How A 25-Year-Old Sold Over 1 Million Shakes and Continue to Grow


The idea of Nutribuddy came to me when I was in my first term at university. Before morning lectures I prioritised an extra 10 minutes in bed over spending time preparing breakfast which meant I was forced to eat breakfast on-the-go instead. But the issue was that finding a healthy on-the-go option was near impossible.

A meal replacement shake would have been perfect except for the fact that all meal replacement shakes I could find were filled with artificial ingredients. I remember feeling overwhelmed and disappointed by the number of ingredients which I didn’t understand and couldn’t even begin to pronounce. There’s so much research to suggest that artificial ingredients aren’t good for us and I wasn’t prepared to compromise on my health.

Instead, I bought a huge box of small croissants and tried to make that last throughout the whole term. Stale croissants are not great. But they were better than the meal replacement shakes which were available. I started thinking about the concept of completely natural vegan meal replacement shakes and decided I wanted to turn that idea into a reality. There was an obvious gap in the market and I wanted to fill it. I quit University after that first term and began working on Nutribuddy.

How did you get your first three customers?

When I launched Nutribuddy, I decided to put all focus into Instagram marketing (using ‘influencers’ or reality TV stars to market the products) after seeing several companies using this tactic. The influencer’s task was to post an image on their Instagram feed with Nutribuddy products which would put our products forward to their thousands of followers.

However, we wanted to make sure that the influencer also enjoyed our products and developed long-term relationships with those who loved Nutribuddy products. We could tell this as whenever we tried to book in a new post, they’d request more products as they’d used them all up! This was how we grew our initial customer-base. In fact, this was our primary marketing tactic for the first 2 years of trading.

Did you have any experience/expertise in the area?

When I launched Nutribuddy, I had absolutely no business experience. I had come straight from full-time education and my studies had been on subjects that are world’s away from business. I was studying creative writing at university and before that my A level subjects consisted of English and Psychology. However, I find that a lot of business is common sense so experience isn’t strictly necessary.

I have not raised any money for Nutribuddy. As a result, launching and growing Nutribuddy has very much been on a budget. I launched Nutribuddy alongside my partner and put in our own money to set the company up. It was therefore very important that the business was profitable early-on. We had very limited experience and so put our money into completely the wrong things. We wanted to make Nutribuddy the perfect brand for launch and were adamant we’d make back anything we spent.

We spent £5k On Branding

After my brother came up with the name Nutribuddy, we spent £5k with a branding agency coming up with the company logo, colours, fonts and packaging. I go backwards and forwards about whether or not this was worth it. The branding agency came up with the Nutribuddy logo which we still use to this day. I absolutely love it and don’t think I could have come up with anything like it myself.

Nutribuddy Ella McKendrick

The rest however wasn’t so smooth. I went back and forth with the agency how we wanted Nutribuddy to have 1 distinct colour. On the other hand, they were adamant we used different colours to show different products and flavours. Despite insisting that 1 single colour would make us more recognisable and this is what we wanted, when we went to view their presentation of ideas, they did a range of colours! It was exhausting. I didn’t appreciate how they were refusing to work with us to deliver something that fit our brief.

The presentation they showed us showed 2 different design options. I liked aspects of both so did my own mock-up which included the best of both ideas. I loved it! They hated it. In fact, one of the designers stormed out of the meeting. The design I showed them is the current packaging design for all our pouches. Although the design agency did undeniably help come up with the logo and packaging design, if I was starting a business again, I would skip this and just design it myself. £5k is a lot of money for a self-funded start-up.

We Lost 8k on a Photoshoot

The lowest point was when we spent £8,000 on a photoshoot to create the perfect lifestyle images to share on our website and social media. Most of the money spent on the photoshoot was on a model whose images we would only be able to use for a maximum of 1 year. We had been very impressed with the photographer we chose. He was skilled, creative and reasonably-priced. But the extortionate model costs took away from this.

The images were good but I believe they were unnecessary for our launch. I do not think they contributed to sales which is a shame considering how much was spent. Even if my company was huge, I would never invest so much in a photoshoot like this again. Professional models are so expensive and the yearly license totally defeats the point in doing it.

Nutribuddy Hotslim

After 1 year passed, we were forced to take down any images from the photoshoot and since then have used our own photography and I have modelled in the images. Now, I may not quite be a model but I can safely say that sales have not at all gone down since I appeared in the website banner!

Any tips for finding first employees?

Building up the initial team was perhaps the most difficult challenge we have faced. For the first year and a half, it was just myself and my partner running Nutribuddy. We did everything from the customer service to the accounts and marketing.

We started looking for employees to assist with the manufacturing and distribution in summer of 2017 but only formed a solid team a few months ago (late 2019). It took over 2 years! We went through countless people during this time. Reasons for the partnership not working out ranged from them only looking for a short-term job, leaving to travel to just not being a right fit.

It was so important that we found people who loved the role and wanted to progress within the company. I didn’t realise how hard it was to find people who wanted this.

My number 1 piece of advice would be to just keep trying. With every failed hire you have, learn from it and implement your learnings to the process for hiring the next staff member. I would also advise you not to settle for less than you think is needed. It doesn’t make sense to hire someone and then spend so much time managing them that you may as well have just done the job yourself. You’ll know when you have the perfect team member.

Do you have any advice for someone just starting out?

My best advice would be to be persistent and not to give up. Running a business has constant challenges so it’s inevitable that things will go wrong at some point. The trick to getting through the low times is to not lose focus of what you are trying to achieve. This helps keep you motivated.

Despite the many mistakes we have made, we have always persisted and as a result have sold over 1 million shakes and continue to grow.

Company Name: Nutribuddy
Founders: Ella McKendrick



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Developing Affordable Cloud Manufacturing Software for Small Business


Flowlens provides powerful but affordable manufacturing business tools to small equipment and machinery manufacturers, including CRM, MRP and Service software, all in one system. Flowlens enables manufacturers to dramatically improve the way they manage their business, and helps them avoid the common problems that most manufacturers face.

Flowlens is the result of about 15 years consulting and custom development experience working with a variety of businesses, all of whom suffered from badly disjointed business processes. These resulted in needless admin for staff, lots of duplication of efforts, errors and communications problems, all of which made for poor customer experience and higher costs.

I built my first website back in 1997, and quickly realised the power of web based technology to offer new kinds of customer experiences and processes. Being based in Northern Ireland, the web revolution hadn’t really started, but over the first few years I was lucky enough to work with several clients early on who thought the same way. What was exciting was the differentiating factor: none of their competitors saw them coming, and it was satisfying to help make this difference.

What was important too was how we approached the business process. Most businesses think in ‘silos’ – sales, operations, finance etc. I’ve always taken a holistic view of the business. Some call it the ‘value chain’ and this is a great way for people across a business to understand how they contribute to the ultimate goal of a satisfied, profitable customer.

I applied this approach to a number of projects, from IT resellers, finance companies and manufacturing business. Seeing the efficiencies and customer outcomes was great, but the truly satisfying part was helping clients see things in a different, more joined up light. People realised the impact their actions (or inactions) had on the people around them. Silo thinking gave way to the value chain and improved, more customer-centric collaboration across functions.

By the early 2010s, cloud tech was more flexible, and it was a good time to think about building a product. Our first attempt, a templated planning tool, was a huge learning curve, but ultimately suffered because the consulting service customers always came first. We learned lots about finding product / market fit (or not), identifying a market that was big enough and could pay (or not), and also about streamlining our own procedures around customer onboarding and retention.

Meanwhile, we worked with several equipment manufacturing businesses on the consulting and development projects, helping streamline and connect business processes with custom built cloud software. It was at this point that the original idea for the Flowlens software emerged. We could see how smaller manufacturing businesses simply couldn’t afford the kind of ‘enterprise’ software tools that existed at the time. And, even if they did have deep enough pockets, the time and expertise needed to make significant IT changes happen was hard to find.

What problem do you solve for customers?

We could see that small equipment manufacturers suffered from three big headaches in their day to day operations.

First was basic clarity in communication between the front-end sales, and back-end manufacturing function. Clarity of what was in the sales pipeline, what was likely to convert, what had actually been ordered, and when was it needed. Small manufacturing companies are like many other small businesses. Information tends to be in peoples’ heads, stuck in emails, paper or numerous spreadsheets. This meant long hours just to stay on top of things, and typically reactionary tactics to deal with orders dropping out of nowhere, and, trying to ensure that the specification of the product ordered is correct before it goes into production.

The second big issue was simply resource: having got an order – do we have the resources necessary to manufacturer? Again this required laborious efforts to stay on top of stock levels and availability of people, current jobs etc. Even a basic component could delay delivery of a product, keeping cash tied for longer than necessary.

A third headache, which was/is more of an opportunity for small machinery manufacturers is Service. In most cases, after-sales service is an after-thought.

When customers need spare parts, or a machine breaks down, the Manufacturer can react. This is fine, but it is leaving a lot of money and goodwill on the table. Service is a different kind of business model, so it’s natural that manufacturers will focus on the next thing to be made. However we could see that forward thinking businesses could be proactive in their service efforts, and actually address customer anxieties about preventing equipment failure and ensuring appropriate backup was in place.

So, we thought, let’s build a cloud manufacturing CRM and MRP software solution, including Asset Service Management features, that can satisfy the needs of small manufacturing companies out there.

And that’s what we have done.

How did you get your early customers, and what did you learn in the process?

Based on our existing client credentials, we were able to open doors with other local manufacturers and present the concept and demonstrate an early version of the product. The feedback was positive, and we were able to recruit several early customers who got onboard.

It became clear that we needed to manage our product decisions carefully, and in the early days this was one of the hardest lessons learned. When you are a service company, building one-off solutions, you don’t need to compromise on feature decisions, the customer gets what they need. With a product, you are trying to make the right decisions to satisfy all the early customers, and those who come down the line.

Culturally, as a service business, we were so used to saying ‘yes’ to (valid) client requirements, so this was something we really struggled with in the early days. It took time to develop a thick skin to say no, but also the science and intuition necessary to make decisions about features.

In all cases, we were trying to take a requirement, cross reference with others, and then device a solution that was as flexible as possible. In particular we built configuration tools that users could manage themselves, and handle different scenarios. In some cases, we didn’t make the right call.

The hardest, but one of the most rewarding lessons learned in the Flowlens journey has been about positioning and product-market fit. It is liberating to ‘know who you are for’ and who you are not. Unfortunately, part of the journey also means parting with those who are not a good fit.

