Treasuring the Entrepreneurial Spirit: from Big Box to Main Street

Sometimes the entrepreneur’s path is obvious. But rarely does it follow a straight line.

Don Nelson’s journey took a curvy road that led him several times to entrepreneurship, then away, and now back again. His career has traveled from Big Box retail to Main Street.

“As both an intrapreneur and entrepreneur, I truly enjoy the energy, the excitement and solving problems quickly without a lot of resources, figuring out what’s working and then devoting resources,” said Don. “Now as an ‘older’ entrepreneur, I want to give back. I want my team to experience new challenges and opportunities and share my experiences.”

Don started his career at Home Depot and then launched his first startup eight years later, selling toys and educational products online and via direct mail. That experience led to a career-long focus on digital commerce, marketing and sales. The toy gig turned into overseeing business-to-business ecommerce for a large industrial supply distribution company. He parlayed that into a sweet role producing live online broadcasting shows for a children’s education company.

Don got his first taste of Main Street success after helping a family friend turn around their brick and mortar operation, and by helping other companies develop simple and executable digital plans.

But corporate life came calling again. Only this time, Don had to decide between Walmart and the Small Business Administration in Washington, DC.

Ultimately, he was enticed by the data value behind Sam’s Club (a Walmart, Inc. entity) and its small business clientele. Later, he was recruited by ToysRUs to lead digital marketing across its enterprise. He followed that with another startup vision, founding a company which incentivized consumers to take control of their advertising.

“It was a great idea with a great team, but it was too big of a challenge for the capital we had,” said Don. “In the summer of 2014, I helped everybody on the team get new jobs. I got a great job, too, leading the global practice of a business consulting and outsourcing firm with offices in London, New York and India. I was based in New York and spent a lot of time in great towns and cities across the US, in Europe and Asia.”

Traveling 90 percent of the time had its disadvantages. His wife (a Walmart exec) and young family had relocated back to Arkansas. But his extensive travel had an unforeseen advantage that only came to light as Don recognized that he needed to make a change.

Said Don, “I needed to start something where we wanted to be verses where recruiters were sending us. Charlotte began to make sense.”

Don’s new venture grew out of a problem he experienced and witnessed during all those years of travel. Trying to find gifts that could fit in his suitcase, he started noticing and frequently talking to other travelers about leaving behind the treasures they can’t get home.

That’s when his Main Street retail expertise and desire to share his learnings really kicked in. Seeking to support small businesses and artisans, Don founded SeeSnapGet, which he describes as being in the treasure fulfillment business. The company serves as a virtual concierge service for traveling shoppers and shopping travelers.

“Unique treasures are attached to an experience,” he says. “It’s all about the one-of-a-kind story behind the artisan or the community you visited. Say you see an awesome treasure but it won’t fit in the suitcase or you don’t have time to talk to the merchant about shipping. So you skip the purchase – and often regret it later.

SeeSnapGet steps in to take away all the friction that keeps you from making the purchase,” he noted. “You just snap a picture and we do the rest. You approve the quote, pay and it’s on its way.”

For Don, building the application and solutions hones his extensive retail and digital background. More importantly, he is inspired by the huge opportunity to help small businesses recover lost sales and customers. And he sees plenty of opportunity to partner with others who serve Main Street merchants, the traveler and the shopper, ultimately supporting the local community and culture in this digital mobile age.

“There is nothing better than having conversations with merchants,” said Don. “We’re definitely helping merchants and artists recover sales and gain more customers. And yet, we’ve just scratched the surface. There is a bigger vision coming.”

Don recently shared that vision at 1 Million Cups Charlotte, an organization he believes in for its dedication to small business.

Just like him.



We need smarter people to outsmart cybersecurity threats

More often than not, human error is the most frequent cause of cybersecurity incidents. Unintentional user mistakes, omissions, and carelessness invite issues into workplace and home systems at an ever-increasing pace.

But one former white hat hacker-turned-cybersecurity expert has a people-focused solution. North Wonders founder Terry Ziemniak develops holistic programs to better educate and inform users on ways to detect and respond to cybersecurity threats.

Terry led information security initiatives for two enterprise organizations over a 25-year career in cybersecurity. He knows from experience that companies spend a lot of money on hardware and software, yet they are still getting hacked.

His customer-based research into the root of the problem verified that companies simply lack the necessary focus on the people aspect.

