On December 6, 1994, aspiring entrepreneur Mike Davis unveiled VINE—the nation’s first automated victim notification service—at a press conference in his hometown of Louisville, KY. Davis and his business partner, Yung Nguyen, developed VINE (and subsequently, the company, Appriss) in response to local woman Mary Byron’s tragic murder at the hands of her ex-partner, whom she and her family believed to be incarcerated.
VINE (Victim Information and Notification Everyday) sent out its first automated notification that day. Twenty-five years and close to a billion notifications later, I sat down with Mike to talk all things VINE: its past, present, and future, and how it remains grounded in its heart-based mission to keep victims across the nation safe through the power of information.
[Kate Chmielewski:] Mike, congratulations on 25 years; that is quite the milestone! While we celebrate all VINE has accomplished, we also recognize, too, the heaviness of this date: December 6. It is not only the anniversary of Mary’s death, but it is also her birthday.
I know this horrific event impacted you significantly, as a Louisvillian and a father of two young daughters, yourself. Enough so that it motivated you to act—to take a tremendous leap of faith and dedicate yourself to developing a technology-based solution to help solve this widespread societal problem.
Take me back to 1993. How did you make the decision to change the course you were on and pursue what would ultimately become VINE?
[Mike Davis:] Looking back, I was at somewhat of an intersection in my life and career. I was right out of college and had come to work for a small tech company here in Louisville. I was helping them develop products and ideas around automation in fire and security systems—so a very different field.
My colleague, Yung Nguyen, and I were in the “exploratory phase” of trying to think of a business idea. We were very much in an entrepreneurial mindset, researching technology and thinking about problems that we could potentially solve. So I think that was the undertone for why, when that particular news story aired on December 6, 1993, and you had Pat Byron, Mary’s mother, talking about how preventable this tragedy was—we became motivated to act. Mary knew she was in danger—she just didn’t know this guy was out of prison. It just seemed like a very solvable problem where technology could be the real answer.
The very next day, I came into the office and Yung and I began talking about the problem. Within an hour or two we were on the phone with Jefferson County asking them what their response was going to be. They were already creating task forces to study the issue, and I just began to dig in, trying to meet with those involved, doing what I could to interject and say hey—this is a technical solution. It’s not just about having better processes, it’s about automating it. It can’t fail.
And Jefferson County ended up issuing a public request for proposal in early 1994 for such a service, correct?
Yes. We made up a company name and responded to it. There were other companies bidding on it—large telecom companies like AT&T and BellSouth–because it sounded like a communication problem. But the real nuances of how to solve this technically, they didn’t understand. But we did, deeply. We had been thinking about a solution to this problem since the day Mary was murdered. There were aspects of the RFP that were very challenging for us, but we decided to take the plunge and figure it out.
Did you think you would be awarded the project?
No! We thought our chances of winning it were really quite low. And, it’s important to know that when we did find out that we had won—we literally heard it on the radio—it did not cross our minds that victim notification could or was going to be an actual business. We really thought of it as a finite project that we could use as a stepping stone to help us then figure out our “real” business idea. It was not immediately obvious to us.
So you started building…
Yes, so then we had to get to work and actually build this system. We were both really broke, so we borrowed money from all of our friends and family, purchased the equipment we needed, and set up shop in Yung’s basement. For months we would go to work at our day jobs, then at night and on the weekends we would go to his basement work on the project there. We were awarded the contract in June of 1994 and had to deliver the system by the anniversary of Mary’s death on December 6. That was a very tight timeline, especially with required technology that was brand new, cutting edge, and expensive. That was very challenging.
What was your biggest obstacle during this period?
Oh, there were lots of obstacles. Balancing our day jobs with this project was a huge obstacle. The technology itself was an obstacle… It was very new at the time. We were using an IBM operating system called OS2… we were using PCs that were the fastest you could get but still had kinks in them… we were using this voice recognition technology that was in its nascent stages—not quite ready for prime time. In fact, the day we unveiled it, the system was barely working. We tested it twice right before the press conference and it failed both times.
We worked on it a bit and thankfully got it to work… because it was a live presentation. We had the jail execute the release of an offender, after which the system would make the notification call while the judge was standing there with a room full of media. It worked that third time, and, after we got the kinks worked out [the switchboard] lit up like a Christmas tree.
Did you have a mentor that you looked up to or relied on during this process? You were so young when this started!
I would say that Yung and I were each other’s mentors. Our backgrounds were very different. I was a public school guy from here in the Louisville area, and he was a first-generation immigrant who had a horrific challenge even getting into the country. We really leaned on each other and figured things out as we went.