Do you have any advice for someone just starting out?

For people just starting out in product, particularly those software service businesses tempted to build a product, this can be the hardest thing to get your head around. There are tons of great ideas out there, insights gained through real-world interaction with clients. But do these translate into a fully formed product, with a market big enough, a price-point and customer acquisition and retention process that enable profits to made in the end-up?

Early sales prospects have a habit of saying, ‘i’d buy it today, if it just had this one extra feature…’ and it can be frustrating to say the least, but such requests are endless.

I’m often asked for advice from companies in this position. My advice is always the same. Before you write a line of code, take the outcome you plan to offer your market, map out the value stream, and figure out who to do it manually. (That might be google docs, form, email, carrier pigeon, whatever, the customer doesn’t need to know.) And then find 3 customers and deliver the value to them using your new process. You’ll find out pretty quickly if this is a business opportunity, a nice to have feature, or a pipe dream.

We had the benefit of years of existing customer experience to feed into our early versions of Flowlens, but that didn’t mean we got it all right. We bootstrapped the first couple of years of Flowlens, whilst still continuing development services. We were determined to learn as much as possible, before taking the step into the investment world. A step we knew would be necessary to accelerate the R&D and market reach needed to take Flowlens to the wider stage. We have been lucky to work with the very supportive team at Crescent Capital, based in here Belfast, to help us make our vision reality.

Growth

The tactics you need to get your first 3 users will be different from the next 10, 50, 100 and so on. This perhaps was the biggest culture shock for our business. As a 10-person team, with solid long-term clients and highly regarded reputation, we rarely wanted for new business.

We took the leap to rebrand the business in 2014, as the original trading name (Crafty Devil) and the new Flowlens product name felt incompatible. This was taken deliberately as we didn’t have the resources to back both horses, and we knew Flowlens was our future.

Looking back now, with 100s of paying users, our early business development activities are night and day from the approach we take now. We are laser-focused on recruiting the right kind of manufacturers to use Flowlens cloud MRP and CRM software, businesses that we know we can help, and who will grow as we grow.

How do you differentiate yourself from competition?

Small businesses are typically fraught. There are never enough hours in the day. And a lot of the hours we do have are spent fending off unsolicited marketing and sales messages for the many products and services we might consider to help us run our business. So how does Flowlens cut through the noise?

Ideal Customer Profile

This might seem obvious, but a lot of businesses don’t clearly define who they are looking for, others are brilliant at it. As we became more disciplined in the definition and application of our own Ideal Customer Profile, conversation about product, marketing, sales and onboarding became easier.

It also makes it easier to find the right kind of businesses and people to target. There are many different kinds of businesses, but we are primarily interested in those who assemble and supply machinery, plant, or equipment of some kind. Owners and senior managers in these companies are time poor, they don’t go to many trade shows, and given the wide range of sectors they operate in, there are a myriad of trade publications you could spend money on, and probably never see a return.

Instead we now focus on using LinkedIn and opt-in email lists to interact with senior people who work for small companies. We target them directly, and we supplement that with helpful content that deals with problems they experience day to day. We also use testimonials from existing customers, not just to talk about the positive experience they’ve had using Flowlens, but also about their digital transformation journey. We use Autopilot to nurture those who aren’t ready to take the plunge.

Ultimately small business owners are only going to buy a product that they truly believe will make their life easier. The risks of failure are too great to ignore, and seeing others who’ve successfully made the transition puts their mind at ease.

As our user base has grown, we’ve developed referenceable clusters of small manufacturing companies using our software in sectors such as agricultural machinery, electrical engineering and energy management. We use social media and paid content to target people in these sectors, and demonstrate our credentials.

Larger MRP/ERP/CRM providers profess to serve a range of sectors, and in some cases this works well. If we were trying to target different businesses types, we’d simply fail.

And this is the critical learning for any agency (or anyone for that matter) wanting to wade into the competitive world of B2B SaaS.

Focus.

Without it, you’ll get tossed around in a sea of hope, false promises and half baked features. You’ll burn out. And cash out. Focus on one customer group and solve their problem better than anyone else, and you can thrive.

Company Name: Flowlens
Founder: Richard Dale



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Developed a 3D Image-Based Search Engine for Radiologists


The idea for contextflow developed gradually as part of a European research project Khresmoi. The goal was to build a multilingual, multimodal search and access system for biomedical information and documents. Part of the requirements were to automate information extraction of documents as well as analysis and indexing of 2D and 3D medical images. After showing the tool to various KOLs in the medical field and having them validate the need for such a tool, we realized we had something special we needed to investigate further.

Ultimately, we developed a 3D image-based search engine. Imagine you’re a radiologist and you encounter something complicated…it’s not immediately obvious what the findings should be. Currently, the information search process for these complex cases involves a lot of time: clicking out to text-based search engines, guessing the right keyword, waiting to discuss with a consulting radiologist, etc. Given radiologists’ increasing workload and the global radiologist shortage, they need to reduce time wherever possible. contextflow SEARCH allows the doctor to simply select a region of interest in any scan and receive reference cases, possible findings and medical literature all in one place within seconds. Currently we’re utilizing it on lung CTs, but obviously the ultimate goal is to be able to cover disease patterns for every organ and type of scan.

Of course, completing a research project and commercializing a prototype are two completely different things in terms of timeline, risk and complexity. We were fortunate to be introduced early on to our Head of Business Development, Marcel Wassink, who used to be the CEO of Philips Speech. He knows so many people; watching him at a trade fair is really amazing! As we began to attend more and more radiology conferences, we got to know more people. Consistency is key in healthcare: the first year is like, “Who are you?”; the second year is “Oh, you’re back”; and the third year is “You guys must be serious. Tell me what you do.” Combined with Marcel’s contacts and a product with a clear use case has helped us forge new partnerships with clinical partners. We’re currently in our proof of concept phase with 8 partner hospitals and clinics throughout Europe. To date, we’ve raised nearly €3M from public and private funds.

Who is your target demographic?

Healthcare is no different from many industries in that there are many gatekeepers and stakeholders along decision-making chain. Ultimately, we exist to improve radiologists’ daily workflows, and by extension, patients’ lives. They use the system and provide us with really honest, actionable feedback. In order for radiologists to be able to access our software, however, it has to be integrated into a Picture Archiving Communication System (PACS). These are the software systems that store medical images at hospitals. Thus, PACS integrators are vital to what we do. Thankfully, they’re very interested in bringing the state-of-the-art into clinical practice.

How did you fund the idea initially?

The initial funding for our idea came from the EU research project, Khresmoi. Once we decided to commercialize the concept, we went searching for public funding. Austria provides a lot of funds for tech startups, and we were lucky enough to benefit from those programs. Starting in 2018, we took on 2 Austrian VCs, and in 2019 we added two more from Spain and the UK. Altogether, we’ve raised close to €3M.

Vienna is an European capital, but we still joke that it’s like a village. Everyone knows everyone. I was conducting research at the Computational Imaging Research lab (CIR) at the Medical University of Vienna when I met our ultimate Co-Founder & Chief Scientist Georg Langs: he runs CIR. The other Co-Founders (CTO Rene Donner & Professor of Data Intelligence Allan Hanbury) were also part of the EU research project Khresmoi from which our idea sprung. So I guess you could say, “The EU brought us together!”

After the co-founding team was solidified, we have utilized our network for every employee since, and these recommendations always exceed our expectations. There’s no substitute for knowing someone in a professional capacity before you work with them. That being said, if you catch yourself thinking “but I don’t know anyone”, consider everyone you studied and worked with, people you connect with at Meetups and networking events, or even the people you see every week at your favorite fitness course, etc. Who shows up consistently? Whose energy complements yours? Who would you be happy to see in the office every day? Listen to your gut. Its wisdom is invaluable.

What motivated you to start contextflow?

If you had told me I would be doing this 10 years ago, I would have been skeptical. After all, I was just a student at the time! But when you have a solution for a pain point that affects people globally, and you’re receiving good feedback from respected people in your domain, you simply have to move forward. In that sense, it was more of a logical decision rather than an emotional one. My family and friends were supportive, but it’s natural to have some element of skepticism, especially if you’re not working in healthcare. But now they fully grasp what we’re trying to achieve, and their encouragement is really validating.

What motivates you when things go wrong? What is the end goal?

If you maintain a learning mentality, you’re not so disappointed when things go wrong; you simply learned a lesson and move on from it. What makes an effective manager, how to raise funding, how to hire the right people and build mutually-beneficial partnerships…these are just a few of the hundreds of lessons I’m learning (and continue to learn) since our founding. At the end of the day, the goal is to provide value to the client, in this case radiologists, while building and maintaining a strong team.

Which leads me to my advice for entrepreneurs just starting out: your team is your center. Take time to choose the right co-founders and subsequent co-workers. Company culture may seem like a buzzword, but it’s vital to your success; after all, investors buy into your team, not just your product.

Growth for the sake of growth will not lead to success. We have a very specific roadmap and targets, and we only grow at the pace that is required to meet those milestones. This allows us to focus and make quickly adapt when necessary.

How do you protect yourself from competition?

We take a very different approach from other AI in radiology companies. Whereas what is currently on the market is focused on automated detection and quantification of very specific findings, we offer a very general, scalable solution that assists the radiologist in decision-making. Imagine you have a tool that detects lung nodules. That’s fantastic…if the patient has a lung nodule. But what if they have something else? Or what if they have multiple findings? That’s when it’s really helpful to take a step back and look for many findings at once, which is exactly what we do.We have a patent pending on how to efficiently retrieve a list of relevant patients and reference information based on triggering a single region of interest in a scan.

What are the top 3-5 apps your business could not run without?

G Suite is life for obvious reasons, haha! We use Target Process for planning each sprint and breaking down large tasks into workable ones. It’s very easy to quickly get an overview of what work has been done/what is still to be done and who is responsible. I personally use workflowy to manage my day-to-day to-dos and take notes. It’s a very intuitive yet flexible tool for organizing your own life and responsibilities.

What are your favourite books and podcasts?

The Big Five for Life by John Strelecky really shaped my thoughts about what is important in life and how to be a leader who empowers people. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is incredibly engaging. If you’re into podcasts, I would recommend NPR’s Hidden Brain. It breaks down the patterns and biases that shape human behavior, which is both fascinating and important for people in positions of leadership to understand.