Said Terry, “People continue to fall for social engineering scams and bad links. So we get practical and personal in helping them understand the basics. Once you understand how to protect your kids’ photos or your bank account, then you develop 24×7 mindfulness. When people become safer members of the internet as a whole, they are better about protecting assets at work.”

Utilizing newsletters, presentations and customizable programming, North Wonders provides relevant content, actionable information and most importantly, measurable results. Desired behaviors and habits are introduced and reinforced via non-technical insight on the impact of current threats as both consumers and employees.

Since opening in late 2017, Terry has been working with companies to train employees on the front line of these attacks. North Wonders builds in metrics and executes on whatever particular risk the client requests, providing valued insight on the effectiveness of the training.

While currently focused on small- to medium-sized organizations, Terry has customized programming for a large financial institution that wanted to drill down on customer identity theft, for example. North Wonders’ service is also appropriate for channel/partner networks, IT service companies and Human Resource organizations. Terry also sees opportunity to co-brand content with client companies.

But, he points out, North Wonders is foremost a program, not a library of content.

“It is all about having regular touchpoints with users so we can engage them. We want to educate and empower users,” he said. “We want to get them to where they can detect bad actors—no matter what type of attack is used.”

North Wonder’s people focus certainly appears to be the missing link in cybersecurity effectiveness. A recent report by IBM cited human error as a contributing factor in 95 percent of all cyber security incidents.

So Terry is optimistic and enthusiastic about the potential ahead for the company. He speaks highly of the UNC Charlotte Ventureprise program which helped him with customer discovery and market analysis. That experience validated that companies believe their technology and overall security is good, but they acknowledge the people issue remains a big problem.

Terry also speaks highly of the support available within the Charlotte entrepreneurial community. Participating in Ventureprise, along with a recent presentation at One Million Cups Charlotte, fuels his belief that being tied into the local community is an important factor in driving success.

Said Terry, “I spent 20 years in Chicago. I don’t think I would have attempted or been as successful in Chicago. Not that they don’t have a good support system there, but the Charlotte entrepreneur ecosystem seems well organized. The success of my business will be based on my leveraging the many levels of support here.”

That said, every entrepreneur knows there will be challenges. For Terry, it is a matter of focus.

In the past month, there have been so many opportunities coming my way. I have to make a very conscious, methodical decision every day to stay focused on the markets I want to target first. Everyone says this is a great idea and a need, and we have very good conversations. But in some cases, I have to put their ideas on a back burner for a few months.”

Still, he is a believer in feedback and listening to the customer. He knows that the best way to embed his people-centered approach is to help people understand how security threats affect them personally.

Building a stronger, better educated community of users who can detect and respond to cybersecurity threats starts with changing user behavior. Terry recognizes that introducing effective awareness programs is the best way to reduce human error.

After all, society has been dealing with fraudsters for a long time. Educated, engaged and empowered users are the best protection against this latest iteration of crime.


Raising a Glass and an App to Help Local Restaurants

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that restaurants are opening and closing in the Charlotte market—and elsewhere—at breakneck speed. Profitability means a day-by-day quest to gain and retain customers. Statistically, one out of five restaurants will close.

One Charlotte entrepreneur is doing all he can to raise a glass for his friends in the restaurant industry. As a self-described foodie and frequent diner himself, D. Alan Smith wants locally-owned restaurants to succeed. And his new business idea gives him a financial stake in driving their stability.

Alan’s concept is called Dine Genius. The idea is to help restaurants fill unused seats and add incremental revenue through app-based marketing. Currently in development, the app uses Geo-location to display daily menu specials. Users can see the food and drink specials closest to them, helping them decide which restaurant to visit.

Says Alan, “Basically, we are the Kayak for restaurants. Kayak aggregates and lists all available hotels and flight deals. We list restaurant specials.”

Dine Genius has two key targets within the Charlotte market: independently-owned restaurants and business professionals or working families as the end-user.

So, what’s behind the need for this information? Alan describes a scenario that takes place in his workplace—and offices everywhere—just before lunch every day:

“At 11:30 a.m. every single day, some guy will say, ‘What’s for lunch today?’ Dine Genius will aggregate daily dining specials so he can be an informed diner. There will also be ancillary posts,” he said. “For example, Charlotte is big on al fresco dining so we’ll post related information, like what patios are dog friendly? Who has wine specials on Wednesday when you have business partners coming in? And it’s not just lunch, but also dinner and drink specials.”

Most restaurants don’t post their daily specials. The diner usually doesn’t find out until the wait staff rattles off the information at your table. According to Alan, no other site has a comprehensive daily list like it, not even Google.

