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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.

 

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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.

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This owner wants her clients to be heard and understood

“My story is the plight of the immigrant child. In the beginning of every situation my Mom faced as an immigrant, there was always some form of concern or disappointment or being upset about something that could be resolved by the interpreting function. I quickly noticed, even as a young girl, that her whole demeanor changed when the interpretation happened. She’d literally go from upset to happy.

There were thousands of situations in my youth that had to be dealt with – my mother needed that help and I became her interpreter. Once she learned to speak the language, I had to speak ‘right’ for her. This is the plight of the immigrant. It causes a lot of children to be in an unfair situation. And it happens all over the world. The children just want to play but they become busy helping mom. That personal experience so influenced my life, it became my career.”

Peruvian native Amelia Rodriguez founded Vocalink Global (formerly Vocalink Language Services) more than 20 years ago. She turned her love of language into a much-needed service to help others like herself. But she also grew it into a business-to-business service, meeting the translation needs of corporations doing business around the world.

Starting first as a freelance interpreter, Amelia established her reputation as a Federal Court interpreter. She enjoyed the respect for interpretation work in the courthouse setting, noting it is a very different type of domain. There is a certain challenge in interpreting legal topics, but she also enjoyed that the judges and attorneys knew and appreciated your work.

“Personally, I liked the high stress, high stakes challenge of court work, more so than other interpreting situations. But I soon realized there were others working there who had been at it longer and would always have more experience. That’s when I started looking at how to build a business myself and bring on talented interpreters. I realized there must be translation work out there as well.”

While interpretation is about being a third party liaison for the spoken word, translation services focuses on the written word.

Amelia secured her first major account by attending events with businesses she targeted. That opened the door to the Iams Company while it was still independently-owned. Even then, the pet care and animal nutrition company needed translation services for marketing and sales materials being sent all over the world.

In recent years, Amelia has seen a major shift in the language services industry, driven by technology. Remote video interpreting is coming into vogue, allowing a much more simultaneous interpretation session. But some of the more exciting facets involve changing point-of-service dynamics, the impact of cloud technology and the massive amount of content many large enterprises are trying to manage.

“In the early days, when you needed translation services, you requested whole translation files sent via email. With today’s cloud-based platforms, we no longer need to use the slow email process. Today’s file exchanges are very customizable and include status notifications. You can now have centrally-located files which can be easily accessed with password verification.

That really changes the world for both the client and the translator. You know the status of any piece of work immediately and you can also have a searchable pipeline. For example, we can include data intelligence that will let the client know to reuse already interpreted material that may fit a new project and avoid duplication. There are significant benefits for the customer to have that kind of access and availability.”

That need for access and availability in language services has helped Amelia transform her own immigrant child’s plight into an engaging, state-of-the-art business where every client can be heard and be understood.

 

 

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Awakening and rejuvenating a sleeper tech

“This is really a Rip Van Winkle story about the rebirth of a proven technology that we’re now making even better! Back in 2007, we were working for a leading manufacturer who was bought out. The new company wasn’t interested in the software tech we developed and had already deployed to about a thousand customers. So it basically went to sleep. We went on with our jobs and other ventures,” said Joe Razum.

Flash forward a decade and suddenly I am asked about that old offering by someone in a totally different industry. So of course, I asked this prospective customer if they would be interested in an update. That was enough spark to pull the team back together. Now, it is like waking up and finding the technology has evolved and it is better than ever!”

Joe’s enthusiasm has been a catalyst behind the awakening of what is now TCO Toolkit, a Software as a Service (SaaS), vendor-neutral total cost of ownership (TCO)/value calculator. The new offering fills a gap in the marketplace to help sourcing leaders determine TCO in a uniform, scalable, and yet customizable way. The original product it evolved from was a Harvard Business Review Best Practice, and Plant Engineering Product of the Year when first introduced and companies clamored for it. Joe is sure the new offering will be even more successful.

That’s because TCO has been identified as the #2 criteria (behind product quality) in strategic sourcing, yet many still use cumbersome methodology, like spreadsheets, to determine this vital component of sourcing success. With its latest updates and cloud-based platform, the easy-to-use TCO Toolkit utilizes a single code for both mobile and PC application.

