A look back at The Road Ahead: starting-up a small business with GoodRoads

Reflecting on three years spent discovering, prototyping, marketing and bootstrapping a start-up determined to democratize pavement management

Robert Mion
6 min readMay 5, 2020
A collage of milestones

The highlights

Problem worth solving

Most cities can’t afford to properly assess their roads as regularly as they should:

  • No budget
  • Not trained to inspect
  • Not enough time
  • Not sure how to analyze and act upon the data

What we progressively built

  • A small device that records road quality data and captures images
  • Artificial intelligence that we trained to inspect the road shown in each photo as per an industry standard
  • A web-based application that enables access to, analysis of, and actions upon that data
  • And a service model that makes all of this available to any-size city

The roles I played thus far

  • Interviewer: to understand what we should build, I had to understand what our target users and customers didn’t have today that would help them be as good at their jobs as our Co-Founder envisioned.
  • Prototyper: early interviews offered us an opportunity to demo our ideas for the purpose of eliciting real-time feedback from potential customers: Pavement Managers and their teams.
  • Full-stack Developer: as soon as we had some data and ideas for displaying it, we started building a web application. We continually re-evaluated the proper technologies and extended the capabilities of our app based on user feedback and new data we were generating.
  • Marketer: Presentations, product demos, pop-up banners and highlight reels for local pitching events, conferences and closed-door meetings
  • Sales Manager: Drafting proposals for pilot projects and annual contracts, and attending sales meetings where we hoped to close deals
  • Sounding Board: The Founder and I speak routinely about the direction of the business, our products, our team, and how we must adapt to our market’s traditionally conservative sales process
  • Challenger: The Founder and I have a strong enough relationship such that we can each feel comfortable debating one another’s intentions. Our conversations have helped both of us make more informed decisions.

Videos made along the way

August, 2018: our first published product demo featuring a 5-year forecast algorithm
September, 2018: our first official video sales pitch, featuring early iterations of our device, our web app, and our AI
September, 2019: a video recorded as part of our NCIDEA 2019 entry. We were one of six winners awarded a $50k grant
December, 2019: our video submission for a local start-up focused conference. We earned one of tens of tables in their showcase room.

In April, 2017, I re-connected with an old pal for lunch.

He was about to quit his job and start a business, and wanted help.

I accepted, sparing any financial reimbursement, because I knew that the opportunity would pay me back in several other ways.

Three years later, we are a team of nearly 10.

We’re selling the products and services that I believe will leapfrog our competitors.

And we are on a mission: to help cities of any size leverage technology they could never previously afford to make more informed decisions about maintaining their roads.

Milestones and other notable events as told through newsletter photos

First to last: an early iteration of the user interface, an early example of our AI inspection, a view in our app where users could load other city’s streets
First to last: Chris presenting and me recording at Pitch Breakfast, an early prototype of our device, an example of how we labeled images by painting distresses on the image
First to last: a collage of screenshots that highlight the evolution of our web app, segment details pop-up, record of 1000 segments inspected in Matthews, NC
First to last: the team circa late 2018, the team circa early 2018, examples of distress object detection in our AI
First: screenshot showcasing our responsive web app; Last: our first 3D-printed device enclosure
First to last: callouts of specific new features to our web app, a collage of device iterations, the team circa late 2019
First to last: an early proposal featuring our industry-non-standard pricing structure, our booth at a local conference, the Founder preparing devices for our Charlotte DOT pilot program
First to last: a re-worked component in our app, the Founder posing at a local conference, another component in our app featuring a graph of rating history
First to last: colored segments indicating progress of our Charlotte DOT pilot program, a re-worked component in our app, a batch of (at the time) our latest devices
First to last: a photo demonstrating a breakthrough in our AI, the announcement of us winning NCIDEA 2019, a collage of images captured from our device in Germany
First to last: a marketing campaign to show cities our accessible pricing model, results from our AI inspection, a prototype to entice CDOT’s trash management team to leverage our devices for their fleet optimization program
First to last: photos demonstrating an AI breakthrough, a capture from our product demo for a California proposal, team circa early 2020
First to last: the latest addition to our app: photos from the road, the team circa May 2020, a re-worked version of our newest feature: Road View

Early sketches, wireframes and prototypes

First to last: sketches of initial concept for app — ‘Map’ view, ‘Budget’ view and ‘Analysis’ view
First: wireframe of weight system; Last: higher fidelity prototype featuring map

Screens from the current web application

View in app where users can virtually walk along a road and see photos captured from our device with important distress data
Initial view of all segments within a city’s road network and filters to select desired streets — then export a list to send for bids
Current state: user has filtered by distress type and severity and chosen a treatment technique
For each segment, several tabs of information and further actions: ‘Ratings’ graph, ‘Distress’ list, and ‘More’ information
Manual inspection features: perform a full inspection by updating existing values, or just record areas of alligator cracking
Screenshots from the current website, featuring short headlines, clear value propositions, featured articles, and a call to action for cities

I accepted this job without expecting to get paid.

But I’ve been paid back in all the right ways:

  • Better listener
  • Better communicator
  • Better salesperson
  • Better software developer
  • Better interviewer
  • Better business sense
  • Better marketer
  • Better teammate

Better at getting more value from a ‘no’ answer, and probing a counterfeit ‘yes’ answer until the true ‘no’ is revealed.

Hopefully the next three years will bear the fruits of our labor.

If not, it’s been a highly rewarding experience.

Thank you for reading!