With Dine Genius, restaurants will be able to outsource their digital marketing via its software-driven solution. Alan refers to this as MaaS, or Marketing-as-a-Service.

As a banker and seasoned investor, Alan is doing the proper market research to determine how to make Dine Genius a viable and supportive entity for locally-owned restaurateurs. He started by participating in the spring 2018 cohort of UNC Charlotte’s Ventureprise program.

Avid about learning, Alan reports that the program helped him significantly in identifying the target customer, getting in-depth research from his core client and understanding the right business model to bring it all together.

But this isn’t his first time launching a business. Alan’s been an owner, investor or working to support other entrepreneurs for over 20 years. While entrepreneurship was always a side gig, he has shown he knows what it takes.

Alan started a property management company as a University of North Carolina at Charlotte undergrad, recognizing an opportunity to help students sublease during the summer months. He successfully sold that business. Other businesses would follow. He remains an investor in a local cocktail company called Liberate your Palate that teaches classes in craft cocktails.

So we had to ask how all his great past experience is helping him launch Dine Genius.

Alan replied, “It [entrepreneurship] is a mindset. From understanding that it takes time to build a successful company to the patience that is one of the outcomes of being an entrepreneur. Coming from a traditional background and having a strong understanding of finance and accounting helps, too. I definitely keep an eye on revenue and the P&L.”

Still, he is realistic about the challenges ahead.

“The restaurant industry is a difficult market because there are a lot of people selling to them. It can be hard to circumvent traditional advertising. The main challenge is getting them to see there are new ways to solve the problem of empty seats,” he said.

Alan is pleased with the supportive community he’s found in Charlotte for startup help. That includes One Million Cups Charlotte, which recently welcomed Alan’s Dine Genius presentation at its monthly think tank meetup. He welcomed the feedback.

Alan is enthusiastic about the potential for Dine Genius and firmly believes that driving customer acquisition, engagement and retention is a smart investment in the success of local restaurants. After all, as the company’s tagline says, Dine Genius is “the smart way to make dining decisions.”

And it doesn’t take a genius to recognize the value in that.


Timing is everything and this entrepreneur knows it

Sometimes timing is everything. That can be especially true for those with the entrepreneurial spirit waiting to leave the constraints of corporate life or move on with yet another exciting startup idea.

Such was the case for Joseph Monahan, now Director of the Carolinas for ScaleUpOnDemand, a thriving business development consulting firm out of Charleston, South Carolina. With a background in business development for large enterprise companies, and a recent stint as an entrepreneur, Joseph was simply waiting it out for the right time to jump into his latest venture. That was two years ago.

“Douglas Johnson [ScaleUpOnDemand founder] was serving as vice president of Sales Operations for a company that was being bought out and he was doing some consulting with the CEO of the company. I was finishing up with a startup whose investor was buying a professional soccer team. Through those engagements, it became obvious that there was a need for more consulting attention to business development,” said Joseph.

So we sat down and drew up a company plan to outsource fractional business development reps. Between Douglas’ expertise in sales ops, and mine in measurable sales engagement – the prospecting that opens doors – we knew we found a niche. It was a matter of just waiting for the right time to jump in.”

ScaleUpOnDemand provides strategic direction and a framework to eliminate the most urgent threats a growing company may face in maximizing sales. They fill the gap before the client company can hire their own staff. That could mean assigning a part-time operations expert to launch measurable sales processes or making the calls to establish a viable sales funnel.

ScaleUpOnDemand targets B2B companies that sell a product or service costing more than $1000 per year in a market that has more than 1,000 prospects. That is the sweet spot for companies that need temporary help while scaling, without being so small that the founder already has a solid handle on the industry and the contacts that need to be made to make a sale.

As a company that helps other companies grow, it was important for ScaleUpOnDemand to prove they could grow, too.

Said Joseph, “If we couldn’t scale our own company, it wouldn’t mean much to tell others how to do it.”

And scale they have. Initially, the company focused on Software as a Service (SaaS) prospects but grew into other market areas through client referrals and by offering free incubator workshops.

Now they boast amazing results for clients from LA to the Carolinas, from Y-combinator to early-stage to mid-market, private equity-backed companies.

One near-term goal is to grow their staff of eight into 15 consultants by year end. Recruiting consultants in a timely manner is one of the pain points they currently experience when entering a new market.

According to Joseph, it’s a chicken or egg problem. When they start an engagement, they often have a small window to get the right associates under contract. Joseph admits it would be easier to do if their growth was stagnant with one contract starting when another one ends, but it’s not linear.

