it full time and just keep it at more of a local level.
But I think based on the impact that I'm trying to have throughout the entire veteran community and not just on veterans themselves but the organizations which could help...we've got this concept called train the trainer in the military, which is the experience I had as well. But essentially, it's I can do all the work and have all the impact. But it would be 10X more impactful if I'm working with Fortune 500 companies that are doing the same thing that I'm doing, impact in the veteran community in the same way that I am.
So I think that's the direction I'll probably end up going, and that's why I'll have to go look for funding from other sources to build this thing the way I want to build it. So we'll see. We'll see.
CHAD: The problem with funding, obviously, is that if it comes from traditional investment sources, then they expect a return, and you have to be able to show that. It might be made up, but you have to have a story that demonstrates that there's a return. And you alluded to one angle at the beginning when you talked about healthcare. Do you see that as a potential angle in terms of what the business model might be and what industry you might actually be part of?
JT: That's a great question. So I know that if I go full-fledged down the healthcare route, social determinants of health, tracking health outcomes for the veteran community, then most definitely, this would be something where I would need outside funding, traditional funding to build this thing. And I think that's where when it comes to like, okay, I set out on this journey to impact the veteran community, and I want to have the most impact possible. That's going to be the route I'm going to have to go down.
But quite candidly, I do not have at this point enough expertise around the healthcare space to say, okay, let's go down that pathway. Right now, part of the journey that I'm on outside of just trying to build this thing and get this thing launched over the next month, or two is how do I get myself more integrated into the healthcare world to better understand how what I'm building overlaps or integrates into what's going on around social determinants of health in the healthcare space? And how do I insert myself into that? That's something I'm currently assessing.
CHAD: Well, and the interesting thing, too, for me is the thought that I wonder if that actually is something that is top of mind for the users, the veterans, or whether they're just thinking I need a job, [chuckles] and they're not necessarily thinking about their health top of mind. I mean, what do you think?
JT: They're not today. Absolutely not. Today when they reach out to me, they're like...and it's funny because that just opens another can of worms. But it just opens up this whole nother aspect of what I'm doing. So when they come to me, they're like, "I need a job." They're like, "I'm about to lose my car. I need help with my car payment," or "I'm going to be homeless soon." That's how people reach out to me. But, Chad, that's not truly the issue.
As you can imagine, if you're at the point to where you're about to be homeless, there's all this other stuff going on within your life. That's truly the work that we do. It's like people come to me...I have people reach out to me literally every single day. "I need help with this. I need help with that." And I'm like, okay, I have a conversation with them. And then we realize there's like 9, 10, 11 other things going on. So to answer your question, they're not thinking about this healthcare issue.
And from a user standpoint, that's not even how I want to approach this, like telling them, "Oh, I'm going to be here to improve your health outcomes." I wouldn't have that conversation with them. My conversation with them would still be around these different pillars. But on the organizational side, that's where I would communicate to them and say, "I've got these group of individuals who are coming to me and saying, 'I need this assistance.'" And what we're doing at the end of the day is improving their health outcomes. And what that means is, healthcare payer, they're not touching your healthcare system, which means you're saving tons of money.
And that's the part that I'm currently unpacking to say, okay, not to the user that we're doing this work and healthcare but to these organizations. And there are examples of this already out there. So, how do I do that but stay true to the work that I'm doing with the military veteran? Because one of the things that I know that's not going to change for what I'm building is the focus on the user. There are 40,000 veteran service organizations alone. There's $250 billion that gets poured into the veteran community through the Department of Veteran Affairs.
So there's no shortage of organizations working on the veteran community, with the veteran community, and there's no shortage of money out there when it comes to helping bolster the veteran community or improve outcomes within the veteran community. The true challenge that I see or the true issue that I see is there's a lack of focus on the actual veteran themselves and what they're going through. There are no tools out there for them to tap into and go on this journey. That's what I'm laser-focused on is how do I create an amazing experience for the military veteran themselves, not the organizations that are out there doing some of this work, if that makes sense.