Joining Joe on this entrepreneurial journey are Sanjay Sharma and Brad Trapp, whose operational, architecture and coding expertise were critical to the rejuvenation of the old platform into its latest version. Each member of the team has slightly different motivations.

“Bringing this live again in a new form and format, with new technology is very exciting for me. That’s what got me onboard. I am inspired by the opportunity to come together again as a team, with our experience from the past and yet taking on the new challenges and requirements, and learning how we can improve.” [Sanjay]

“For me, it’s about the freedom being an entrepreneur brings. I’ve always been very entrepreneurial and while that isn’t a guarantee of success, doing this for ourselves is one of the primary ways to be free to control what I do.” [Brad]

“We were tasked with developing the original product to help us sell at a time when American manufacturers were getting a lot of competition from offshore manufacturers. So it was all about helping us retain and bring back work going elsewhere. It really felt like we were working on something important. It is satisfying to do that again, and the economic potential is nice, too.” [Joe]

TCO Toolkit currently has paid subscription users for its Beta offering, so Joe and the team are feeling good about that economic potential. And they have also received valuable insight from mentors at the Technology Incubator of Rock Hill, SC Launch and 1 Million Cups Charlotte.

This Rip Van Winkle story is proving technology can reawaken a sleeping opportunity!

 

 

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Launching a business when you don’t know anyone

“I’m fascinated with people and how they respond to ideas. What drives them, what upsets them, why are they happy. That’s why I like marketing, because it puts people and their needs first.”

Seeking to understand people is nothing new for Belarus native Igor Gorlatov. After moving to Charlotte, NC in 2016 with his wife and young son, Igor connected by offering his expertise to a diverse cross-section of the community.

That includes helping the Russian-speaking community in Charlotte, founding a local chapter of Successful Negotiators Club, presenting his negotiation tactics as a component of organizational learning programs, co-leading TorchBearer Fractional CMOs, which lends in-depth marketing strategy expertise to mid-sized companies, and most recently, becoming a lead community organizer for 1 Million Cups Charlotte, a Kauffman Foundation initiative for early stage entrepreneurs.

Igor has the background to make it all work. He first came to the United States under the highly-selective Fulbright Scholar program, an initiative of the U.S. Department of State. His exceptional curriculum vitae shows experience in languages, high-stakes negotiation, teaching, digital marketing and business.

He was a founding partner of a digital marketing and web development firm in Belarus, fractional director of an MBA program and also worked as a part-time interpreter for high-level talks with such organizations as the World Bank, United Nations, the Trilateral Group on Peaceful Resolution of the Conflict in Ukraine, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the EU Commission.

All of which sounds complex. But the ever-entrepreneurial Igor assures it is not. Or at least not as complex as it is to integrate into the entrepreneurial community in a new place as an immigrant who does not know anyone!

However, there is a tried-and-true shortcut that Igor was able to take.

“I was very lucky to join Advent Co-working, which I have found to be the most community oriented co-working space in Charlotte. It was my way to plug into the bigger Charlotte community and start building my network and my business.”

At Advent Co-working, Igor met his now business-partner, Adrienne Craighead, who’s networking skills are a solid match to Igor’s big picture approach to marketing.

“A lot of businesses gravitate toward complexity, especially with regard to marketing strategy. They tend to focus on so many tactics and metrics that it becomes harder and harder to see the big picture. We listen and look for the misalignment between what they do and what they say they want to do. Figuring out inconsistencies and casting a bolder vision allows companies to grow to the next level.”

Igor has found some differences in the approach to business between entrepreneurs here and in his home country.

“The business environment here is more open to experimentation, more optimistic and opportunistic. I enjoy that. It is one of the reasons I fell in love with America.”

But it is the similarities that he finds truly inspiring.

“I have found people have many shared experiences, hobbies and interests. Everything is coming full circle now between my interest in understanding and helping people, our business approach and the ability to quickly get connected in our new home.”

Launching a business when you truly don’t know anyone locally is a challenge. But Igor is proof it is not insurmountable. Especially when you have a bold vision to put people and their needs first.

