Mary Wolff is the CEO of taptl, a display technology start-up based in Miami. She was born and raised in St. Louis. Upon graduating from Washington University, she moved to Miami to attend University of Miami School of Law, where she graduated with a J.D./LL.M. in Real Property Development.
Mary successfully navigated taptl through Prosper, the accelerator for women-led companies, and was the catalyst behind the company’s receipt of a 2015 Arch Grant. She is a licensed Florida Attorney.
So taptl has found a way to turn glass into see-through, touch-screen displays?
Correct. If you’ve seen Minority Report or Iron Man, they have these displays where people are doing something really cool on a window, like controlling objects as they would on a dashboard or monitor, but they can also see behind it. We make displays like that. There are applications everywhere from the military to residential use, but to stay focused we figured out where we were solving the biggest problem, and that’s as digital signage to retailers.
What kind of problems do you solve for retailers?
Our technology enables them to not only tell a story on their storefront in a way they haven’t been able to before. You could replace your store windows with our windows, or you could retrofit to install our glass behind them, and the whole front of your store can become a touch-screen display.
How does a woman fresh out of law school become a CEO for a company like that?
When I was still in law school, I met a guy who was helping the inventor of taptl’s technology – Jeremiah – with business development. Jeremiah was in the Air Force, and had been relocated from Las Vegas to Melbourne, Florida, and he didn’t have time to work on the project anymore. When the guy explained to me what they did, I said, “What do you mean, you can turn any window into a see-through touchscreen?” I was just very, very enthusiastic and excited by the idea, and I offered to help.
Working in the real estate division of the law firm, I knew a lot of people who would potentially buy our product. This was in Miami’s heyday of building high rises, 2014. The developers had so much money, and having a project better than the next was crucial to that developer’s project standing out. So we made a few sales, but when product development said we could deliver in two weeks, I knew we couldn’t. We didn’t actually have a way of manufacturing it, and we had to give the money back. So I started helping them re-build the foundation of the business, figure out how to deliver it, the supply chain, and all of that. What was a side job from seven to eleven PM every night was becoming a job that went from six to eleven, then five to eleven, four to eleven, and I realized I wasn’t doing the work I should be doing at the law firm.
So you decided to go all in?
I said, “This is the time to do it. I’m just going to take that leap of faith and learn from it.” Jeremiah didn’t have the time to run the company on his own. So we worked through our manufacturing problems, and we learned from it, and that’s how I essentially became the CEO.
It couldn’t have been easy.
Well, everything’s been really good so far, but it definitely was a learning curve. Even if you know technology inside and out, this is a product nobody’s ever seen before. And I’d never worked in technology before. I studied physics. I never studied electrical engineering. I had to learn not only the product from the ground up, but how do you manufacture something like this? Where do you go? What do you need? What’s the legal agreement look like? I just learned that I have so much grit. I said to myself, “This is a challenge. I love this product. I believe in it. I believe it’s going to change the world.” And that’s what kept me going every day. I wake up every morning excited.
How did you find LOT Network?
I’d seen a special segment by John Oliver on patent trolls about a year ago. I always knew about them, but John Oliver really exacerbated the fear. I’d be up at night, thinking that it could happen, and this is out of my control, and this could make everything go away.
Then I read an article in TechCrunch about LOT Network, and I immediately saw the value. The article said that start-ups can join for free, and that was my only barrier. So it was a no-brainer for a company in our position. By aligning tap.tl with some very large corporations, I thought it was the best way to protect ourselves, and almost an added value to my investors and an added layer to my IP.
Other than reviewing the LOT Agreement on your own, has being an attorney helped you in your job?
It’s crazy how different people look at me when they find out I’m an attorney. I don’t see that with my male peers who run companies. I think they automatically have a certain level of respect, but I have to prove myself.
We were at the Miami Boat Show. I wanted to meet with one of the biggest, most prestigious yacht companies in the world – they sell four-hundred-million dollar yachts. So we walk up to their CEO – me and one of my engineers – and the CEO actually looks at us and says, “Let me guess. You’re the brains, and she’s the sales girl.” I’m thinking, I wrote these patents. I designed this product. My name is here.
But you suck it up because you want their business. You just suck it up, and deal with it in a way. Because the best way to prove them wrong is to win.