Now early in the company, we took on an investment from Chrysalis Ventures. This influx of capital allowed us to quit our day jobs and start focusing fully on the problem at hand. During this time we got a lot of direction and mentorship from Chrysalis founders, David Jones, Sr., David Jones, Jr., and Doug Cobb. They really guided us strategically on how to grow and sustain the business. But, in the first 5-6 years of the company it was just Yung and I; we really leaned on each other a lot.
When was the lightbulb moment? When did you know this was going to be something big?
Right after we launched in Jefferson County. The reaction to the system was really overwhelming. The night it went live, the media was writing about it all over the state. Within days, other states were reaching out saying they were interested. I would say within a week of that launch, it became very apparent to us there was a broader need. By January 1995, we had the investment from Chrysalis that we used to quit our day jobs and start the company.
Bill Gates once said “I didn’t take a day off in my 20s. Not one.” It seems like you can you relate.
You really don’t have a choice. We were in a live-or-die situation for the first few years. We slept in the office many, many nights. I, myself, was on the road the majority of the time–I think I drove 110,000 miles that first year… in a 1992 Mitsubishi Gallant. I would pack my bags and leave on Sunday, drive to different states and counties trying to pitch this idea, and come home Friday night or Saturday morning. I’d be home for a day or two, and then do it all over again. It took us about 9 months to land our second customer—Passaic County, New Jersey. They paid us $600 a month—we were real excited about that.
After about 6 months, I hired someone whose job it was to just keep me on the road. She would be on the phone all day every day scheduling me 3-4 meetings each day that I was out. We had to be efficient with our time. You didn’t fly to a city, see one customer and fly home.
What was the general reaction that came out of those early meetings and calls?
There was a lot of interest in the idea. It was coincidental that in March of 1995, about when we were really beginning to launch the business in full scale, the O.J. Simpson Trial was unfolding on the airwaves. So the entire country was being inundated–in a way they never were before—with the issue of domestic violence. States began passing the Crime Victim Bill of Rights every year for the next several years, so there was a big appetite for how to get more information to victims. It was good timing for our company, because funding started to become available and politicians became very focused on the issue. I would say that the “Golden Age” of victims’ rights in America was the mid-to-late 1990s, and that’s exactly when we were rolling the out VINE platform.
Appriss’ mission of Knowledge for Good—our dedication to making victims safer and bringing them peace—that just rings through our halls today, as I know it did when you first started. Twenty-five years later, with close to 1,000 employees all over the country and beyond, how do you still seem to make Appriss feel like a small, homegrown company tied to its original, victim-centered mission?
I think the magic in our culture is that we attract people that are really nice people. Our mission was handed to us; it was so apparent. Who wouldn’t feel good about helping victims stay safe? And then when you build on that, using our technology to help law enforcement catch the “bad guys,” help entitlement programs detect fraud, help fight things like the opioid crisis… these are problems that attract our employees more than anything we could have ever invented. The mission is the core of our culture, and if everyone feels close to that, we’re going to have fun, do well, and it’ll keep being a great place to work. I know they say “culture comes from the top,” but I don’t believe that. I think culture permeates the organization. We all own it. Every single person.
And, above all else: we are victim-centric. Our company was built on that foundation. We have a large team of experts– across disciplines–that thinks about this all. the. time. We’re not just a software development shop that comes in a writes code. We are thinking about the users on a very human level.
Looking back, what was your biggest challenge in your 25 years?
There were times we got out of focus, and sort of lost “who we were.” That happened to us during the dot-com era. We started thinking we were a notification company, and we’re not. We do notifications, but that’s not what defines us.
Another significant challenge for me was figuring out how to create an environment where people embrace change. We’ve grown every year for 25 years, and change is inevitable. You have to view it as an opportunity, not a fearful thing—and that sometimes rubs against human nature. So figuring out how to keep people motivated and embrace that change has always been a challenge, but I think we’ve done a pretty good job shaping that.
How about your biggest success?
You look back along the way, and VINE is something that, in my heart, is just not reproducible. The work we’re doing around the opioid crisis–we now have one in three doctors in America who interact with Appriss [Health] systems every day to help make patient safety decisions. That’s very powerful. We’ve just found these ways to make national impacts multiple times—that in and of itself is a very unique success.
And just the simple fact that VINE makes 43 million victim notifications every year. That is extraordinary.
There is no doubt in my mind that every single day there is somebody who is either suffering less—maybe they didn’t get attacked, or they are living because of the work that we do every day.