What are your next steps?

We’re in a rather exciting phase: completing our initial proof of concepts, launching our Series A and continuing the FDA approval process for the first version of contextflow SEARCH Lung CT, our search engine for radiologists. We’re also gathering feedback to improve contextflow TRIAGE Lung CT, our worklist prioritization tool which allows radiologists to reorder their caseload for time-critical patients. From a development perspective, some new features are in the works, which include allowing radiologists to view individual disease patterns via heatmaps and suggesting possible regions of interest. The ultimate goal is to deliver something radiologists can directly, quickly and easily enter into their reports.

As for the future, I’m looking forward to growing our offerings and team as well as scaling across geographies, particularly in Europe, the US and Asia. We aim to be the search engine for radiologists, saving time and money while increasing reporting quality and physician confidence. Should the right exit opportunity come along, we’ll certainly consider it; but for right now, it’s time to keep our heads down and do the work.

Company Name: contextflow
Founder: Markus Holzer



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Creating (Super) Secure Airport Baggage Storage For Flyers


We began Baggage Nanny with the idea of simply offering it as an auxiliary service to our Airbnb guests. I brought my father out of retirement, we bought a used van, and started offering the service in our check in instructions. We got busy very quickly as word got out to other vacation rental management companies in town. We had 40 orders by the third week of opening.

I realized quickly that this was a bigger problem than we had initially set out to address, once we learned that storage lockers inside U.S. airports were banned by the TSA after the horrible attacks of 9/11. We approached the San Diego International Airport to inquire into permits we would need to operate- some kind of curbside permit I assumed- so we could pick up our customer bags. I’m a rule follower! The airport explained that as a government agency, there’s a process to doing business with them called an RFP process. But we were thrown a lifeline – an opportunity to apply to their inaugural Innovation Lab, a chance for new businesses to try their business model, live in the airport.

We applied, got in, were one of five companies to graduate from the program, and the only company to both generate revenue during the testing period and also to be offered a contract with the airport! The Lab was so important for us because it opened up this huge world and opportunity. We developed our process to fit the TSA and airport security guidelines, using the testing period to pivot away from curbside operations to staffed kiosks inside each terminal baggage claim. We also had the opportunity to do customer surveys on the ground to help with our price point, but more importantly we found that 73% of those we surveyed stated that dealing with their baggage was the most stressful part of their travel. We had something here.

Was it a gradual decision or lightbulb moment to start Baggage Nanny?

The lightbulb moment for Baggage Nanny came organically from a real problem we were experiencing with my first start up Clean as a Whistle Cleaning Company. I started Whistle back in 2015 as a cleaning company specializing in turn-over cleaning of Airbnbs; after getting to know the owners we cleaned for, I began my second company Browning Ventures, a property management company for the Airbnbs we cleaned. I managed 15 properties for my clients, handling all of their customer bookings, being on call when they had guests for any issues they had, and overseeing the house needs. The biggest request we had from our guests was a huge problem: they would fly in early and need a place to store their bags, because they couldn’t check in until 4, or after checking out at 11 they would need a place to leave their bags before their evening flights.

As a host, you want to say yes to whatever the guests need, because you want a good review. But when you have same day turnovers, it was such a hassle for the cleaning crew to work around the luggage, plus it was a liability for us to have the bags in our care, and lastly a pain for the guests because they would have to come back for the bags once ready to depart. It never failed that they would come in sandy from the beach and want to use the bathroom, change clothes, and then we’d have to tidy up again.

Who is your target demographic?

Our target demographic is really any traveler who needs a place to store their bags, but really to narrow it down, its millenials who have come to expect ease of use, on demand services, and love that they book us on their phones. Travelers with young families are also a target for us, travel is especially stressful when you’re lugging kids, strollers, car seats, and bags! We’ve also been surprised by how many long layover customers we have, we’re so happy to give people the chance to explore our great city while they have a few hours to kill.

Baggage Nanny

We charge $20 per bag, per day, and that includes pickup, storage and delivery. Each bag is sealed with a tamper evident seal, photographed, and labeled with customer information. Our storage facility is temperature controlled and has a double level of security for access. Each of our staff is submitted to both TSA and FBI background checks as well, so travelers can rest assured that their items are in safe keep. We’ve also never missed a delivery or pickup, we tend to over communicate with each customer so they feel like our new best friends by the end of their service. We’ve had many repeat customers, many use us on their arrival and departure, the feedback we most hear is “why aren’t you in every airport?!”

What is the funniest/most strange customer request you’ve had?

We’ve had a few funny requests from customers, and since one of our mission statements is to come from a place of yes, we’ve tried to accommodate them! My favorite requests have come from customers traveling with their dogs, we’ve been asked a few times if we could keep an eye on their furry friends in addition to their bags. I’m always happy to play with a pup, but unfortunately we can’t “store” them!

How did you fund the idea initially?

I ran straight to the cliff and jumped off- I sold my house and used the proceeds to fund Baggage Nanny. I have bootstrapped the company from the beginning and we just recently opened our first seed round to investors. I had really no idea what I was doing so I quickly sought out mentors in the startup world that I could connect with. I took those mentors and created our advisory board, and I’m so lucky to have these amazing women in my corner. Flossie Hall, Silvia Mah, Barbara Bickham, Melisa Ceilkel and Shannon O’Brien are all power houses that I’m lucky to have helping guide me along this journey.

How did you find your first employees?

Finding employees is always a daunting task, especially in the startup world when you have a lean budget. I myself have had a few gig economy jobs in the past so I have strong feelings about the debate between independent contractors vs. hourly employees. We have had two missions while hiring: to offer any job openings to disenfranchised workers first, and to be on the right side of history by having hourly employees rather than independent contractors. I’ve had great luck using job boards like Indeed, but it’s all about asking the right questions while interviewing and encouraging/developing healthy workplace practices.

Did you run any companies prior?

Baggage Nanny is my first startup company. I started Clean as a Whistle back in 2015 as a cleaning company specializing in turn over cleaning of Airbnbs; after getting to know the owners we cleaned for, I began my second company Browning Ventures, a property management company for the Airbnbs we cleaned. I managed 15 properties for my clients, handling all of their customer bookings, being on call when they had guests for any issues they had, and overseeing the house needs.

Baggage Nanny Kiosk

I’m actually a college dropout, I studied Political Science with a minor in Philosophy. When I was about to turn 30, I realized that in order to run political campaigns as I wished, I would need about 10 more years of college to get my PhD. I decided to take the chance and start my own company, be my own boss, and see what happened, with the support of my amazing boyfriend and family. I am a third generation entrepreneur. I grew up after school in my Nana’s hair salon in her home, while my grandfather owned his own construction company. My father is a serial entrepreneur, in everything from real estate to small business development. I know that’s why I wasn’t afraid to at least try because we’re a family of risk takers and hustlers. My dad has been such a champion for Baggage Nanny, he and my boyfriend were our first drivers and he’s a proud dad. When I won Business Woman of the Year in 2019, he cried at the ceremony as if I was winning an Oscar!

What motivates you when things go wrong? What is the end goal?

Being an entrepreneur is a life of ups and downs. The highs are so high and the lows are so low. It can be isolating and lonely, you miss out on vacations and family events because you’ve got to cover when an employee calls out, it’s a sacrifice for yourself as much as for your friends and families. I am a strong advocate for therapy- I go see my therapist every other week- and I would be lost without it. I go and dump out all my worries and problems and then carry on! I also believe that one must be friendly to have friends, so I force myself to get out and attend networking events for startups.

Do you have any advice for someone just starting out?

When first starting out it’s especially important to immerse yourself in the local startup world and meet your contemporaries and those who have done it before you. They will have access to all things business that you’ll need. It’s actually part of my exit strategy to start a nonprofit that helps other women develop their business ideas by bringing them and all the people who have helped me to the table. I literally just fake it until I make it and relied on google to figure out terms I didn’t know.

What has driven the most sales?

We’ve used social media as really our only means of advertising- a necessity when trying to operate on a small budget. We love IG and FB to engage with our customers and we encourage reviews on Facebook and Google. Twitter has been great for connecting with other founders and investors. Facebook and Google have definitely been the best for driving revenue. We’ve stored over 3000 bags and helped hundreds of travelers, we’re maintaining over 200+ reviews on various platforms and they’re all 5 star!

What is stopping you being 3x the size you are now?

We are in our expansion phase, we have 14 airports who are interested in bringing Baggage Nanny to their cities. We have spent a lot of time researching cities who have three criteria: heavy Airbnb saturation, high passenger count airports, and destination attractions for travelers. Luckily those city airports are excited to have us! What’s stopping us from expanding today is capital, it’s a labor heavy operation and that takes money. This is why we’ve opened our first seed round for investors, so we can expand first across the U.S. and then into the European market.

How do you protect yourself from competition?

There are a few companies who are competitors, but we’re the only company approved to offer this service inside U.S. airports. Many companies are focused on storage lockers, like BagBNB, or third party partnerships with coffee shops, like Stasher. We slipped into the airport industry and then firmly closed the door behind us and also offered the on-demand pickup and delivery service that customers love!

What are the top 3-5 apps your business could not run without?

The whole google suite is so important for us. We use google because their apps are awesome and so easy to use. We also spend a lot of time on our Google My Business page, SEO and ADS, Google is our best friend. We also found great HR help with Bambee, they handle our HR needs at a really reasonable price for startups. I also love Smartline from Godaddy, it’s a great separate phone line that connects on your phone so I know that calls coming in on that line are customers. Lastly, Audible. I listen to books on negotiation and business a lot, most I listen to several times, to absorb as much as possible.

What are your favourite books and podcasts?

Books: Venture Deals by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson- basically my Bible for all things venture, Never Split the Difference- by Chris Voss- AMAZING negotiation training, and Angel Investing- David Rose- great asset.

Podcasts: The Pitch, I’m obsessed with, The Airport Experience- so motivating (I’ll be on as a guest soon), This American Life- NPR, and My Favorite Murder- I’m a murderino at heart and love all things true crime.

What are the next products you’re working on?

We are working on adding bag wrapping to our services, super excited about that! We’re developing an addition to our existing kiosk to make them wrapping machines and I can’t wait to see the prototype shortly. We are actively negotiating with additional airports for expansion, plus airlines, rideshare companies and major hotel chains. I would love to connect with the Airbnb team, that feels like home for me and I know we’d be a huge addition for their guests.