 

Want to tell your #BizBeginnings story? Contact tigPR!

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Where does the entrepreneur’s mind wander?

“It was totally unexpected, but after graduating in 2016, I managed to seriously injure my knee and found myself basically bed-ridden for eight months. All of a sudden, the job I just moved for fell through and I had no idea what to do. Laying there, I decided to just start something. Within a month, I came up with 42 ideas – and all of them were really bad. 

But during that time, literally 40 friends texted me asking for travel advice. And it hit me. I wondered why there wasn’t any where to share that kind of experience-based expertise. That’s when I decided to develop Rayka.”

Landon Sanford has traveled to 38 countries and 42 states, thanks in part to his Dad’s job. But a semester abroad in Spain really solidified his wanderlust.

“During that one semester, I traveled to 17 countries. It is so easy to get cheap flights in Europe so I would sleep in airports or hostels – anything to be able to afford to keep the adventures going.”

So, it might not seem unusual that this globe-trotting entrepreneur turned that passion into a business named after the Icelandic word for “wander.” After all, Rayka  taps into Landon’s wealth of first-hand expertise – and that of more than 50 participating world wanderers (so far).

As of August 1, 2017 Rayka is live in the APP store! Initially focused as a resource for foreign exchange students living in Europe, Landon points out that Rayka taps experienced travelers who have ‘been there/done that,’ not a star rating system that often becomes bogus.

What’s unusual about this entrepreneur’s story is what Landon says his college friends find most surprising about his latest start-up.

“My friends would never guess that I would start a business that involves social media. I actually quit social media altogether in college. I wanted to experience life, not live it online. Rayka is different. It doesn’t draw you into your phone, it pushes you out into the world.”

Landon had no experience in app development, but he started his first business at 15 and put his past negotiation skills to work to hire an app developer. Still, he quickly discovered that his preconceived notion of keeping everything as secret as possible until launch was all wrong.

“You have to talk about the idea and talk to as many people as possible to get feedback. I talked to everyone I knew who traveled and I surveyed 5,000 foreign exchange students. My sales background also helped a lot in dealing with rejection and push back. I know not to take it personal.

Every comment helps you understand where you can be different. Everyone kept asking if I’ve heard of the Untappd app for beer because it sounded similar to them. Now I use that to tell our story. We want Rayka to be the Untappd of travel.”

So when a traveler wants to know the best places for fun, or food or entertainment, someone like Landon will be there (via a smart, social app) to welcome fellow wanderers.

All because during Landon’s unfortunately-timed medical emergency, his mind wandered. And just look where it took him!

 

Want to tell your #BizBeginnings story? Contact tigPR!

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It starts with a spark

What compelled your entrepreneurial leap of faith? How did you do it? To the humble entrepreneur or solopreneur, your business beginnings story may not seem much different from others getting started. And yet, it is!

True, there are common themes in all start-ups. Determination. Dedication. Passion. A little bit of crazy thrown in.

Most likely, your business started with an idea you just couldn’t let go. You may have felt compelled to launch by a deeply held passion, a unique expertise or a need you suddenly recognized in the marketplace. Or, let’s be honest, you may have felt pushed by an economic driver, like the prospect of no income on the horizon.

Whatever it was, it started with a spark. There was something that kindled your start and made you bravely face the entrepreneurial path. That’s the story your customers want to hear. Talking about your true beginning offers the familiarity and motivation and inspiration that solidifies your “right” to earn their business. Your story becomes the spark that turns prospects into customers.

That spark moment – that common denominator among start-up founders –  just happens to be the same spark I experienced that pushed me to start this Biz Beginnings blog. I’ll share more of my story as we go along but my story is not the focus here. This blog is for business start-ups, solopreneurs, entrepreneurs and all those with just enough crazy to believe they can beat the odds and meet a need while feeding their passion.

Think of this as a “Humans of” type of space, where humans who start businesses showcase their compelling stories. Hearing and writing about your biz beginning kindles my own spark moment! So reach out. Tell me your story.  And watch this space for the inspiration of others, just like us. Oh, what a spark that will be!

Lorraine Russell, founder, tigPR/Biz Beginnings