UNC Campus Corner: Fred Stutzman, Founder and CEO, Freedom

[Editor’s Note: Campus Corner is a new feature in which one of the four major Triangle universities—UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, NC State and NC Central—will feature someone from its entrepreneurial community, anyone from an alum founder to an investor to a professor to a live mascot. Though probably not a mascot. This first edition is from UNC.]

Fred Stutzman is the Founder and CEO of Durham-based Freedom, which aims to increase productivity and wellbeing by reducing digital distractions. He holds three degrees from UNC, including a BA in Economics and a PhD in Information Science, and was also a visiting professor at UNC. He was previously the Co-Founder of ClaimID, a distributed social identity provider. The interview was conducted by Ariel Natt of the Entrepreneurship Center at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Q. What is the first thing you did this morning?
A. I started out with my morning meditation, of course.  No, just kidding. The first thing I did was go down to the kitchen and start my job as a short-order chef for my kids.  They all wanted something different, if you can believe that.

Q. What are you most proud of?
A. I’m really proud that I’m involved with a company—Freedom—that makes a product that helps people change their lives. Freedom is a platform that helps people block distractions on all their devices – Mac, Windows, iOS, Android, and Chromebooks.  We help people be productive and improve their relationship with technology.

Q. Where did you get the idea for your product, Freedom?
A. It came out of research that I was doing when I was a graduate student. I studied social media and was myself distracted by social media. I would go to a coffee shop that didn’t have Wi-Fi so you could just work without distractions. And then one day that coffee shop got a Wi-Fi connection and I realized that technology was only going to get more distracting. So that’s where Freedom came from.

The first version of Freedom was a Mac application that blocked the Internet for 45 minutes; that’s all it did. Now, we’ve expanded quite a bit since then, but the general idea is consistent.  We make it easy for you to turn off the noise so you can get work done. It’s very hard for people to focus when social media and all the distractions of computing are competing for your attention.

Q. Who has made the most profound impact on your life or business?
A. My graduate advisor, Gary Marchionini, who is currently the Dean at UNC’s School of Information and Library Science. He is an incredible technologist and probably one of the most influential thinkers regarding how people interact with technology. Gary was always very supportive – he encouraged all my crazy ideas. And that encouragement led to a few companies, and products that have touched millions of people.

Q. What is your biggest piece of advice to budding entrepreneurs?
A. My first piece of advice is to actually take that first step and create something. There’s a lot of people who have ideas, but far fewer will actually then take that idea and transform it into something. It doesn’t mean you have to start coding immediately – in fact, that’s the last thing you should do.  Instead, start workshopping the idea, build your network, get feedback, test assumptions. You can also get involved in an incubator, or get involved in entrepreneurship programs at your college or university. Taking these steps will be a great learning experience and will separate you from the people that don’t.

Q. How would you define entrepreneurship in your own words?
A. Entrepreneurship is as much a journey of building a product as it is learning about yourself. As someone takes the steps in entrepreneurship, they learn what they’re good at and what they aren’t. It’s very, very revealing. It’s very much about creating something but it’s also about understanding how to set yourself up for success. It’s both an inward and outward process.

Fred biking, much like he would if stranded on a remote island.

Q. If you were stranded on an island, what three things would you bring with you?
A. I’d want to bring my family so I’m not bored and I have people to cook breakfast for. I’d bring my bike so I could work out, and I would bring a comfortable pillow because sleep is essential.  I don’t know if I’d survive on the island, but I’ve got my needs covered.

Q. What’s next for Freedom?
A. We’re growing and expanding, getting ready to add our 15th employee!  We’ve had ups and downs in the past 4 years, but we’ve built a great team and product, and I’m energized by the problem we’re solving. Right now, we help people block distractions and people love us for that.  But we want to do more – we want to help people change their relationship with technology. We’ll do that through coaching and expert guidance, big data and machine learning, and by leveraging our platform to provide service on all your devices.  We see the problem that we’re working on as defining the future of technology, and we’re excited to be working on it.

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