Ashlee Ammons scanned the room for colored dots. A 27-year-old former college cheerleader, radio disc jockey and sorority sister who’d been groomed for New York on a diet of Sex and the City episodes, she loved the city’s fast pace and fashion sense. She had organized events with Oprah Winfrey and Leonard DiCaprio in attendance. She was known as “Ashlee at TAO,” a reference to a big-deal luxury hospitality company. In five years, she’d gone from being an executive assistant for one of its owners, Noah Tepperberg, to director of events. Ammons was well-connected, but she felt she needed to diversify her contacts. That led her to being reduced, one day in the fall of 2014, to looking for dots that matched hers on nametags at Cosmopolitan’s Fun Fearless Life in NYC conference, where the billionaire founder of Spanx was the keynote speaker.
“So,” Ammons paused for effect, “you’re supposed to look at a woman’s breast area and strike up a conversation at lunch about nothing. That’s the scenario that got my mom and me talking. We decided there’s got to be a better way.”
On the telephone line, the mother-daughter duo cooked up an idea. They left their jobs, cut back on pedicures and became first-time entrepreneurs in a man-dominated industry.
“We aren’t what people expect when they see companies like this,” said Ammons. “But we don’t believe in a ‘pity party’ – oh, we’re women, and oh, we’re black. No, we’re smart business women.”
Capitalizing on their social experience in building relationships and unintimidated by stereotypes, the admitted extroverts created Mixtroz – a marriage of the words “mix” and “introduction.” It’s a conferencing app that even a breast cancer diagnosis could not stop.
“No one does what we do,” said Ammons’ mom, Kerry Schrader, 55, who believed so much in their product that she pitched the app from an operating table. “We bring people – not profiles – together.”
Ammons, who was raised in Ohio and will be 30 years old this fall, is Schrader’s first born. For four years after her divorce, it kind of felt like the two of them against the world. Schrader remarried when her daughter was 8, but the intensity of their connectedness remained unbreakable. After Schrader finished raising her girl, she was able to be something other than a mom – a “bestie,” she said. Schrader had moved to Franklin, Tenn., near Nashville, and Ammons was in New York. They talked by telephone on a regular basis at night after every workday.
On the evening of Nov. 9, 2014, Schrader was considering a life-altering career move. Her human resources career had spanned more than 25 years, however, since planning a dinner party for friends at a local Italian restaurant, she’d felt an inclination for a different vocation. She’d always loved planning fun events for friends, but this one had gotten especially high praise. The restaurant Schrader had selected seated 75 people, and she was able to swing getting 40 seats. She coordinated all the invitations and arrangements. Though she loved the work, she started thinking about easier ways to bring people together.
Schrader shared her thoughts with Ammons on the phone that night, but they decided event host was not exactly the route to take. Instead, they conceived Mixtroz.
The duo formed their LLC in January 2015, and signed with California-based developer AppNexio. Experiencing FOMO – the fear of missing out on something great – Ammons left her beloved New York and moved in with Schrader in Franklin. That October, Mixtroz became available for free download at the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. The app only works at an event site. Schrader calls it a “virtual nametag,” and it works like this:
Event hosts or sponsors purchase Mixtroz for attendees. Upon arrival, attendees download the app, complete a virtual nametag and answer 10 customized, multiple-choice questions. At a designated time, such as at lunch or during breakouts, the app will notify an attendee what group of three to 10 people he or she has been paired with, with the assistance of the answered questions, and identify a group meeting location. Once all group members arrive, the app provides icebreakers to spark conversation. “With a group, it’s more likely you’re going to hit it off with someone,” Schrader said. “Individual engagements can be awkward.”
Its creators say Mixtroz increases conference engagement, and thus provides a more fulfilling experience for the attendee and gives conference hosts data to help plan future events.
Dawn M. Schenkel, the owner of a wedding planning business and on the board of the International Life Event Association, showcased Mixtroz and used the app for one of the ILEA meetings in February. With so many using ILEA to network, the app was ideal to highlight. “Typically, you’re trying to walk up to random people, constantly. It gets old,” Schenkel said. “In this particular case, my attendees didn’t just stand there awkwardly. The app guided us through conversations. People loved connecting with people they would never have connected with on their own.”
Ironically, mother and daughter want to use technology to remedy the disconnection that they believe technology is causing. “Technology is eroding people’s ability to make a true connection,” Schrader said. “As efficient as it is, it can be ineffective and damaging.”
Schrader even called the phenomenon “the erosion of mankind.” Admitting what a big statement that is, she emphasized the importance of body language and necessity of looking people in the eye for effective connectedness. Mixtroz utilizes technology as a tool, rather than as a replacement, for connectedness. The app prompts actual face-to-face meetings. That’s true connectedness. That’s quality communication.
“People may have a ton of Facebook connections and LinkedIn connections,” Ammons said, “but they’re not useful if you can’t go to an individual. We offer quality connections.”
Schrader, who gave up paying for landscaping services and cut back on salon visits to fund Mixtroz, was so convinced of the app’s capabilities that even a health scare didn’t diminish her enthusiasm. She said she was diagnosed with breast cancer with “zero, zero symptoms” almost a year after brainstorming the product and was “being rolled into surgery. I pitched the idea of using Mixtroz at medical conferences in the operating room. Counting on my faith, family and friends, in that order, Mixtroz was the next thing that kept me focused and not dwelling on cancer.”
Six weeks of radiation followed, and Schrader never took a day off.
Schrader’s and Ammons’ laser focus continues daily at their Franklin home, a city they believe makes it easier to make their mark. Ammons hopes to eventually travel for pleasure, but for now the business takes priority. “If you’re going to be involved in a startup business,” she said, “there is no part-time to it. Your startup is your boyfriend. Your life. Your everything.”
Interestingly, Mixtroz connected the mother and daughter in a way they’d never before been connected. Now business partners, they believe they’ve got an ideal work relationship in hand.
“You have to find a co-founder you love and trust,” said Schrader. “I had to create my own.”