While most startup founders begin their entrepreneurship journeys by noticing a pain point and then brainstorming a solution for customers, Duke startup EZTrain had an unorthodox beginning. The inception of the company was its first customer coming up to them and asking if they could solve a problem.
Four of five EZTrain co-founders were brought together in a Duke course called “Hacking for Defense” when a Air Force Reserve unit sergeant from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, N.C., asked them if they could provide a solution that made the most of reservists’ limited time on bases.
These reservists have roughly 24 hours to train and have their requirements verified at each base visit. The current process was slow and inefficient, meaning a lot of reservists were not qualified to strap into a jet at the end of the year.
In the Air Force, even not having the paperwork from a dental appointment properly filled out can make the difference between being able to fly or not.
And because the Air Force Reserves keep track of requirement information in different databases and sometimes just in individuals’ personal Excel spreadsheets, manually keeping track of all the data can prove to be a burdensome task for a supervisor managing 10 to 60 people.
Taking up the challenge, EZTrain’s founders created a rudimentary product that became the foundation for what EZTrain is today. The software pulls together all the Excel files and creates a single database dashboard that shows supervisors all of the relevant information on the base’s training requirements. EZTrain’s software also allows supervisors to access phone numbers and emails for trainees to more easily communicate their required tasks to them.
“It’s a pyramid,” said EZTrain Co-Founder Will Maybard, “and we’ve been able to take the data at the top and then correctly give access to everyone at every level of the pyramid.
After applying for Department of Defense funding via innovation grants, EZTrain was able to begin alpha-testing its tech with Air Force personnel at Seymour Johnson last year. April marked the 10th month of the base using EZTrain to manage its training, and several other bases have come on board as well.
Since the class that started it all in 2020, EZTrain has grown to around 10 employees and was scaling its operations while it took part in the Duke Innovation Studio accelerator this spring.
Because they are funded by grants, EZTrain has been able to offer their software for free to bases so far. There are currently more than 1,100 trainees on the site, but Maynard feels confident EZTrain has just tapped the surface of what their technology is capable of.
After discussions with current and potential customers, including a police chief, EZTrain has constantly been improving upon its software offerings, adding features like archiving that take it to the next level.
“You can do as much testing and quality assurance and you can look at all the edge cases you want,” Maynard said, “but you’re always going to find something that you didn’t think of when you let other people use it.”
Throughout this process, Maynard also said he’s learned the value of anticipating the difficult questions a potential client will inevitably have for you. Military supervisors are often skeptical of any new product or software, so you have to find a reason to make them believe you’re different from the rest, Maynard said.
“To be ready to answer the tough questions is a critical job for any co-founder or any company that’s interested in this space,” Maynard said. “They will ask you all the questions you hope they don’t on Day One because, from a security standpoint, they need to know that you guys have thought through it, that this isn’t some half-hearted project.”
Having been founded in 2020, EZTrain is a distinctively Covid-era tech startup. There are still members of the team that Maynard hasn’t met in person yet, and the full team has never met all at once, being spread across the country. But Maynard said good communication can keep a company going without ever having a brick-and-mortar office.
From their clients as well, EZTrain’s story has reflected the time of the pandemic. The need for training and communication without face-to-face interaction is at an all-time high.
Sometimes reservist members aren’t allowed in their supervisor’s office because it’s too small, but with EZTrain, supervisors can simply send a single message to 50 members spelling out what their requirements are before they come to the base.
“The use cases have gone up because face-to-face interaction has gone down,” Maynard said. “So anything that uses training data and communicates it automatically or digitally has more use.”
As a Duke student navigating the Triangle tech ecosystem, Maynard said he’s witnessed a willingness to help from people within the community. Through Duke Innovation Studio, EZTrain benefits from developers and greater mentorship as they bring their idea to scale.
“The Duke Accelerator has been direct access to Duke developers, which is something every startup is never going to say no to, but it’s a really valuable piece of any new and young team,” Maynard said.
While EZTrain initially jumped headfirst into the Air Force space, Maynard said there are uses across the military. He also foresees its application in the private sector, including for police, fire and EMS departments, which also need an easier communication tool to keep track of training requirements and certifications. Both Duke and UNC EMS units have become paying EZTrain clients, and the startup is in discussions to expand even more in this market vertical.
By the end of 2022, Maynard would like 30 percent of all Air Force Reserves to be using EZTrain. They also are close to more fully developing the EMS product and police and fire capabilities.
“When we first started, our long-term goal was all the Air Force Reserves in the country,” Maynard said. “But we didn’t realize that was really just a midterm goal until we started thinking about everything else that this could be useful for.”