He also admits that’s a good problem to have. Joseph and Douglas know from working with client companies just how important it is to build in the sales processes and funnel measurement that result in continual sales.

“We start with a 38-point paid assessment process that explores every way the client brings in revenue. With that, we can show the client where their company has deficiencies and then we can help them initiate a go-to-market strategy,” said Joseph.

As a still early-stage startup, Joseph and Douglas continue to welcome the feedback they get after presentations, such as the recent 1 Million Cups Charlotte meetup where they enjoyed the audience interaction and continued learning opportunity.

They have discussed whether to expand into other related services but advisors have cautioned them to not get distracted from their core business. Both believe there is enough growth opportunity across the U.S. within their current model and they continue to be motivated by the work they already do.

Said Joseph, “I’m inspired by all the people we work with. They are entrepreneurial in their own right, so I learn a lot from them. [With the fractional time duration], there’s always something new and exciting, either with that client or there is a new client to jump to.”

So, timing is everything in entrepreneurial life. Whether that’s knowing when to get started or when to scale.

2nd chances are like startups. They don’t come easy.

Launching an extension of an existing business in a new city is much like launching anew. It requires acute knowledge of the local community, best practices for finding prospective customers and staff, and analysis of the competition, among other operational expertise.

Launching a nonprofit is no different. It requires the same entrepreneurial skills and often presents very similar challenges.

For Alli Thomas, her decision to join Inmates to Entrepreneurs (I2E), a Raleigh-based, not-for-profit currently branching into Charlotte and beyond, spoke to her sense of community and desire to play a proactive role in service of others. It also addressed issues she saw within her network and something she recognized within the greater Charlotte community.

“When individuals complete their prison term, or even if someone has an infraction of any type on their permanent record, they often struggle to get a job because they can’t pass the background check. But if we can help them find jobs, the recidivism rate will decline and so will the cost.

That’s why I2E focuses on training ex-offenders to become entrepreneurs – so they can become productive participants in society. Some have started landscaping businesses, or custodial roles, really any business that can be started as a single operator for under $500,” said Alli.

Brian Hamilton (2)I2E was established in 2008 by Brian Hamilton, co-founder of Raleigh-based Sageworks, a financial information company which has worked with leading financial institutions for the past 20 years. I2E is the company’s primary social impact initiative, sparked by an invitation many years ago for Brian to speak to inmates about how he established his business. Since then, I2E has trained over 1,000 individuals with criminal backgrounds in North Carolina through various programming initiatives.

For Alli, the opportunity to launch I2E Charlotte calls on her education in nonprofit leadership and experience with a national children’s organization. It also speaks to an entrepreneurial spirit awakened as a young girl helping out in small ways with her father’s franchise business. While she didn’t know then how it would affect her, baring witness to his passion changed her own trajectory. She sees that potential in the I2E program as well.

“I’ve always seen myself as a helper but I never guessed what capacity that would mean as a career. I’ve lived in the Charlotte area my entire life and have seen the social changes happening here. With I2E, the potential to really create impact is there. I feel a calling to invest my time with this.”

She added, “Those facing re-entry are a very under-represented group. And they shouldn’t be. Why shouldn’t they be given that second chance? We are really doing them a disservice when they can’t land a stable job. If they start their own business, they won’t have that obstacle.”

Since joining the organization in February, Alli has found a very receptive audience in Charlotte, in part due to growing awareness of the “prison pipeline.” Connecting the dots with recidivism and the cost to society sells the idea of entrepreneurial training for re-entry.

But like any startup, there are challenges to overcome.

“Our biggest challenge is finding the mentors. Our organization is driven by volunteers. We need volunteers who have built their own business to share their experience and teach our entrepreneurs course,” said Alli.

On the other side, is recruiting the individuals who need the service. How do we reach those who are no longer in the system? We also have to anticipate and resolve any barriers before they become problems for those who want to access our free resources. Like setting up transportation service or child care so they can attend.”

Like all new businesses, telling their story is important. So Alli jumped on the chance to present at a recent 1 Million Cups Charlotte (1MC) think tank. While she first thought of it as a way to tap potential program mentors, the 1MC organizers helped her realized the greater benefit is in tapping the expertise of the attendees to help her look at her program like a business.

“There are so many aspects to establishing this program. It is just like having an idea for a business and seeing it through. Entrepreneurs know how to do that. I know they’ll have ideas that can help me figure it out, too,” she said.