CHAD: It totally does. And I think it really makes sense for you. I think it's a problem that a lot of startups face is that there's this draw, maybe because of your business model or because of the environment that you have this other piece, but what you really need to do is focus on creating value for your users. And in an ideal world, those two things become aligned over time.
You mentioned...a little while ago, you said something over the next few months, we got to get this launched. So there's a sign-up on the website now to become part of the community. But are you not fully launched yet?
JT: No. So what we've got right now is a landing page which essentially is building a list for individuals. Once I launch, I reach out and say, "Hey, we're live." What's not publicly facing right now is that user experience that I described. That's what's being built. But let me take a step back because we're still doing that grassroots work to where we're working with veterans one on one. So that's still something that we're heavily doing. But again, the idea here is to how do I replicate this work that we're doing to millions of people? That's what we're going to roll out here.
CHAD: I know timelines can be tricky. [laughs] What is your working timeline for doing that?
JT: As far as launching it?
JT: [laughs] When people ask me, you know, one or two months. It's funny; when I first started this back when I was doing the customer discovery, I was getting all this great information and learning more intimately about what the veterans community is going through. I've got my own experience. I've got the experience of people within my ecosystem. But I was just astounded by all the myriad of issues that were going on.
And I was like, oh man, I'm going to have something built and ready to go in like three months. And this is like January 2020, February 2020. I was like, I'm going to have something by Veterans Day this year. It's going to be like everyone's going to know about it. Obviously, that didn't happen because the realities [laughs] of building a tech startup set in really quickly. But we're fairly close. I'm aiming for no later than two or three months, but I hate to put the actual time on it just yet.
CHAD: And I think as a founder, you need to give yourself...pressure is good. But you also need to give yourself permission to not ship until you're ready and proud of what you've done. Now the trick is most people wait too long. [laughs] So the trick is actually forcing yourself to launch something that you're probably not unhappy with but actually is sufficient.
JT: Yeah, that's right. That's right. I don't want to wait until it's, quote, unquote, "perfect." But I do want to ensure that the individuals that do come to the front door in the very beginning they're going to get a great experience. And if they don't, then there's that feedback loop that helps us get better because that's what it's about. Whether you're a young tech startup or you're Facebook or whoever, there needs to be that feedback loop built-in in the right way. So that's what we're doing.
We're trying to ensure that, okay, we've got the foundation of this thing built correctly. And then we've got these feedback loops at all the right points to make this thing even better going forward. And then separately, as every founder is going through, how do you continue to build this thing or fund this thing, rather, to keep it going forward? And that's through bootstrapping. That's through the revenue model that we've got going. And that's through some of these partnerships that we're trying to put wet ink on right now as well. So a lot of things going on.
CHAD: So if someone's listening to this and they're in a position where they say, "I care a lot about this. I want to help. I'm a founder or a leader at a company. And I want to work with Promenade." How do they get in touch with you? Where are the best places for them to do that?
JT: Yeah, they can reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. That's the quickest and easiest way. We've got our Instagram page up and our LinkedIn page up. You can reach out on there. But the quickest way if you're like, I want to contribute, our organization we've been thinking about how do we work with the veteran community more closely? How do we recruit them? I've got veterans in my family that are going through some of the same challenges. I want to get them in touch with you. The quickest way is just email email@example.com.
CHAD: Awesome. And good luck in this final stretch towards launch. And I wish you all the best.
JT: I appreciate it.
CHAD: And maybe you can come back on the show a few months post-launch and debrief. [laughs]
JT: Yeah. I would love to. I would love to. I'm sure I'll have plenty of lessons learned. [laughs]
CHAD: Yeah, exactly. Again, that was promenade.ai for the website. And you can subscribe to this show and find notes for this episode along with a complete transcript at giantrobots.fm. If you have questions or comments, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find me on Twitter @cpytel. Thank you, JT, for stopping by. If other folks want to follow along with you, where can they do that?
JT: Instagram, we're at promenade.ai, and LinkedIn, you can find us the same way.
CHAD: Awesome. This podcast is brought to you by thoughtbot and produced and edited by Mandy Moore. Thanks for listening and see you next time.
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