Where do you see the company in 5 years?

I see Baggage Nanny changing the way people travel within the next five years. Traveling baggage free while helping airlines track bags and prevent lost luggage with our tech is something I’m passionate about and the direction we’re heading. The use of drones for delivery is very exciting to me as well, something we’re keeping an eye on.

What is your current revenue? If you don’t mind sharing.

Our current traction is great, we’ve been operating our kiosks in SAN DIEGO since August 2019, and we’ve seen 15% average revenue growth month over month. In December, we were up 30% over November and in January an additional 10% over that. As we grow our revenue and bring in capital, we can do real marketing campaigns which will be a boom for us.

Would you ever sell?

I started out wanting to solve a real problem and make travel easier. It is my little baby that is now learning to walk so of course I want to watch it grow, but I think it’s wise to always have your exit strategy in the forefront, ours has always been acquisition. I will take Baggage Nanny as far as I can and as large as I can, and make her as beautiful as possible, until the right company comes along to take her to the next level. I have a lot of ideas that I want to try, I’m excited to someday be on the investor side of things and able to foster other people’s baby ideas into big ones. I also would love to be an advocate for female founders, we’re an underserved and underfunded segment and widely an untapped one, it’s about time the Fortune 500 company list finally has a female founder on it.

Company Name: Baggage Nanny
Founder: Crystal Browning





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Creating an Outsourcing Platform Business Owners Can Trust


Aloa was started while we were in college, on the premise that we believe in a world where anyone can innovate freely. As a team, we started our journey building out apps and doing tech consulting ourselves as students. We tried every approach there was to getting software developed, everything from using students, to domestic, to outsourcing. Ultimately, what we realized was that nobody is happy about the software development space.

Especially if you are a start-up, and a non-technical founder, you are really pinned against the wall in terms of the options available for you. We knew there was great talent around the world, but the process of obtaining that talent in a transparent, safe, and seamless manner just didn’t exist. We wanted to help others innovate freely, so rather than just providing a solution, we decided to understand the existing pain-points and work to solve those, ultimately achieving our solution.

We are a fully bootstrapped team, as our main focus is smart growth and innovation. We are less focused on the monetary return and care more about the tangible impact we are making for our clients. Running a business is hard, software development shouldn’t be.

Was it a lightbulb moment or a gradual process?

We validated our process, structure, and platform through iterations. It still isn’t perfect, and we recognize that. Through working with clients and gaining more experience in this space, we are able to better identify systemic headaches and pain-points that don’t make themselves obvious. We log these pain-points and study their foundational elements to better understand how we can prevent them. Our tools and processes should be making our client’s lives easier, so their feedback and sentiment is very valuable to us.

Ultimately, as we enter our third year with this business model and process, we are understanding and creating a standardized process for outsourcing software development. Through the power of our platform, the guidance of an Aloa Strategist, and the expertise of our Partner Firms whom we engage with, our clients feel confident that they are getting what they paid for.

Who is your target demographic?

We are focused on helping start-ups. As we were there before, we understand the struggle that start-ups go through to find the right software development engagement. If we reduce the barriers that currently exist to technology accessibility, we think pretty cool things will happen. With monthly development resources starting at $5,000 per month, and hourly starting at $40 per hour, we believe that we are able to help start-ups in ways that currently don’t exist. Plus, through access to our Partner Firms, Aloa Manage (our proprietary project management tool, built for outsourcing), Aloa Pay (our payment platform, allowing you to avoid foreign transaction fees), and a dedicated Aloa Strategist, we offer an experience with unparalleled respect and transparency. Most importantly, with our standardized development process we require all firms to follow, our clients have predictability built into their solution.

I think one of the funniest requests I’ve received was when someone called me asking if I could help her get into Facebook. Unfortunately, troubleshooting social media issues isn’t really our expertise!

Where did you meet your cofounder/founding team?

We actually all met in school. We are a five person co-founding team, which is a bit unique, but allows us opportunities that you wouldn’t get in a smaller team. When Aloa started off just doing tech consulting and building out apps, it was three of the five: Christian, Bryan & Dawei. When the team needed some greater technical help, Reece, one of Christian’s friends from high school, was recruited. I was the last member to join the team.

The beauty of our team is that we all are in love with the problem, not the solution. We know that people daily are struggling with finding efficient and cost effective software solutions. We’re all in it for the right reasons, to create a world where anyone can innovate freely, so it makes for an incredibly fun and exciting working environment.

In terms of finding first employees, look for the person, not the skills. You can teach anyone hard-skills, whereas some things, you simply cannot teach: passion, intrinsic motivation, integrity, etc.

What motivated you to start your own business?

My partners and I all came from entrepreneurial backgrounds through college. Aloa initially had over five different apps that we built out as a team, as well as worked on for clients. However, the driving force behind each engagement was the simple fact that we were having fun. There is so much opportunity out there and so many different cool things that you can do. Most will fail, but you’ve got to try and start somewhere, because one thing will continue to lead to another.

We stay motivated to build this business every day because we know we’re solving a real problem. As we enter our third year, we are on pace to surpass a fantastic milestone: 100 clients. We know we’re making a difference for our clients; we will continue to work to create that difference for as many people as possible.

Overall, people are pretty excited about us five running Aloa. The foundation of that excitement though truly stems from our own excitement to be doing something we are passionate about. At the end of the day, we’re excited for Mondays, eager to wake up in the morning, and do our part to help create a safer and seamless route to outsourcing software development.

What motivates you when things go wrong? What is the end goal?

Fall in love with the problem, not the solution. If you love the problem you are out to seek, then any barriers or obstacles in your way are seen as an exciting challenge, rather than a failed solution. Have a high-level, ambitious dream that you are set out to achieve. Ours? We believe in a world where anyone can innovate freely. Today, we still see software as a barrier to innovation for young companies and non technical founders, so we are motivated to keep fighting. If you truly want to make a difference in this world, and disrupt the status quo, then you are bound to face obstacles. So, take it as encouragement, that you are disrupting something.

What has driven the most sales?

In terms of our sales, we have generated almost all of our business through in-person or referrals. We haven’t taken on funding and aren’t looking for explosive growth, at the moment, because our true north isn’t revenue, but innovation. We are set on smart-growth, ensuring we maintain the integrity of our service and product as we grow, to truly change this space with meaningful impact.

How do you protect yourself from competition?

Don’t concern yourself with competition. It is great to see what others are up to, and it’s fantastic validation that you are in a market that has a need. However, you can’t let competition become your focus, otherwise you fall further from your mission. Competition will always be there. The best way to protect yourself? Stay excited and keep working. Anybody can steal your idea, nobody can steal your passion.

What are the top 3-5 apps your business could not run without?

Of course, we had to throw in two of our applications that are pivotal to our business. We wouldn’t be where we are if we didn’t have our tools and process. Aloa Manage, our proprietary project management tool has allowed us to manage and organize outsourced projects in ways that currently don’t exist, creating truly asynchronous collaborative workstreams. Secondly, Aloa Pay helps our clients easily pay for the service, allowing them to avoid foreign transaction fees, so it is pivotal to the client journey.

Slack is an incredible communication tool that we use internally and with clients. Notion is a fantastic note-taking platform that allows us to more easily organize our notes, playbooks, and more, and keep them collaborative. Airtable is a sleeker Excel, that allows us to visually organize and manage operational processes.

What are your favourite books and podcasts?

As a five person founding team, there are many books and podcasts that we listen to. At the end of the day, it’s all about finding one that speaks to you. There are so many great resources out there. Look for someone you admire, and read their book or listen to their podcast.

What are the next products you’re working on?

We are always working on Aloa Manage, our project management tool. We have many features and updates on the way, all of which we are really excited about! Unfortunately, we cannot speak to what those are here…you’ll just have to come work with us! We hope that as we grow and expand our business, we are not only helping a significantly greater number of businesses succeed, but that we become the gold standard of outsourcing. With our standardized development process we require all firms to follow, we want to become the industry standard for safe, cost-efficient, and seamless development. Running a business is hard, software development shouldn’t be.

Company Name: Aloa
Founders: David Pawlan, Christian, Bryan, Dawei, Reece



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Creating an App that Ensures to Remember Every Detail About Friends.


I was struggling to remember a name from someone I’d recently met. It became embarrassing that I couldn’t remember an important name so I thought, there’s got to be an easier way to record and recall important details about people. I embarked on writing an app that combines the best of users’ contacts, calendar, notes and reminders apps – all geared toward nurturing personal relationships.

Of course, the app is useful for business too! Much like a CRM, ZooWho enables people to keep track of everyone in their “zoo.” ZooWho turns you into that person who never seems to forget a name, face or fact about someone; the person we all hope to be because it seems they have an amazing memory and care enough about people to remember important details about them.

Have you raised any money? How much?

From concept to deployment it cost approximately $130,000. Those were mostly development costs with some legal fees sprinkled in. Of course then there are all the other important expenditures like, trademarks, website, apple search ads, rent and employee costs. All expenses thus far are funded by me to the tune of about $330,000. The app was market tested early on and found useful by people both for personal and business use. The first users came from some good press received on TV and through print media. Subsequent users are coming through various marketing efforts. The hardest part about growing is getting your one app noticed among the 3,000,000 other apps available.

Who is your target demographic?

The target demographic for ZooWho is similar to LinkedIn and Facebook; people who like to keep up to date with friends, family and business associates and appreciate that often it’s “who you know” that allows you to get ahead. Research has shown that 75% get their first job through someone they know.

How did you fund the idea initially?Any tips for finding first employees?

ZooWho is self-funded. If you really believe in an idea, you’ll have to fund as much of it as you’re able to before you start asking others for money. After all, how can they know you believe in an idea and are all in if you’re not even willing to risk your own money to make it a reality? Exhaust your own money before you start asking others for theirs.

ZooWho Team

When the idea for ZooWho was first conceived, I found myself at a crossroads with where to locate the business. I was in Gilbert Arizona at the time and, although Gilbert is a wonderful city, I thought the best location would be Provo Utah because of its reputation for tech-savvy people, proximity to several universities and a diverse, multicultural and multilingual community. So, I packed up the family, found a downtown Provo office space, and started hiring people to work at ZooWho. I used the free national college recruiting system, Handshake, to post job openings and was inundated with qualified candidates.