Because no matter what barriers you may face, figuring it out is what the entrepreneurial spirit is all about.


Keeping it Real with Real Estate Investing

As an entrepreneur educated and experienced in both Electronic and Electrical Engineering, Sai Mudigonda looks at the world with an eye toward solving problems. To an engineer like Sai, questioning a problem and seeking answers often points to the obvious – so obvious that the problem may not register to the untrained eye.

“I was taking my son around to different after school activities and started observing that there were a number of real estate properties becoming available, perhaps due to bankruptcy or just going out of business,” said Sai. “I started analyzing the details and saw that it was mostly due to the global boom in e-commerce. There was so much real estate already suddenly irrelevant in the market. And I thought, ‘I think I should do something about this.’”

Sai first explored establishing contracts with small business owners to take over the existing real estate spaces large entities were vacating. But the process would drag on.

After a brainstorming session with a friend and fellow engineer and a licensed real estate agent, Sai honed in on the idea that the transaction could be more like a cooperative where multiple “owners” could invest in a real estate property.

“The idea of having a real estate company was really about wanting to see how the real estate deal closing could be expedited. Generally, it takes a long time to close and during that time, the real estate investment is illiquid [meaning not enough cash flow to meet debts]. If someone has a $5 Million property, they cannot just walk away if they need money,” he said.

That thought process led Sai to realize there weren’t many options for non-accredited investors to invest in real estate. To be an accredited investor in the U.S. market requires having a net worth of at least $1 Million, without counting your primary residence, or a minimum $200,000 annual income for each of the previous two years, among other stipulations.

But Sai knew that the passage of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act in 2012 eased securities regulations and opened the potential of online crowdfunding for real estate investment. He realized that Blockchain, today’s highly-secure distributed computing system, would enable a faster, more efficient means to facilitate such a real estate crowdfunding initiative.

That’s where his new platform, Real Bit$, comes in. The Real Bit$ prototype is similar to any other crowdfunding campaign except that the investment goes into ownership of a real estate property on offer. And it is built on Blockchain.

Said Sai, “Right now, bitcoin and cryptocurrency get all the attention when you hear about Blockchain. But bitcoin is just one currency. There are millions of dollars changing hands in the crypto market right now. When that market goes bust, there will be many people holding crypto that has little value. The idea is to promote that economic value by diverting your funds into physical, tangible assets, such as crowdfunded real estate.”

He added, “For the Millennial market, in particular, this is an appealing way to get into real estate investing. Millennials don’t do real estate, Baby Boomers invest in real estate. But Millennials do crowdfunding and they do crypto. The idea of Real Bit$ is to give the Millennial a taste of the real estate industry through a channel that is already known to them.”

Another aspect of the appeal for Millennials is the opportunity to assist areas devastated by natural disasters. Sai aims to help rebuild these areas by focusing investments on building energy-efficient, sustainable, near Net-Zero, carbon neutral homes so devastated communities can become self-reliant, resilient and environmentally-friendly.

Putting his prior entrepreneurial, corporate and engineering expertise to work has inspired Sai to pursue the Real Bit$ platform.  He recently presented at 1 Million Cups Charlotte’s think tank gathering, which welcomes startup presenters from concept through their first three years. Sai welcomes the additional feedback.

“The past six months have been a huge learning curve and there is still more to learn. Being an entrepreneur, you realize very quickly that it’s not a cake walk. But there are numerous opportunities to learn. And I want to leave a legacy that makes this world a little better if I can.”


Learn to love your blog again

(L to R: Jerry Nairne, Josh Silverman, JR Getches, Morgan Malino)

What do you do when writing content is a chore and the experts you need are busy with their “real” jobs? As the head of IT for a law firm, JR Getches knew that frequently-updated, fresh, keyword-rich content would drive search engine optimization (SEO) and web rankings. He knew those rankings were the goldmine behind building awareness with potential clients. But JR needed more content.

So when the managing partner of the firm assigned each lawyer to write 500 words, just once per week, JR thought that reasonable request to help their website rankings skyrocket would be an easy one for staff to fulfill. But then the lawyers didn’t produce. Like many business owners, they were just too busy.  

JR started thinking about content automation as a means to help writers stay on top of their topics. He figured there must be a way to automate story writing so the lawyers – or any business or content owner – could focus more on editing and style.