One story that helps validate this, is in 1994, just after VINE went live in Jefferson County, there was another young woman in Louisville who was on the news after a terrifying event. She was afraid of someone, similar to Mary. She had registered her mom’s house, her sister’s house, and her own house – no one really had cell phones at this time—so that they would all get the call when this person was released from custody. She had gone out shopping one night, and her mom gets a call from VINE. She immediately ran out of the house to go find her daughter, as this guy was getting out. She and her daughter call the police from the mall, and they were escorted home so that she could quickly grab some clothes and leave. When police searched the house, they found the guy waiting in her bedroom with a butcher knife. This young woman was on the news saying that she would have walked right in that house if she had not gotten that phone call. This was just a few weeks after VINE went live in ONE county. Now I think about those tens of millions of outreaches that happen every year, and it makes me confident that there are thousands and thousands of people who are alive today, because of VINE. There is no better story, no better feeling of anything Appriss has ever done.
Which leads me to your proudest moment, or moments…
Nothing is better than that. People ask me all the time, “Did you ever think it would get this big?” No way. We didn’t even know what it was when we started. But once we realized how big the problem was, and we became focused on how many people suffer from the problems that VINE helps to address—it’s just been the most amazing thing to be a part of. And, getting close to the Byron family—when they tell me how much this has meant to them…that’s probably the proudest I’ve ever felt about VINE.
I want to touch on honoring Mary. We talked a lot about finding purpose, why you did what you did from the very beginning, how you find your grounding in this company’s roots. How do Mary and her family factor into the company’s “roadmap?”
I think about them all the time. Every day.
December 1993 was life changing. It was the beginnings of a company that now goes out and does a lot of great things for the victim population and the general public, and it was also the beginning of a lifelong tragedy that Mary’s family and friends will deal with indefinitely. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know the Byrons over the years; they are very dear friends of ours.
In 2000, we reached out to the Byrons and helped start the Mary Byron Project as a way to honor her. [The Mary Byron Project is a non-profit dedicated to breaking the cycle of intimate partner violence.] We’ve set up some scholarships in her name, we’ve got an effort underway to name a new section of her high school after her. We just like to find different ways to keep her fresh in our minds. But the best way we can honor Mary is to prevent the next victim from being harmed. As long as we are doing everything we think we can do in that regard–that is how we truly honor her.
Turning to the future of VINE… How do you stay energized and motivated after 25 years?
I love smart people, and we’ve got a ton of smart people in this business! I love that we’re doing great work for society. I get energized the same way I would expect everybody else here does—it’s the mission. I love the work; I love the creativity of it. I love that it’s hard sometimes. I love that we built a company full of really bright people that are energizing to work amongst. I’m having as much fun at Appriss today as I was 25 years ago—though it’s a little less scary now!
How important is continuous technological innovation in keeping VINE relevant?
What we see throughout the country today is that people communicate differently than they did 20 years ago. We have to figure out how to best reach the kids who grew up on social media, texting, and mobile devices. So we’re focusing a lot of our product and design efforts there. But innovation will continue to happen, and I want Appriss to continue to come up with the most unique and clever ideas on how to help people stay safe.
It’s interesting that the last 25 years—the exact time during which you have started and created this business—are the years that the tech sector has seen the most rapid growth.
No question. When we started VINE, it cost $0.15 a minute to make a long-distance phone call, and that was a big consideration in how we built the business. The idea of the Internet was not really around, mobile devices were primitive. Yes, there has been a tremendous amount of change technologically, and I expect that will be the case over the next 25 years. We simply have to innovate constantly.
What do you hope for the future of VINE?
I just want to keep getting better. Staying on the cutting edge of technology and continue evolving to keep up with what victims need. I think VINE will be around 100 years from now, and I just want it to always be the very best that it can be.
We’ve talked a little bit about VINE’s reach, the millions of notifications it delivers to victims each year. Our teams have done some math, and I want to end by asking how it makes you feel when I tell you that the service you developed 25 years ago has actually delivered over 750 million victim notifications in its lifetime?
I’m blown away. I have never sat back and tried to do that math, but it’s just incredible. If one tenth of one percent of those notifications resulted in someone avoiding harm… that’s just an amazing thing. I get chills just thinking about it.
The safety factor is obviously so important, but often it’s about giving people that peace of mind. They can go to sleep at night because VINE tells them that the person they fear is in custody. If we’re giving that many people that sense of peace, there is just nothing like it in the world. It’s my favorite part of Appriss.
It has been great talking to you, Mike. Thank you for your time, and congratulations on 25 years!