ZooWho generates its revenue through affiliate commissions. When a user of the app uses one of their 200+ affiliates, ZooWho receives a small commission on the sale. Affiliates are selected based on their uniqueness and proclivity for being a “gifting” company.

Did you run any companies prior and what motivated you to start your own business?

I previously founded BAIR Analytics, a company that provided analytical products and services to the Department of Defense, law enforcement agencies world-wide, and numerous private companies like WalMart, Target, Macy’s and others. I sold BAIR Analytics to LexisNexis in 2015.

What have you learned since starting a business?

Business is all about providing people with something useful and continually improving the product based on feedback. Listen to your user or customer and give them what will make their lives easier. If I was starting out in business again the advice I would give would be to do what you’re passionate about and aligned with your interests. Find a way to save people time or money and you’ll be on your way.

Be frugal with your money, or the money of the investors, and find a mentor early; someone who can provide guidance and feedback. Someone who has already had trials and struggles starting and growing a business that can help remove some of those early barriers and provide instruction. There’s no reason to go it alone!

What are the top 3-5 apps your business could not run without?

Apps and tools are always changing in business. If you chase the shiny, new toy you may spend more time learning the tool than using it. We are a Microsoft shop with OneDrive and other collaboration tools. Slack is pretty useful too. We use it for quick messages and to drag-drop docs for sharing. ToDoist keeps us on task. We are also a very robust Adobe shop, using almost every one of their apps for creating marketing content.

The best “tool” anyone starting out in business can have are creative people. It doesn’t matter what software you use, if you don’t have competent, creative people, you can’t create the kind of content that will attract attention and grow your user base.

What are your plans for the future of ZooWho?

Growth! We’ve recently finished a survey of our users to solicit what features they’d want to see next. As stated earlier, it’s all about providing the user the features they want to help them become more efficient and effective. As for revenue, we like to joke that we’re “pre-revenue.” Any startup takes a while to get going and to begin seeing revenue, let alone profits. The more people that use ZooWho, the more opportunities we’ll have to see revenue through our affiliate links. The goal is to grow ZooWho so that every corner of the globe can benefit from its features and use it to nurture their relationships; friends, family and business.

ZooWho Office

The goal of ZooWho has always been to bring people together and provide them with a tool that makes them a better friend, family member or give someone the edge in business. We’ve found that social media (like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) has reduced many of our relationships to surface level or tech-only interactions. Gone are the days of the birthday card received in the mail. Instead you get a “facebook post” on the day of your birthday. Pathetic. We can do better and be better. That’s what ZooWho is about.

Would you ever sell the company?

If a potential buyer can take what we’ve created and make it even better, I’m open to acquisition. Right now though, we are all about making our app the “go-to” app for people. That involves listening to our users and then programming as quickly as possible to get those new features into the hands of the users. ZooWho hopes to release a substantial update every two weeks.



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Creating an AI That Will Help You Transcribe Meetings and Take Notes


At Microsoft, I looked at where I spent most of my time. It was in meetings (more than 20 hrs per week) and I had to say the same information again and again. I hated repeating myself and sending those painfully long follow up emails after every meeting. Naturally this was something I wanted to change. What if there was a way to have someone other than me take notes. Could an AI assistant help me remember everything even 6 months after a meeting? That was the lightbulb moment that led to Fireflies. It was an idea in the back of my head for a long time but when I left Microsoft it was actually to attend business school at Cambridge. I decided last minute to pursue this idea with my co-founder and turned down the opportunity to go to Cambridge in the UK.

Before we even wrote a line of code, we spoke to over 80 people within our network to validate the problem. Everyone we talked to clearly had a need. It seemed like a no brainer; however, the hard part was seeing if it was technologically possible. Our first 3 customers came from our network and they were willing to pay for the product before it was even ready. So we created a waitlist and let people on to the platform gradually after we built out our MVP. Tire hits the road moment is when they were telling us “take my money, I want to pay for this… just get me early access.”

Did you have any experience/expertise in the area?

Sam, my co-founder and CTO, worked on Deep Learning at MIT. I was working on NLP and Customer Voice initiatives at Microsoft. We were always fascinated by the process of extracting meaning from conversations. This is one of the hardest things to do because language and text is completely unstructured unlike numbers.

We’ve announced a $5million round in October 2019. We’ve had some great angels participate as well like Chief Product Officer from Slack, VP from Skype, Former Execs from Salesforce, Dropbox, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and CEO of Segment

Who is your target demographic?

Any professional having meetings at work. We have integrations to dozens of web-conferencing platforms like Zoom, Google Meet, Skype, MSFT Teams, Uberconference, GotoMeeting , Etc.

People tell us that they send Fireflies to meetings that they are not able to attend to transcribe everything and take notes. This was really neat to see people use it so creatively.

Fireflies is in meetings with tens of thousands of people each week. Our users spend more than a million plus minutes on our platform each month.

How did you fund the idea initially?

We were bootstrapped for the longest time. We won a hackathon at MIT that gave us a couple thousand dollars to just test the waters. We then got some small angel checks. When my roommate from college heard what we were doing, he wrote a $25k check on the spot. I’m grateful for our early angles who helped us kick things off.

Sam moved to San Francisco with $200 in his pocket. The first 2 years were tough living off ramen, soylent, and dominos pizza. We subletted a small place in SF and just kept grinding. My peers were also wondering why I left such a well paying job as a product manager at Microsoft to do this. I was one of the youngest product managers at Microsoft and absolutely loved my time there, but the entrepreneurial calling just really pulled me into it.

Me and my cofounders have worked several projects while in college. We won several coding competitions and Hackathons.

In terms of hiring your first employees, hire slowly. You need to use your peer network and background checks are a must. You can ask them to work part time first.

Did you run any companies prior?

When you are a PM you are like the CEO of your own product line. There is a very tangible experience from that. I also worked with a startup in college that ended up getting acquired by a big healthcare company. First year of college, I started a project that ended up getting several thousand users.

fireflies-platform

I started my own business because I wanted to bring something to the market that is iterating really quickly and moving at a fast pace. This and the chance to build a team of very talented people. Our team has former CTOs and great engineers across the globe. We also wanted to change the culture by building a global company from day one. We have employees in 5 companies and 9 locations. Running a fully distributed company takes effort but it also helps you scale quickly.

What were your family and friends first thoughts on Fireflies.ai?

Startups come with attention but you also need to be able to deliver. A lot of people play the game of startup for 1-2 years, but very few people can really push forward and build something substantial. That was the big question and I think in the last 2 years we were able to push through that ceiling

What motivates you when things go wrong? What is the end goal?

As you scale you have to focus on execution. Being a perfectionist, I’m trying to make everything 100% but you have to be ok realizing not all fires will be put out immediately and that it’s a part of the process of growing. It’s incredible walking into a peer’s company and seeing Fireflies being used across all the meeting rooms or a stranger approaching you at a conference or meetup telling you that they’ve used Fireflies. This makes me excited about what would happen if Fireflies was helping power every meeting across the globe.

For those who are just starting out, make something people will miss if you took it away from them.

What has driven the most sales?

Our product is naturally viral. When one person uses it in a meeting their teammates and colleagues see it and sign up. Word of mouth is really important for us.

We just need to keep up with demand and scale the platform to handle more volume so we could be 3x the size we are right now.

What are the top 3-5 apps that Fireflies could not run without?

  • Slack
  • Zapier
  • Segment
  • Fireflies powers our globally distributed team

We need these to automate workflows and run a globally distributed team.

Company Name: Fireflies.ai
Founder: Krish Ramineni



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Creating a Raw Honey Inspired Café After a Federal Prosecution Career


The idea began as a casual family conversation between my husband, brother-in-law, sister-in law and me. My brother-in-law, a neurologist and psychiatrist, began talking to us about exciting cutting-edge neuroscience related to food and the brain. And how frustrated he was that this information was not widely available to the public.

If the best way to good brain health was through food, it occurred to us that opening a restaurant could be a good way to make this cutting-edge information readily accessible. We started discussing the possibility and decided on a fast casual restaurant because we wanted people to make Honeybrains a part of their daily lives. Fine dining restaurants do not become a part of your daily life. It is a place you go to once in a while. That is why we serve breakfast, lunch and dinner.

We opened our first fast casual restaurant and café in Noho, NYC in December of 2016. We designed Honeybrains to be a community-driven place where people could go any time of day to eat, drink, socially engage with others, and discover something that could be beneficial for their brain and body health. We make everything from scratch because nothing previously existed that was built from the ground up based on the best brain nutrition science. This includes our food, our Brainbar featuring raw honey-infused coffees and teas (no processed sugars here), our juices, and our nutrient-based supplements. We also created a brain health curriculum for those wishing to learn more about the neuroscience behind Honeybrains, which we have started to animate and communicate beginning with a series of self‐published articles.

Was it a lightbulb moment or gradual process?

It was a gradual process. It took us three years from the initial conversation to opening our first restaurant. Because the foundation of Honeybrains is based on science, we are very careful and exacting in everything we do. We spent a lot of time analyzing and reviewing every aspect of the business to ensure that it stayed true to the mission.

Honeybrains salmon-toast-avocado-crush

MENU ITEMS: Our menu is based on five food groups: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and omegas 3… plus herbs, spices, fermented foods and natural sweeteners, such as honey. To learn about the science behind our food click here.

We aim to include at least three of the five food groups in all our menu items. In addition to multiple tastings, every menu item is reviewed by our team which includes my brother-in-law, the neurologist and a nutritionist, who is also a dietician.

JUICES: Each house made juice contains one or more active, natural ingredients that have scientifically-proven benefits for brain and body health function. An explanation of the health benefits of our juices can be found here.

We also balance each juice with just the right amount of fiber (which is lost in the juicing process) so the ratio of sugar to fiber is similar to that found in a whole apple. This prevents a sugar spike in the blood, which can be detrimental to the metabolic functions in our body.

LIGHTING & DÉCOR: A key pillar of brain health is socialization and community. We decided to invest in the lighting and décor of our locations. We installed a circadian lighting system that mirrors the behavior of the sun and thus the natural internal clock in the human body. Lighting can affect one’s mood, alertness and productivity.

Also, unlike other fast casual spaces with hard benches, we have cushioned banquets and chairs to encourage people to stay, relax and socialize with others.

Why honey and how did you validate the idea?