With his tech background, JR knew his idea would need to be an algorithmic-rich system that took care of formatting and extracting the labor-intensive stuff, like which keywords and format will get the attention of the narrow and ever-changing definition of what search engine computers rank highest. And it had to be customizable and simple to use.

And that’s why he built Zaphne.

As a business owner, it is really hard to come up with an hour every day to write content. That’s why so many good-intention blogs are abandoned. Zaphne automates the research and revision parts of blogging, helps business owners stay focused on building organic web traffic, and increases productivity. They don’t have to write content themselves or wait for someone to come along and write it for them,” said Josh Silverman, CFO for Zaphne and one member of the entrepreneurial company’s tech-experienced, four-person team.

Josh is bullish on the opportunity ahead for Zaphne because of the productivity it gives back to business owners. He is also enthusiastic about the team.

Zaphne’s content engine unlocks SEO strategies organically, and gives business owners the low cost tool they need to compete with the big firms who are churning out content with a staff of writers,” he said. “It solves a real problem for millions of web site owners.”

So how does it work, exactly? Zaphne combines automation with a proprietary algorithm that searches the web for relevant information and then creates keyword-rich, original content based on the topic you choose.  The content includes pictures and videos, keywords and links to source articles, and is considered original content by search engines.  Never duplicated for anyone else, each Zaphne post can be completely computer written, or can be easily edited in about five minutes to fit your style – a far cry from the hour it takes an average person to construct a blog themselves.

Officially launched last year, Zaphne has already garnered positive feedback and live use via its integration with WordPress and its inclusion in the WordPress repository. A blogless version is coming soon. Josh says the Charleston, SC Company has been flying under the radar on purpose, but the search for feedback continues.

“Hearing both positive and constructive responses has been invaluable in the development of Zaphne. For example, the idea to have a blogless version came from a banker who liked the idea of being a content expert, but doesn’t have a blog,” he said. “We also hear folks coming up with other ways to integrate this service with their software or media platform, or another way to think about using our automated content. We can’t put a price tag on that kind of feedback.”

He added, “The software is built and the core tech works great, so now we are focused on making adaptation easier for end users. The core technology doesn’t change, just where and how we deliver what Zaphne constructs. Getting into WordPress is a big step for any software. They have 75 million users worldwide. But we are already working other integration points to take this large scale. We’re building on our one-to-many approach.”

By focusing their attention on automating the mundane parts of blogging, Zaphne helps business owners and marketing professionals express themselves without the investment of time it typically takes to research, compose and format original content. 

With Zaphne, they can learn to love their blog again.


Resolve the pain points of home renovation? Problem solved.

“I’ve always had a side business going, even as a kid. Most kids have a lemonade stand. I was selling blueberries by the roadside at 10 or 11 years old. So the entrepreneurial mindset got into my blood early and has just always been there.

But I am a solution provider more so than an entrepreneur. That’s what really gets me motivated – finding solutions to problems. That’s why I went into IT. But my side business for years has been fixing and flipping houses and mobile homes,” said John Daoust, co-founder of Contractor’s Edge, a comprehensive service for both contractors and homeowners that aims to make the process of remodeling a pleasant and secure experience.

The Army and Navy veteran (yes, both!) knows a thing or two about the pain points of securing multiple contractors and being a homeowner looking to finish a needed repair or major renovation project. He and his business partner, Ed Longstrom, each have first-hand war stories and success stories to tell about working within the home improvement industry.

Before launching their signature product, Renescrow™, John and Ed conducted market surveys and field interviews to explore what contractors, homeowners and even governmental agencies involved in natural disasters find lacking or challenging in the contractor relationship or business process.

The contractor industry is not cutting edge. It’s old school. There are lots of good contractors out there but often they are not necessarily good businessmen. Contractor’s Edge includes tools to make it easier and more efficient to conduct business, like electronic quotes, invoices, customer tracking, and integration with DocuSign for getting signatures. It is a lot better than relying on a quote written on the back of a napkin or a piece of blank paper. That still happens.

But we also serve the homeowner. Often times, the contractor asks for a big down payment which is touted as being needed to order materials. A huge benefit of Renescrow is the homeowner can put that down payment and future payments in a secure escrow account that the contractor can draw from with approval, or the funds can be sent directly to the cabinet maker or whomever is the third-party materials provider. It will 100 percent eliminate contractor payment fraud! With this solution, the homeowner can’t be taken for the down payment with the contractor never to return. Unfortunately, that happens.”

