David Troy's next big projects: fixing email, government transparency

David Troy started tinkering with computers when he was 7 years old. In the 1980s and 1990s, he ran a company that sold Atari computers by mail in Anne Arundel County. That venture eventually morphed into ToadNet, a regional Internet service provider that was an alternative to America Online, and which he sold in 2004.

Since then, the 39-year-old Johns Hopkins graduate has pursued a variety of interests and projects, including using Twitter for Election Day poll monitoring and helping to promote the technology community in Baltimore. In the past year, Troy jumped back into startup mode with Matthew Koll, a veteran search and social media entrepreneur who had worked at AOL, to launch 410Labs.

Last month, the firm raised $750,000 from private investors. Based in the city's Emerging Technology Center in Canton, the seven-person 410Labs will use the funding to continue working on Web applications, such as apps that promote shorter emails and help people use Twitter to find answers to questions.

Troy moved from Anne Arundel County last year to Baltimore and has leaped headlong into city politics. He has crusaded against the destruction of dozens of trees for next weekend's Baltimore Grand Prix and used his connections and social media savvy to promote mayoral challenger Otis Rolley.

Some have speculated that Troy is one of the people behind Baltileaks, the anonymous group that uses a website and Twitter account to call attention to campaign finance reports and other public documents, often to criticize Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Troy refused to confirm or deny his involvement.

Troy talked with The Baltimore Sun about his plans for 410Labs, the potential of Baltimore's technology scene and how social media can impact city government.

Tell us about your startup, 410Labs. You recently got a $750K investment from investors from the East and West coasts. How did you line up those connections and raise that cash?

We formed a company just over a year ago. In terms of landing the investments, it's really a question of leveraging relationships that we both been working a long time to build. We both have extensive networks here in the D.C./Baltimore area as well as Silicon Valley.

You got some notable investors, right?

The CEO of LivingSocial [Tim O'Shaugnessy] is an investor, so is the chief scientist of Twitter [Abdur Chowdhury], as well as [Mark Walsh] founder of Genius Rocket. Greg Cangialosi [former chief executive of Blue Sky Factory, a Baltimore email marketing firm that was sold to another company], Tom Loveland [Baltimore's former "Google Czar" and CEO of Mind Over Machines, an Owings Mills technology firm.]

What are the plans with the money you guys raised? Are you getting a new office? Buying a Porsche?

It's a really lean kind of road map in mind. We do have a little office over here in the ETC [Emerging Technology Center]. We basically have a road map of things we want to be introducing over the next few months. We have a compressed runway for some of the things we need to do.

Your first big product launch a couple of months ago was Shortmail, billed as "email, simplified." It's got a 500-character limit for emails. Why do you think this product is something people may want or need?

One of the first things we thought would be an interesting thing to try was forcing the sender to be concise. If you think about the overloaded inboxes that people have these days, they're filled with crazy emails with attachments, with big long texts and with crazy fonts. Really, it can become quite overwhelming. We're really trying to reformulate the way that you know [email]. When you think about your inbox, effectively what you really have is an auction for your attention.

We've seen some active members of the Baltimore tech community pull up stakes recently and head to California, land of San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Twitter and Facebook. You're a big proponent of people staying here and launching startups. What's your case for Baltimore?

I think people fall back on that line of thinking and it's kind of a red herring. At the end of the day, you can start a business anywhere if you have the right resources. We have a really bustling market here. We have an incredible concentration of [information technology] professionals. We have incredible access to universities and other assets. From what I've seen in talking to other entrepreneurs, people are starting tech startups everywhere. It's not just here or in New York City — it's everywhere. It's in Paris and it's in Berlin and in Santiago, Chile, and Seoul, South Korea. The message that I would give to Baltimore entrepreneurs is that we have tremendous advantages compared to say a Berlin or Chile or Rio de Janeiro, in terms of access to talent and capital.

You used Facebook and Twitter to raise awareness and organize petitions about the cutting of trees downtown for the Grand Prix. What were the results of your efforts?

In terms of the results, the visibility of what we were doing brought the production of the documents associated with that process. [Baltimore officials disclosed the memorandum of understanding between the city and Grand Prix organizers after Troy filed an injunction to prevent tree-cutting. The injunction was denied by a city judge.] We believe that's a victory in its own right. We're also drafting an amendment to the memorandum of understanding [between the city and Grand Prix organizers] to mandate that the tree plan will actually get funded. I think there's sufficient uncertainty regarding the finances around the race to make this a reasonable thing to ask.

You've publicly endorsed mayoral challenger Otis Rolley. Why have you gotten so involved in Baltimore politics lately?

It seems to me we're at a crossroads in Baltimore where a lot of stuff could become possible if we really were to achieve an alignment with things happening in the private sector and with government. Quite frankly, we've gone for too long in our political environment in Baltimore in the way of real oversight, real participation by broad swaths of people in the city. The kind of social media tools that are now available, in terms of Twitter and Facebook, have really made possible a new level of participation. And I think it's incumbent on us citizens to experiment with those tools to determine how we can hold government more accountable.

So what do you think of a site such as Baltileaks? Does it help the conversation in Baltimore or are there too many questions about the motives of the anonymous authors?

I think it's a good idea. One of the things that's problematic in Baltimore is that everybody who writes kind of has a connection to something. And if you were to put pressure on those folks based on those connections, then it might not be possible for them to be as free as they might otherwise. So I think having an anonymous press source within the Baltimore community is an important need right now.

I noticed you didn't directly confirm or deny.

I don't want to say anything definitive, out of respect for their stated desire for anonymity. I do have some idea about who is involved, and I think it's several people.

Portions of this interview were edited and condensed.