Switching from sugar to raw honey has scientifically-‐proven brain health benefits. Fructose, a major sugar component of honey also found in natural fruit, is more gradually absorbed in the body than processed sugars. The brain functions best when sugars are gradually absorbed. Special sugars within raw honey also can act as “prebiotics,” promoting growth of beneficial gut bacteria.

Having healthy gut bacteria positively impacts our brain’s ability to use the energy we eat. A very easy way to start improving brain health is to stop using processed sugars in coffee and tea. Every Honeybrains location is anchored by what we refer to as the “Brain Bar,” a place where you can find delicious coffee and tea drinks that are made with raw sustainably-sourced honeys. You can also purchase raw honeys that we have sourced and vetted from sustainably-sourced apiaries.

Sustainable beekeeping practices are also important because they assist local farming practices by keeping bees happy and close to home, where they perform their essential pollinating function. Such practices help protect our food sources. Honeybees are a necessary element of a significant portion of our food supply, and modern industrial farming practices are threatening the health and existence of our bee populations through, among other things, the use of heavy pesticides. An increase in consumer preferences for sustainably produced raw honeys results in better health, and a healthier environment.

Did you have any experience/expertise in the area?

None of us had had any experience in the restaurant space. However, each family member had a different set of talents which were directly applicable to the business. I am a lawyer, my husband is in finance, my brother-in-law is a neurologist and psychiatrist and my sister-in-law has an art degree and is a yogi and a teacher. I believe not having experience in the restaurant space has allowed us to view everything through a new and refreshing lens.

For example, other restaurateurs advised that I give employees discounted or family meals during their shifts. I decided to go in a different direction. At Honeybrains, each employee is entitled to choose one complimentary menu item with no limitations whatsoever. Employees can choose to eat the most expensive items on the menu including salmon, grass-fed steak or free-range chicken. Not only has this led to greater employee menu knowledge, but it has also led to healthier and happier employees.

Honeybrains Cafe

As a result, one employee used to leave Honeybrains to purchase fast food during her breaks because the food served at Honeybrains was unfamiliar to her. Over time, she stopped going to fast food restaurants and slowly began eating Honeybrains food. She recently visited her doctor and reported that she has lost a lot of weight and is no longer pre-diabetic for the first time in 7 years. She no longer consumes processed sugar and she has stopped feeding her young son fast food as well.

Who is your target demographic?

Any health conscious person who cares about their brain and overall well-being. Anyone who cares about their body because the health of both your body and brain are intimately connected to each other.

What is the funniest/most strange customer request you’ve had?

The model Gigi Hadid has been photographed holding our bright yellow coffee cup. Vogue once did an article about how Hadid matched her outfit to our yellow coffee cup.

On one occasion, Justin Bieber and his now wife Hailey Baldwin showed up which caused utter chaos in the restaurant. They tried to sit down and order food but people kept asking them for photos. Justin’s bodyguard tried to only allow so called “customers” inside our restaurant but that did not prevent swarms of people from coming inside to get a glimpse of them.

EMPLOYEE RELATED

Being in the restaurant industry requires you to problem solve on a daily basis. We have had the typical issues restaurants routinely deal with including, pipes bursting, floods and broken air conditioners on a 90 degree day.

One Sunday, we could not get the front door open. A screw became loose and the only way to fix it was from the inside. We had to scramble to find a locksmith to figure out what was wrong and get the door open. This delayed our opening by several hours. Not being able to open the front door was definitely an issue we had never anticipated.

On two occasions, we had guests pass out in our bathroom because of diabetic conditions. Our general manager noticed that these customers had been in the bathroom for a really long time. She peeked under the door and saw the customers lying down on the floor. She opened the bathroom door with a key and performed first aid and called the paramedics.

One day, I noticed that one of our employees was holding a piece of paper very close to her face. I also observed her constantly bending over to look at things on the counter and often did not greet guests at the door which was one of her key job responsibilities. After speaking with her, I learned that she had broken her glasses several weeks back and could not afford to buy a new pair. I bought her new glasses and immediately saw a transformation in her work performance. I anticipated her needs by paying close attention and that increased her loyalty to the company.

Does third party commissions affect profitability of third-party orders?

Yes, very much. We have partnered with third party delivery companies and office catering platforms. Many third party vendors are demanding higher and higher commissions every year which are eating into our profits.

The commissions range from 10% to 25%. We do not increase our prices as a result of it, but many other restaurants do. Most of our third party partners assist us in getting more catering. I believe the delivery partners helped us increase traffic to stores, because they offer a pick up option.

Where did you meet your co-founder / founding team?

The co-founding team consists of only family members and our dietician is the wife of my husband’s best friend.

Any tips for finding first employees?

Use your personal network. Ask family, friends and current and old work colleagues for recommendations. Because start-ups typically cannot pay as well as more established companies, look for people who are interested in higher growth opportunities. It is also important to hire people who express a strong belief in your mission.

At times it is just being at the right place at the right time. One of our first general managers worked for a company that delivered drinks to my husband’s office on a weekly basis and mentioned the desire to work at a health conscious restaurant.

What sells best?

The best sellers are the Chicken & Rice Bowl, Chicken Tikka Bowl and our version of avocado toast, the Avocado Smash

Did you run any companies prior?

No. I was a federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York, where my roles included being Chief of General Crimes and Deputy Chief of Public Integrity. Although delivering justice to victims and criminals held deep importance to me, I decided that there is nothing more important than our individual and collective health. The health industry has always been a part of my life, given my parents’ professions as an emergency room doctor and a hospital administrator.

What motivated you to start your own business?

The mission. I am passionate about educating as many people as possible about how to live a brain-healthy lifestyle. I really want Honeybrains to be a force for good in the world by empowering individuals with knowledge and products that can improve their quality of life, as well as reduce their risk of long-term brain degeneration or disease (e.g., dementia and Alzheimer’s).

What were your family and friends first thoughts on your company?

“Are you crazy?”, “You want to leave the law to open a restaurant in NYC?”, “What do you want that headache for?”, “Aren’t there enough restaurants in NYC?”. It was especially hard for my mother who is an immigrant from the Philippines. To her, being a doctor or lawyer is the American dream. She was very nervous for me to leave my prestigious government job and no longer practice law to do something extremely risky.

What motivates you when things go wrong?

I remind myself that there is a lesson to be learned every time something goes wrong. For example, early on we had an allergy scare after a customer did not tell us she was allergic to sesame. My sister is deathly allergic to nuts, so I have always been focused on allergies and taken extra precautions in the restaurant. After this incident, I completely revamped how we handle allergies. Now we proactively ask each guest whether they have any allergies. We do not wait for them to raise the issue with us.

Employees can no longer place an order without acknowledging in the POS system that they have asked the guest about any allergies. We also created bright yellow signs that are posted at each register alerting people to the fact that we care about allergies and to please tell us if they have any. All allergies are printed in English and Spanish in red writing on order tickets. These open conversations and new processes and procedures have virtually eliminated all issues relating to allergies. People really appreciate that we ask about allergies. It is something that also differentiates us from our competitors.

Do you have any advice for someone just starting out?

You don’t have to know everything about running a business, but you should definitely seek out and hire people who fill your blind spots.

What has driven the most sales?

Instagram has driven the most sales compared to other forms of social media. The first thing people do when they want to research your restaurant is visit the website and check out your Instagram page. One interesting thing we did for social media was to create a custom bee stencil for our coffee and tea-based drinks. We use these stencils with cinnamon, cocoa powder and matcha for eye-catching appeal. The addition of the bee stencils to our drinks definitely drove business to the restaurant. Indeed, we were just cited as having one of the best hot chocolates in New York City by PureWow and one of the things mentioned was the matcha stencil on our hot chocolate.

Instagram stories also allow you to talk directly to your customers in a direct and personal way. We recently started a segment that has become popular called Marisa Mondays. Every Monday, I pick one topic to discuss that relates to improving your brain health.

What is stopping you being 3x the size you are now?

We are not ready to be 3X the size we are now. All in due time. We are currently growing at a pace that we are comfortable with. We opened a restaurant in October 2019 and will be opening another one in April 2020. Our pace allows us to perfect all our systems and procedures and build the best team possible.

How do you protect yourself from competition?

By continuing to innovate and create. For example, we recently developed our own nutrient-based supplements which are natural and contribute to better brain health and performance. We are always developing new educational materials based on the latest science.

For example, we have a section on our website entitled LEARN where we post various articles about brain health. Our latest one is entitled, “The 10 Key Biomarkers of a Healthy Brain.” We are always developing new menu items and assessing the nutritional content of our food and how we can best communicate it to our customers. We are about to release a new nutritional label called “Essential Brain Nutrients,” which will educate people about what essential brain nutrients, and how much of them, you need every day. You will also be able to see how much of the daily target amounts you are getting from each of our dishes.

What are the top 3-5 apps your business could not run without?

We use the Square app every day. Square is our POS provider. We monitor sales very closely. I check the app multiple times a day to see where the sales are at and also what items are selling the most on a particular day.

Looking at data is extremely important in running a business. For example, waste is an issue that every restaurant grapples with. Our salads are made every morning. We do not simply make a set number of salads every day. We look to the previous week’s sales on that particular day and also consider the weather in deciding salad quantities. This data has helped us reduce waste to very minimal levels on a daily basis.

What are your favourite books?

At Honeybrains, we believe in constantly empowering our employees with education and knowledge. We recently started a lending library where employees can borrow books from Honeybrains. The books contained in the library are ones that I have read and enjoyed and believe can inspire and motivate our employees. The first two books in the library were Grit by Angela Duckworth and Mindset by Carol Dweck.

What are the next products you’re working on?

We are working on releasing our seasonal menu as well as opening our third location at 55th Street.

Where do you see the company in 5 years?

I see Honeybrains in multiple states. Also, Honeybrains is the first healthcare hospitality brand, 100% based on neuroscience. Thus, I also hope to partner with major insurance companies so that Honeybrains meals will be partially subsidized to incentivize more people to eat healthier. Healthier eating leads to lower healthcare costs.

Company Name: Honeybrains
Founder: Marisa Seifan



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Creating A $15m/year Lawn Care Marketplace


I have been in the contracting business my entire life starting out by mowing lawns in high school and over the course of 15 years time grew that into a construction company with 125 employees and $8 million a year in annual revenue. In 2015 the company was acquired by a national organization.