Renescrow truly differentiates Contractor’s Edge, providing an answer to a major pain point in the industry. Contractor fraud or fear of it isn’t going away. John points to a survey of 2,000 residents of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina which indicated a full 40 percent of those surveyed experienced some sort of contractor fraud during renovations! And there are many other surveys or anecdotal experiences out there with similar cringe-worthy reports.

John hopes Renescrow becomes such a common brand that it becomes a synonym for contractor guarantees, just like Kleenex came to be the name for all tissues. With Renescrow, the homeowner is protected, but so is the contractor.

“Renescrow becomes a tool for the contractor to assure the homeowner up front because they can legitimately say that the money goes only to the intended party or purpose. And they don’t have to chase the check from the homeowner who may claim they don’t have the funds after the job gets started.”

The financial aspect of the Renescrow service is managed via a partnership with Payoneer, a leading, certified online money transfer service which also handles such brands as Airbnb, Amazon and UPS.

Thanks to Ed’s web and integration expertise, coupled with John’s marketing and people-skills, Contractor’s Edge already has more than 1,200 customers and 1,500 successful projects under its belt. But they continue to refine and define their approach to market.

That’s why the two Upstate New Yorkers who met and established the company three years ago in Greenville, SC continue to take their pitch on the road.

Because that’s what you do when you’re motivated to find solutions to problems.


Tech exec turned VC bets on entrepreneur motivations

“I was already CEO of a software startup when the idea of GetApp came up. We were developing a software encryption technology that was pioneering blockchain. I knew we were too early in the market, but there was interest from innovative prospects. My main issue was distribution.

The traditional software distribution channels didn’t work for innovative solutions. Established VARs [value-added resellers] or distributors would not be interested and my prospects were not using them anyway to source new solutions. I realized that this issue would increase because the number of SaaS [software-as-a-service] products and SMB clients would grow exponentially thanks to easy access to the cloud infrastructure and development platform. A new platform was needed to match our offer and demand.”

French-native Christophe Primault turned his intuitive market insight into a successful company which he sold to Gartner in 2015, six years after launch. Today, he is a part-time venture capitalist keeping an eye out for the next high-opportunity B2B technology startup. Getting to this point was a journey that many entrepreneurs dream of, but few realize.

Leaving a successful corporate career, Christophe was ready for a lifestyle change. He moved from high-stress London to the Barcelona seaside. While beautiful Barcelona offered the lifestyle he desired, there were few corporate opportunities. Barcelona did, however, have an embryonic entrepreneurial community.

Still, embracing a full-on startup opportunity is not without its challenges.

“The biggest challenge was to adapt to the startup rules. Even if you have big responsibilities in a corporate environment, it won’t prepare you for startup reality. In a big company, you can rely on the brand, on business inertia, on colleagues from all the different functions needed to run a business. When you start a company for the first time, you are on your own.

Fortunately, I started the business with a very complementary partner. Although he was in a similar situation, at least each of us only had half of the things to learn and we had someone to talk to. I don’t think I could have succeeded without the right business partner.”

Christophe attributes their success, in part, to robust execution by two business partners who understood how to complement each other and successfully hire a strong core team.

“My main strength was the ability to read the market. I did some research to understand how the SaaS market would shape up in the near future and talked to many industry actors to validate my assumptions. Once it was clear that the opportunity was there and it was the right time to build the startup, the next key success factor was execution. This is where my business partner brought a lot of strength to the picture.”

While there are often-told stories of serial entrepreneurs entering the market with the idea to sell and exit, Christophe took a more hybrid approach.

“I am not a serial entrepreneur but I was also not interested in building and holding a company forever. I would more describe myself as a one-off opportunist. I saw an opportunity and decided to take a chance at it. There is no shame in acting this way, in fact I believe we should stop glorifying so-called serial entrepreneurs who go and stop with businesses.

Very few of us are able to do that. Those who can are truly talented people and I admire them but I have also seen many painful situations of people losing everything. The human cost of that is very sad and scary. Novice entrepreneurs should know that it is okay to start a business with the intent of reselling it in a few years and that there is a lot room between unicorns, lifestyle businesses and failures.”

Christophe also offers keen insight on the funding process, acknowledging that what worked for him may or may not work for others. GetApp was primarily bootstrapped, raising a small external round to make an acquisition.

“We had the opportunity to raise a large round with a Silicon Valley VC but we decided that we would turn it down and grow the business until we had an opportunity to make a good exit. Retrospectively, it was the right choice for us due to our motivations. But I understand and respect that many other entrepreneurs would have never turned down such amazing opportunity to be an ever bigger company.

