January 19, 2018
Andrew Gilliland ’19 (left) and Josh Hackett ’18 run iSpyPens, a company that produces pens with high-resolution cameras hidden inside.
Spartan Accelerator Series: A focus on the current student and recent alumni startups that are part of the Spartan Accelerator program.
Andrew Gilliland’s most recent business was conceived in the McNeel Boathouse, where he was a resident assistant in an entrepreneurship learning community. He met his first business partner there, and while the two eventually parted ways, Gilliland has been hard at work since growing iSpyPens to a six-figure business.
“I just always have loved projects and creativity. It’s a way I’ve always thought,” said Gilliland, a junior. “I consider myself lucky because I found my passion — business and technology — when I was young, and a lot of people don’t necessarily know what they want to do.”
Gilliland isn’t new to e-commerce. Since he was in middle school, he has started more than 10 different e-commerce ventures, from selling licensed sports hats from China and inventing paintball grenades to a yard sale resale idea on eBay. It wasn’t the product that got him excited though — it was the process.
“I realized I’m passionate about technology, not selling retail clothing,” said Gilliland, who is majoring in business information technology. “I didn’t do it for the hats. I did it because I loved the back-end side of it. I loved dealing with customers, I loved marketing, I loved building a brand. It’s never been about the money either, I just like building.”
Gilliland met Josh Hackett ’18 his first year at UT, and they used to eat together, talking about stocks and crazy ideas for businesses they could start. Hackett had been selling wholesale items on eBay since high school and had become interested in social media marketing, starting his own company. Hackett, a cybersecurity major, now leads the marketing efforts for iSpyPens.
The product is a usable pen that has a high-resolution camera hidden inside. “You simply press the button on the top of the pen to start recording video. When you’re done recording you just press the button again, unscrew the top and plug it directly into your computer like a USB flash drive,” Gilliland said. “One of the differences between using a device like ours and a phone is that you can actually capture authentic moments on the device.”
He said their customers have been using it to help in cases of sexual harassment and racial discrimination. Globally, he said the video surveillance market is quickly growing.
“What we have now is the most successful company I’ve ever run or managed,” Gilliland said of iSpyPens, which employs eight independent contractors and one intern, all of whom are UT students. While they primarily sell directly to the customer, they want to pursue more business-to-business channels in 2018 and are developing a WiFi-enabled pen that features an HD video camera, which they hope to roll out in early 2019.
iSpyPens is being housed in the Lowth Entrepreneurship Center’s Spartan Accelerator, an on-campus incubator connecting students to a network of resources. Both Hackett and Gilliland said the center was a big reason they both chose to come to UT. The choice also brought them together as a business team, one that is thriving on their combined synergy.
“We’re both very positive, but we can respectfully call out the other when we have an issue,” Gilliland said. “We can communicate really well, which is so important.”
When Hackett, who was offered a full-ride scholarship for track at a university in North Carolina, visited UT for the first time, he said it was intuition that lead the way.
“The first time I came to the school, I kid you not, there were like three rainbows. It was beautiful. I was driving around in a golf cart, and I was like, this is where I’m meant to be. I just knew it,” Hackett said. “I knew the opportunities were endless being near the city. Tampa has a lot of younger individuals who are inspired to make a difference not just here but in the world. That’s what I love. I wanted to be around people I could grow with. I wouldn’t have met Andrew, I wouldn’t be here right now if not for those little decisions I quickly made with my intuition.”
In December, the team gave a keynote address to more than 500 high school students involved locally with DECA. In November, they participated in the HSN American Dreams Academy, an interactive, educational and experiential two-day summit for emerging entrepreneurs looking to launch or expand their businesses, where Gilliland and Hackett gave their product to entrepreneur and investor Daymond John of ABC's Shark Tank and pitched their product to HSN with whom they are currently in talks about future opportunities.
In addition, out of more than 200 applicants, the team has made it through the first round of student startups to compete as semifinalists in Student Startup Madness, a three-round national collegiate startup competition with finals held at SXSW in Austin, TX.
“We started this company with $400 — it’s a six-figure company now,” Gilliland said. “I’m proud to say everything is done by us. We’ve outgrown what the center was meant to be, but they’ve helped us get off the ground.”
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