The idea for GreenPal came to me while reading an article about Airbnb in 2012. I observed what they were doing with crowdsourcing accommodations and just knew that a similar type of platform would solve the problems. I was seeing every day in the lawn care industry especially for smaller lawn maintenance providers. I guess you could say that was my lightbulb moment. Fast forward three years since our launch we are now living in all 50 states with 220,000 homeowners that use the system every week to their lawn mowed by a local lawn care professional nearby them.

But the real reason why we do this is to help small business owners in the lawn care industry just like I was in high school. There are so many hard-working independent entrepreneurs in this industry that just need an opportunity and a platform to plug into. We are building the operating system and platform for small lawn care companies to run their entire business through.

How did you get your first three customers?

We found our first customers with Facebook GROUPS. Especially local Facebook groups. No matter your niche or vertical there is a FB group that you can participate in to contribute to the discussion, answer questions, and develop a presence to refer people to your business, often times when they are looking for exactly what you offer.

FB just also launched a dedicated mobile app to support their groups’ communities so now it’s easier than ever to manage the groups that you participate in, monitor the conversations, and participate while on the go throughout your day.

We have found this tactic to be very effective for our marketplace. We monitor local groups and neighborhoods’ groups , and when anyone is asking for a recommendation on a lawn care service, we kindly let them know about the GreenPal community. We track the success and 60% of the time we make a recommendation, they signup for our service.

How did you validate the idea?

We knew we had to validate the idea and more importantly our value proposition and if anybody would care about what we were building . The main consideration every aspiring small business owner needs to make one starting out their small business is to formulate their value proposition.

To understand your value proposition you need to answer this one question: “If I am your ideal prospect why would I buy with you rather than one of your competitors”

We have a motto “nail it then scale it.” The main mistake I made when I first started my business was failing to nail my value proposition or what is it about our product and offer that compels people to say yes.

Until I knew this, any sales efforts or spend in any channels was like pouring gasoline on wet leaves. For instance, when we first launched, we thought people would like our service because it’s a cheaper way to get their grass cut. What we found through copy testing in different channels such as ad-words and FB is that the customers ability to get same day service is a much more effective and compelling subset of our value prop that drives more visitors and more conversions on our landing pages.

Nailing your value prop first is crucial.

Have you raised any money? How much?

Our business is profitable, self-funded and will surprise $15 million in revenue this year. Debt can magnify mistakes; however, when used wisely it can be a powerful fulcrum.

When we launched our business two years ago we had no money and no outside capital to get started with. Like most tech startups we went on the fundraising circuit talking to angel investors and venture capitalists begging for money to get started. However, our vision was just too broad in scope and luckily we got turned down and told no over 40 times.

I was fortunate enough to have solid personal credit and this enabled my team to secure an unsecured line of credit for $85,000 to get our business started. We paid that off in the first year and this year we’re going to surpass $15 million in annual revenue. Good thing early investors told us no because with their capital they would have owned and controlled 30% of our business and because we are self-funded, my cofounders and I own it all.

Who is your target demographic?

Our target demographic is millennials aged 25-35 , 75% of our recurring users are women .

What is the funniest/most strange customer request you’ve had?

We once had an unjustified negative review almost tank a new office that we launched, let me explain. I myself have to resist the urge to appeal or delete negative reviews on review sites such as yelp. When we launched our office in Nashville we were unlucky in getting a negative review right off the bat. The reviewer never actually even used our service; however, left the negative review confusing us with another service. We appealed to yelp but they would not take the review down we even reached out to the person to get them to correct the review and they never responded.

We were distraught because it is very difficult to overcome the cold start when launching a new market and negative reviews with no positive reviews can be almost impossible to overcome. We knew we had to develop some sort of strategy to get reviews no matter what to push the bad review down with positive sentiments.

After brainstorming we came up with an idea to tap into our customer’s soul through their pets. When a homeowner signs up for our service, we gather information if they have pets, and if so what are their names. We do this so our lawn vendors know to be careful when entering the lawn. We decided we could use this info about our customer to send a personalized gift to our customers’ pet, addressed to them.

This really wowed our customers, we received personal thank you notes, photos being posted to Yelp and FB and thank you tweets, it worked really well for the time and money we invested. As the Nashville office now has 27 positive reviews. We have seen several yelp reviews that specifically reference receiving the gift for their pet so we are going to continue the strategy and engaging our customers and making a personal connection.

Where did you meet your cofounder/founding team?

I found my two co-founders four years ago starting our company when searching for two people whom I could trust to start a business with. Over the years I have mentored and consulted with other start up teams and I believe tech entrepreneurs tend to overemphasize for skill sets when choosing a cofounder rather than character and trust.

Getting a cofounder for your business is much like getting married and you need to really consider is this someone who you would break bread with. Because you will be in the trenches with that person for many many years building your company, slogging through the highs and lows of building a business from scratch.

Before you look for somebody with coding skills or design skills first need to understand do they have the work ethic and character to build a company from scratch trust that person. Only if they pass the test then move onto skill sets.

Any tips for finding first employees?

Your first employee or two can be a force magnifier for your efforts. However, before you go off the deep end and take on probably your biggest expense you need to first understand how to delegate to your first employee.

Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity. That is one of my favorite quotes from General George S Patton.

I believe with respect to new hires, you’ll need to outline what the big picture objective is and then get out of their way and let them show you they can do it. If they are unable to deliver, then odds are you don’t have the right person on your team anyways. This is especially critical for employees for small businesses as the first 2-10 teammates you high will make a break or success.

What motivated you to start your own business?

What entrepreneurship means to me is the opportunity to live out my “why.” Why does our company exist? Why do I get out of bed every morning and if I didn’t why would anybody care?

Greenpal

When I was running an organization of over 100 people it proved it was daunting; however, creating something bigger than myself was a fulfilling experience. Our company created prosperity for our people and that’s why we did what we did. Much of our operating core was comprised of Guatemalan immigrants and these were the finest people I have ever known. Typically, they would come to the United States for several consecutive lawn mowing seasons, saving as much money as they could to improve the lives of their families back home by building homes, ranches, and setting up farms stocked with cattle.

This became our company’s purpose, our “Why.” In weekly meetings, we would get progress reports from our men on how projects “back home” were coming along. In the halls of our office and in the shop, we displayed picture collages of all the homes, farms, and businesses that had been established by our people in Guatemala. Celebrating these victories gave us fuel to get through the tough times, particularly when the economic recession that began in 2009.

Do you have any advice for someone just starting out?

For me, small business and entrepreneurship is the primary vehicle for social mobility in this country and what makes it the greatest country in the world. Entrepreneurship can be both the most beautiful and painful thing in a person’s life and can be the primary change agent as well. For me about a year after starting my company the two primary changes in my character make up or as follows:

Humility

Starting your own company from scratch is one of the most humbling things a person can go through. In the beginning it is the most important thing to you, and the most important thing in your world. However, friends and family probably will not get it, will think you are crazy, and will not care about your baby the way you do.

Thinking bigger

Starting your own company forces you to think bigger and expand your circle of influence bigger than previously before in your life.

So often when we are working a steady job we become engulfed in our little microcosm of the world, watch ordinary shows on TV, and just live an ordinary life. When you are in charge of your own company, you have to be at the forefront of your capabilities at all times, learning new skills, and exposing yourself to all sorts of new ideas and concepts that you never even knew existed.

For me, entrepreneurship has been my source of my personal growth and fulfillment. Something I could’ve never gotten anywhere else in life.

What Have You Learned?

Three things that I’ve learned in the first year of building that business and my current business:

  1. It’s going to be 10 times harder than you think it’s going to be. Any creative endeavor is going to be faced with uncertainty and while you’ll need to create a business plan, also be advised that that will fall apart the moment it touches your first customer.
  2. Nobody cares. Starting your own business is a lonely journey because your friends and family will not “get it” and truthfully nobody will really care about the long hours and sacrifices you’re making. Only you will care about your vision and birthing your new business to life.
  3. A need for an insatiable desire to learn. I’ve learned more in the past year of starting my second business that in a previous 14 years combined. Ideas are still born and they will require execution and more importantly specific knowledge of skill sets to bring them to life. The first year or two is the toughest because you’re having to learn all of these new skills to make your new venture a success.

What makes you stand-out from your competitors?

I have been somewhat obsessed about our culture starting with my three co-founders and 20 employees that we have built over the past four years. Culture can be a competitive advantage; you can’t deliver good service from unhappy employees.

Culture is no doubt critical to any team’s success, no matter what the size. My concern is that I observe teams in infancy place an over emphasis on things in the name of company culture before the business fundamentals are flushed out. In the beginning, we as entrepreneurs must focus and prioritize the basics and fundamentals of creating a scalable business over trying to build a cozy culture.

Ping Pong tables, free lunch, and massages help make some companies a great place to work, but these things did not make a company great in the first place. These are the perks that help keep employees happy and a great company on top, not necessarily what propels it to greatness. The best precaution we can make as entrepreneurs is to hire good fits. If you can break bread with the person, then why hire them? If you won’t enjoy hanging out with them socially then they won’t be a value add for culture.

Culture gets mislabeled as “perks” offered throughout an organization. In its most potent form, culture should refer to the aligning values of the organization; do you and your team members all believe in the same things? What is your team’s mantra? The specifics of your team’s values are not as important as the fact of having the values ingrained that align each member of that team. This adds purpose to the mission, and passion is a product of purpose. These are the elements by which real culture is created. These values have to be installed at the early stages of a company, as it’s impossible to come back later and sprinkle in some culture and values into an established team.

Strong culture is created when each member of the team believes in the same things. When that is the case, trust emerges, and when you have trust you have loyalty. With these elements embedded in a team, no matter how big or small, there is no limit to what can be accomplished.

What are the top 3-5 apps your business could not run without?

To guide our product development and product management, we use a framework called the “problem/solution canvas.” We have it set up a tool called Trello and it’s a repeatable framework that we use on a weekly basis to identify our top three problems and how we are going to solve them for that week.

The best part is their mobile app interface is simply amazing. It is intuitive and extremely powerful allowing you to upload ideas, pictures, notes and files from your mobile on the go. You never know when a good idea is going to come to you and you need to append to a certain thing that the team is working on. This allows us to make small changes that compound off of one another inching our way towards the end zone rather than making huge bets we make small ones.

Trello allows us to coordinate tasks across or 20 member team distributed across four different countries. The best part that I love is that you can set due dates for each individual task that will nag your teammate until they get it done, it’s the ultimate set it and forget it cost to get stuff done.