There are some side benefits in having a good professional investor on board. They force you to have a clean legal and financial house, which is critical to grow your company in a healthy way but also to sell, especially if your buyer is listed on a US stock exchange. They also help you make the critical decisions.”

In his role with Elaia Partners, Christophe is resolute about fully understanding the real motivations of the entrepreneurs he supports.

“I have seen a bit of gaming between entrepreneurs and some VCs. I don’t think it is healthy. With frank and honest discussions about real motivations, it prevents stressing the situation with unnecessary misalignment. There are sufficient real stressful issues to deal with at a startup!”

Christophe knows. He hedged a bet on Barcelona for work/life balance and it is now one of the fastest growing startup scenes in Europe. And he hedged a bet on the precise market timing that helped grow a successful tech business.

So if you are a B2B tech startup interested in launching in Spain, you might want to look up Christophe. Odds are, you wouldn’t want to bet against him.


Hush. Your toddler will sleep!

“In a place very near, at a time very soon, there live the Hush Buddies, who glow like the moon. In quiet they live, with smiles all around, for their glow comes from silence, and dims when there’s sound…”

Those two insightful lines start the storybook tale of Hush Buddy, a sleep training program for toddlers. It features and introduces Whisper, a nightlight character that encourages toddlers to go to sleep quietly by dimming when it hears sound and brightening again with silence.

With the storybook’s help, children soon come to love Whisper. Hush Buddy smartly incorporates the child’s own imagination along with research-proven techniques and parental training.

“We’ve invented a device that lovingly helps reduce bedtime meltdowns by toddlers and gets them to go to sleep quickly and quietly, usually in just a night or two. That’s huge since well-rested toddlers become adults who are physically and cognitively healthier,” says Scott Hanson, former news reporter and now inventor and founder/president of Hush Buddy.

“The toddler years are a time when our brains are being bolted together during sleep. Sleep deprivation during those precious years has all kinds of impact, from diabetes to behavior issues, even obesity. Just imagine if we can put a dent in attention issues or help families with autistic children. We get really excited about the long term and lifelong implications of better sleep.”

Scott and his COO/engineer partner, Edward Danyo, are both fathers who intimately understand the child sleep challenge. Scott is the father of twins and Ed has two children, including one with a diagnosed sleep disorder. But Scott says the initial concept was planted years before, followed by one, ahem, sleepless night of motivation.

“A news story I did several years ago had stuck with me. I interviewed a doctor who said that two things motivate young kids to sleep: light and keeping the door closed. Last year while staying with family in a house with paper thin walls, my two-year-old nephew in the next room had a meltdown at 3:30 in the morning. Come to find out, he does this every night.”

So the “light bulb” went off. Or on, depending on how you look at it.

“It came to me that kids want more light in their room, not less. So Hush Buddy dims when they make sound and lights back up when the room is quiet. Just the opposite of what you might expect. When I started researching it, I just knew it was going to work – and then the studies on pediatric sleep backed it up. That’s when I got excited!”

Dr. Craig Canapari, head of the Yale Pediatric Sleep Center, provided valuable insight into the science behind what Hush Buddy set out to do. In addition to validating the light cue, Dr. Canapari suggested they needed a character the child could bond with and a story to capture their imagination. So Scott put his journalistic skills to task, writing the accompanying storybook in a weekend. But illustrating a product that was not yet in production was another hurdle.

“I came up with this placeholder design for the main character. When we did focus group feedback, it was favored 4:1 over the later professionally designed ideas. So we believed in ourselves and stayed with the original design. It is a simple character. Kids’ imagination does the rest.

And the storybook sets up cause and effect, so they get it. Noise means less light and quiet means light. Toddlers become attached to the character, just like they do a favorite toy or blanket. Whisper becomes a trusted friend.”

There are 10 million families with two-, three- and four-year-olds and 71 percent of those say they struggle with getting their child to sleep. More than half (58%) of those say they are likely to buy a product to help their child go to sleep.

Hush Buddy believes word of mouth marketing through Moms online is their best market. They identified the specific personas of five types of likely purchasers, targeting the top three Mom types most likely to buy.

The Raleigh, NC-based startup continues to progress along its identified timeline, which includes a planned crowdfunding campaign.

So “Hush little baby, don’t you cry” doesn’t have to be the frustration of today’s parents any longer. Hush Buddy’s storybook ending has a new beginning for that night-time routine.

Hush, Mommy, no need to cry. Sleep is coming!