Last month, I covered the recent TEDx conference at Orlando's Dr. Phillips Center, and I singled out tech CEO Chandra Arthur's speech about code-switching as one of the event's highlights. Little did I know then that Arthur and her company Friendish would go viral, thanks to her being featured on the July 18 episode of Planet of the Apps, Apple Music's iOS-centric answer to Shark Tank, starring will.i.am and Gwyneth Paltrow. Arthur's appearance on the reality competition sparked a wave of interest in her Friendish app – a platonic Tinder that matches users with new IRL friends based on shared interests – and in Arthur herself, a rare Florida-based, non-technical woman of color in an industry dominated by white male techies in Silicon Valley.
FROM FLORIDA TO BERLIN AND BACK
Despite the recent surge of national attention, Arthur remains Orlando-oriented, as evidenced by her presence tonight (Wednesday, July 26) at the Abbey's Orlando Tech and Beer meet-up. Arthur made time ahead of the event to talk with me about her ambitious app, and the unconventional career path that brought her from Daytona Beach to Berlin and back again. "I don't write code," she's quick to admit, adding, "I'm a visionary and engineer, but not in ones and zeros." Instead, the FSU graduate's intro to the social media industry began accidentally while she was working in Germany as a baby-sitter for ex-pats.
"I had too many kids to baby-sit because I took on all these jobs and had more than I could handle, so I started outsourcing to my English-speaking friends," Arthur recalls. "I was facilitating these connections between parents and sitters, and I thought, 'Hey, this is a little niche market opportunity. Maybe I should try to create some sort of website where people can do this themselves, and I can take a percentage." Arthur says her Berlin baby-sitting network (based on the Ning web platform) had about 300 sitters and families at its height, before she "closed up shop" when family needs called her back to Central Florida, but the experience inspired her entrepreneurial spirit: "I was just trying to stop baby-sitting myself. ... The more I got into it, the more I realized this is a tech start-up that I'm trying to start."
A PLATONIC TINDER
Friendish, her current effort, was also inspired by her experiences upon returning home in 2013, when she struggled to connect with friends. "I immediately felt very lonely," she says, explaining that in Berlin "technology wasn't in my life the way it is now. I could sit in a restaurant for four or five hours with friends and never pick up the phone. ... Coming back here, everybody felt glued to their phones." She tried hosting dinner parties ("of course, no one showed up"), and using dating apps ("we're all reduced to a profile picture") and MeetUp ("a lot of pressure") without success before deciding "there's got to be another way" and starting work on Friendish in the summer of 2015.
Since then, Arthur has invested "thousands of hours of labor" into the friend-finding app, which initially launched in April 2016. Shortly after, Arthur applied to a casting call for Planet of the Apps and was selected. She calls her experience on the show "overwhelmingly positive," adding that "people in Orlando's tech community have been very supportive." Her starring role did expose a downside to having Apple's huge fanbase focused on your product, especially if it's a work in progress. "The product is not to my standards at all," says Arthur. "I think the vision and the idea is great, but the execution has to match it." Despite the current build's bugs, Arthur is confident that "it's an important thing that we're trying do, and I know that the market is interested in our solution ... I hope that our users will give us some grace and a little bit of time."
MOBILIZING BLACK CREATIVES
Since taping the show, Arthur secured an additional $25,000 in funding for further Friendish development, and is currently running an IndieGogo campaign to raise more. She's also occupied with BOT, the Black Orlando Tech organization she co-founded to "mobilize black creatives."
"You hear a lot of corporations say they can't find diverse talent," says Arthur, so BOT is trying to "create more access, opportunity and visibility for ourselves and anyone who's interested in what we're doing." And she plans to keep doing it in Orlando, which she calls "a city in transition on the cusp of something really great ... it feels like a ground-floor city [that's] accessible in a way that other bigger, larger cities are not."
You can see Arthur in person July 26 at the Abbey and enjoy a free screening of her Planet of the Apps episode (without a paid Apple Music subscription) during Orlando Tech & Beer's first event in its new larger location. Regular meetings resume in August on the fourth Thursday of the month; see techandbeers.com for the schedule.