What are your favourite books?

The discipline of controlling my spending living within my means and ultimately saving money each month is one of the hardest I know of. When I was in high school I was very fortunate that my father gave me a classic book from the 1930s called “The Richest Man in Babylon.” The book talks about the concept of paying yourself first 10% to 20% each month’s earning before you pay any of your bills.

When you are forced to pay yourself first each month, it acts as a forcing function to live within your means. This discipline combats the phenomenon of no matter how large our personal income gross our expenses and lifestyle always grow along with it. The author talks about if desire to purchase something i.e. a car Etc you must first acquire the asset that will deliver the rate of return to purchase whatever it is.

I’m so glad that I absorbed this book at a young age because I practiced its teachings over the course of 15 years and have now over time acquired 12 paid for rental homes. Now I’m in my mid-30s and that has allowed me to pursue my dreams of building a successful tech company.

What are your favourite podcasts?

I listen to dozens of marketing podcasts and my favorite one is called “The Zip.” It is the only podcast that I have come across that dives into the strategies and interviews practitioners in local search engine optimization and local public relations. It is the most effective marketing podcast I have found.

What are the next products you’re working on?

As Jeff Bezos would say it’s still day one and that is definitely the case with GreenPal. Currently , we are working on machine learning technology to deliver auto bidding prices for homeowners so they can instantly book Lawn care professionals using our platform in seconds so they won’t have to wait for bids from lawn care pros.

GreenPal’s goals is to become the only nationwide platform that homeowners and Lawn Care professionals use to get their lawn mowings completed for as long as they own their home.

Company Name: Greenpal
Founder: Bryan Clayton



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Connecting People Who Will Work in Xchange for Accommodation


The idea for The Room Xchange evolved naturally. After my eldest child left home, I cried for a year every time I walked past his empty bedroom, a feeling many parents experience when their children leave home.

After a year, I recognised its revenue generating potential and, wanting to do something practical with it, I did what most people would and listed it on Airbnb. It was amazing. I loved the random nature of people from all walks of life coming to stay with me. I engaged in really interesting conversations and was able to grow and learn from other people who I might not have usually had the opportunity to meet. However, the four hours it took me to get my entire house ‘hotel ready’ for each guest wasn’t worth the $50 a night I was being paid for a guest.

We then started to have young adult friends of our children who were travelling come and stay. They liked it so much they often wanted to stay longer, using our home as a base, but their limited finances often made it uncomfortable and unfeasible for them.

For me, too, I much preferred for them to feel at home, eat what they liked, and come and go as they pleased, without feeling any financial pressure. As a busy entrepreneur, I realised I could do with some help around the house, so I just offered an ‘Xchange’ as an option.

It was so well received it became an ongoing experience over the next four years with several people staying in our home at different times.

Was it a lightbulb moment or gradual process?

It was a gradual process over a period of time. As we continued to create our own Xchanges at home, friends and associates began asking for advice about how to source and host their own guests. As an entrepreneur, I take notice of comments like this.

By the time I’d heard it five times, I realised what a great idea it was and that there might be something in it.

How did you get your first three sales?

We offered our service to a certain number of people for free for a year. In that time, we worked closely with those hosts and guests to find out what worked, what didn’t and how we could improve our service offering. They all provided us with a number of video testimonials that we then used to promote to our database and social media. Once the platform was finished and able to take payment, we were in a great position to start trading.

How did you validate the idea?

When we decided to give it a shot, I built a rudimentary wordpress website so we could test the concept. We managed to find a small group of hosts and guests, who were an ideal match. They Xchanged for a period of time and provided us with much needed insights into the experience. It was only a small test, but enough to give us the confidence to go ahead.

Did you have any experience/expertise in the area?

I have been working in digital since its inception. Over the years I have consulted as a business advisor for a number of companies assisting them with building online brands and being a voice in their market. I’ve also previously invested in tech companies in the years leading up to launching The Room Xchange, and had assisted one in raising capital. It seemed like the next logical step in the evolution of my entrepreneurial pursuits.

Who is your target demographic?

Our target demographic is two fold – hosts, and guests.

Our hosts are households who are time poor and/or in need of household support. They consist mainly of busy professionals and families. We also have empty nesters and able elderly people who have large homes to manage.

Our guests consist of people who are looking to reduce their cost of living and who are willing and able to contribute to their host’s household in some way. The are usually university students, travellers, young entrepreneurs, and people who are in between stages of life and who need a soft place to land for a while.

How did you fund the idea initially?

At the beginning we self-funded. I re-mortgaged my house at the age of 50 and backed myself.

Where did you meet your co-founder/founding team?

I am the only founder of the company. I never felt like I needed to have a co-founder as I had a great leadership and advisory team to support me from the get go.

Any tips for finding first employees?

Finding the right people for your team is imperative. You spend so much time with them that you want to ensure that they not only have the right skills you require, but can complement you in your role as CEO. Being skilled across other areas is also helpful at this stage as we are usually wearing multiple hats.

I also find it valuable to have people who can push back and stand their ground as much as I do and to know when it’s time to let something go. There is a fine line between being assertive and knowing when to back down. I also like working with people who I enjoy being around. You spend so much time with them through the development of your business, so you want to make sure they’re people you like to spend time with and who you respect.

What was your first major obstacle and how did you overcome it?

Raising our first round of capital was a massive challenge. We were on the cusp of social enterprise. No-one had really heard of the term ‘Xchange’ yet. I spent 8 months pitching to various investors up and down the east coast of Australia. At that time, investors were mainly interested in things above or below the ground. (Buildings or minerals) I kept hearing ‘It’s a great concept; come back in Round 2.” They didn’t understand or believe that a business that had no hard assets could make money. I got sick of hearing that and I wondered why they were so sure I’d go back to them in Round 2 if they didn’t invest in Round 1?

So I put on my own pitch event! I hired a pub in South Melbourne, invited a bunch of influencers, supporters of our brand, investment funds who had been following me, friends and family. I had some major players speak on my behalf and essentially endorse The Room Xchange. I then got to speak for 40 minutes as opposed to 10 minutes which is usual for pitching. Overnight I received four offers for meetings and on Friday that week I closed the deal. We raised our capital and we did it my way.

Did you run any companies prior?

I have been an entrepreneur for most of my adult life. I’ve never had a day job. I began in hospitality as a young adult. When I started my family in my mid 20’s, I began looking for things to do that would allow me to be at home with my children. Being self-employed seem to be the logical approach. I haven’t looked back.

What motivated you to start your own business?

What motivated me to start this particular business was to be able to support households and young adults with more balance and less stress in their lives. It costs a lot to live these days for both our hosts and our guests. They are both experiencing housing stress, just in different forms.

Having two adult children in their 20’s has given me first-hand insights into the challenges millennials are facing when it comes to affordable and accessible housing – in Australia where we are based, it’s particularly so.

I always believe that if you want something to change, don’t complain about it; be the change you want to see. So I did.

What were your family and friends first thoughts on your company?

They were really happy for me, so much so that a few of them invested in our first capital raise. It’s humbling to know that people who respect and love you will back you too.

What motivates you when things go wrong? What is the end goal?

I call these experiences, ‘good mistakes’. I value them. They hurt at the time and don’t feel good, but they’re valuable lessons that I never begrudge experiencing. When things go wrong, I take some time out to consider what’s been done, the decisions made that got us there, and what I can do differently so they don’t happen again. The end goal is to learn from them and move on, and move on quickly. I don’t dwell on mistakes.

Do you have any advice for someone just starting out?

Where do I begin?! Make sure that you have a high level of self belief and self confidence. There will be many times that it will be challenged and you’ll question yourself at times. If you can always confidently come back to who you are and why you’re doing what you’re doing, you’ll get through it. If you don’t, you’ll be easily swayed and find it difficult to stand your ground. It’s also vital that you build your resilience muscle. It’s the best friend you’ll have in business.

Also, have a creative hobby that you’re passionate about that has nothing to do with your business or the thinking processes attached to it. I’m an artist. I don’t watch TV at night; I paint instead. My art allows me to relax the part of my brain I use so intently during the day. It allows me to get lost in something other than work. Interestingly, many of my business challenges are solved during these times.

It’s like a form of meditation for me.

Plus it gives me a great sense of accomplishment when I’ve created something from an idea. That’s what business is all about. Having an idea, planning it out, creating a framework, filling in the gaps and completing. That’s art. It’s a discipline to finish something and that’s a great discipline to have.

What marketing channel has driven the most sign-ups?

We have done a great job on content marketing which provides us with some good organic SEO for very little money in comparison to other marketing channels. So Google is our best channel right now.

What is stopping you being 3x the size you are now?

Nothing is stopping me. We just don’t want to grow quickly. We’d rather grow at a steady, manageable rate. Growing a business like this too quickly can kill it as fast as growing it too slowly. We are dealing with people’s livelihoods, homes and lifestyle.

We are currently raising our second round of capital for our growth phase. We have now done our user testing with a good number of case studies, gathered data and insights, have substantial user stories, built the technology, legal, financials, executive team in place, marketing and digital tested and ready to go. Once we raise this capital we will be ready to grow it 100 times more!

What are the top apps your business could not run without?

I use Trello for project management. It keeps my sanity and allows me to manage projects with multiple people.

Lastpass for all my password encryptions and storage

Canva for graphic design

Why are they essential?

People rarely consider how challenging it would be for others to access (or shut down if need be) their digital lives, including their business affairs, if circumstances meant that they had to.

For that reason, Lastpass in particular is absolutely crucial to me.

I made a decision while undergoing treatment for cancer nine years ago, that if something were to happen to me, I wanted to make absolutely certain that my executive team and/or family could come in if something were ever to happen to me and be able to take things over.

My master password for Lastpass is stored with my last will and testament at my lawyer’s, so it’s easy for my life partner or my leadership team to gain access if necessary. We’re all human – if something were to happen to you, what would that look like?

What are the next cities/countries you’re looking to expand to?

We have registrations in over 40 countries which has been a pleasant surprise, especially as we’re not advertising outside of Australia! Our international expansion goals will include countries that are the most feasible, accessible and which are open to our business model. We’re initially looking at New Zealand, Canada, the USA and UK.

Would you ever sell the company?

I never know how to answer that question! It depends on a few things. The right offer, the right company offering to buy it, and how much we’re being offered for it!

Company Name: The Room Xchange
Founder: Ludwina Dautovic



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