Timothy Kephart, Graffiti Tracker: “I hated my company.”


kephardt1SPN: The last time we did a story on you and Graffiti Tracker was in 2010. What have you been up to for the past 5 years?

TK: I’ve spent the better part of the past five years traveling. I spend my winters in the Dominican Republic and usually summer in Europe. I’m researching graffiti in these various areas looking to expand the company further beyond the United States and Canada.

SPN: Researching graffiti sounds like it could be dangerous work.

TK: It can be dangerous depending on the area. The scariest place for me was in Beirut back in July of 2013. The war in Syria was really having a spillover effect in Lebanon. The week before I arrived in Beirut there were a couple of car bombings. Some 700,000 refugees, mostly Sunni, had fled to Lebanon, and many of those were in Beirut.

I hired a fixer, and we drove around the Hezbollah area taking pictures of the graffiti. Looking back on it, a big white guy with a camera snapping pictures on the street as we drove by probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do. My friends still joke with me that there’s some office somewhere with a wall dedicated to trying to find out who this white guy was with a big ass camera.

The graffiti there was mixed in nature. A lot of it was political, in some way showing support for Syrian President Assad. But there were also the traditional types of graffiti you see in the states.

I’d like to know more about it, but given the geopolitical situation of the region, it’s probably best to give a wide berth for the time being.

SPN: Why did you leave Omaha?

TK: Failed marriage aside, I left because I was tired of everything. Over the years I had grown to despise my company. In fact, I hated it.  As usually is the case with hate, I learned over time that it was more to do with me than the company. Be that as it may, I needed time to get away from everything. I was burned out in life, and for me Omaha came to represent that.

SPN: If you hated your company, why did you stick with it?

TK: That’s a good question. I’m not really sure I know why. I had considered selling it at the time, but those were mostly daydreaming types of thoughts. In the end what I ultimately learned was that the problem was me. Yeah, I could go and justify blaming everyone else, but what I realized was that I was the common denominator in all of those problems.

So essentially, it turns out, the only person I had to blame for feeling the way I did was myself. I find that when you have multiple problems and you’re the common denominator, it’s best to start doing some truthful soul searching and exploration because more often than not you’re what’s wrong.

SPN: What do you feel has been your biggest success with Graffiti Tracker?

TK: Our product. It’s the only reason why this company hasn’t augured into the ground. If it wasn’t for the product I’d have ran this company completely into oblivion with all the mistakes I’ve made. I got one thing right, and it turns out it was the most important thing to get right: I built a product that people actually want. When I built it though, I was building it for myself and fortunately for me other agencies wanted it also.

SPN: What were some of your biggest mistakes when you first started Graffiti Tracker?

TK: The biggest mistake I made was getting caught up in the nonsense of the “tech scene.” SXSW is a great example of that. When I first started going it was back during the time that some wine guy was talking about “crushing it” and all sorts of other happy horse shit.

That led to my biggest waste of money, to the tune of around $300,000: I got an office. That was a terrible waste of resources. Office space may be what others need, but for my staff and my company it’s a complete waste of money.

The biggest mistake I made was getting caught up in the nonsense of the “tech scene.”

I can remember going to the office every day, sitting down at my computer with nothing to do. So what did I do? I invented garbage. Which led to another $300,000 being wasted on pointless research.

If I had just stayed true to what I believed and didn’t get caught up in this fake wave of excitement I would be much better off. But I was stupid and naive and wasted over a half a million dollars.

SPN: What’s your one piece of advice for tech entrepreneurs in the Silicon Prairie?

TK: I was fortunate enough when I was in grad school to have a great mentor. His name was Dr. Berg. He used to always say to me, “So what?” At the time I used to get frustrated with that question.

When I was writing my masters thesis and I discovered these hidden messages contained within the graffiti renderings I quickly went to his office to tell him about it. His response, as you can imagine, was “So what?”

I was taken aback by that. I thought, “What do you mean ‘So what?’ Are you crazy? They’re talking to each other through graffiti!” Again his response was the same “So what?”

What he was training me to do was to start thinking about the implications of everything that we do. So while it was great and exciting that there were these hidden messages contained within the graffiti renderings, answering the question of “So what?” became far more important as it ended up laying the foundation for what would eventually become Graffiti Tracker.

So my advice is to ask yourself that question whenever you have an idea. Whenever there is some new product you want to create and you have this idea of how it will benefit all of mankind, ask yourself, “So what?”

SPN: How do you define your own success?

TK: I define it in how others view me. I’d love to sit here and tell you that the opinion of others doesn’t bother me, but that’s simply not true.

I should probably be more specific though. “Others” is a little bit ambiguous. There are certain people who I care deeply what they think about me. Close friends, for example. People I’ve never met, I don’t so much care what they think. But those that are close to me, and that’s a small number, I care very much what they think and have to say.

As related to my company, my clients matter very much to me as well. Nothing makes me happier than when a new client signs up or renews. I know that they have options, and it makes me very proud when they choose my company.


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