Perseverance, flexibility and execution.
Those are three words of advice from budding entrepreneurs who in previous years were finalists and recipients of cash awards at the Governor’s Conference on Business.
The three business founders were on hand Oct. 18 at the 2018 conference at the Rio and updated how their companies are doing and gave advice for those who want to follow in their footsteps.
DragonFly Energy, a Reno-based lithium ion battery company, had no employees other than its five founders when it went through the competition in 2015 and finished second and got a $3,000 cash award. Today, it has 30 employees and is profitable technology company that focused on developing processes to lower the cost of energy storage. It has expanded to battery pack production and retail sales with its Battle Born Batteries brand for energy storage in recreational vehicles boats and off-grid systems.
“It’s important to have perseverance, and it’s important not to give up because as soon as you give up, success is right around the corner,” said CEO Denis Phares, who added success comes in small doses.
Phares, 46, left his job as a tenured engineering professor at USC to pursue the startup and made the move with his wife to Reno knowing he would have to forgo any salary at first. Relying on funding from friends, family and business competitions helped at first until they received funding from a Chinese battery manufacturer in 2016.
“As a numbers guys I look at the financials, and there was a month last year when we were in the black and not the red,” Phares said. “I thought that was cool. The next month we were in the black again, and I thought that’s two consecutive months. This is not a fluke, and I can keep doing this.”
Phares said the threats never stop, and it’s important to operate cash flow, especially when making products where you have to buy components. Having a financial plan is important, he said.
“It’s really hard to balance your growth with how much cash you start out with,” Phares said. “It has been tricky. You run into times when you are low on cash and run into times you are low on inventory, and it’s that balance.”
Phares said he’s also learned it’s important to know you customer and that running a company it’s about being customer centric.
“As an engineer and tech guy, I used to think I know better than you, but I have learned that the customer is right and how can I make it better for them,” Phares said. “That has helped the Battle Born battery brand because of our focus on the customer.”
Jeff Saling, a technology company executive with more than 30 years of experience, knows something about startups succeeding and growing, having started several companies. He serves as CEO of Buzz.Tools, a SaaS based B2B social media marketing startup. In 2014-2015, he served as founding team member and interim CEO of SmartPicture Technologies to name another.
Saling is the founding of StartUpNV, a nonprofit startup incubator that helps fund burgeoning businesses. It received $5,000 in 2017 by finishing first in a pitch competition.
Now, every Wednesday from 2 until 4 p.m. his company holds 10-minute pitch evaluations, with 20 minutes for questions and feedback, where volunteer experts listen to startup owners who are seeking to raise capital, space to work in and coaching and mentorship.
“I think the concept that is important is that you are never there,” Saling said. “The whole point is the minute you stop evolving you are dying.”
StartUpNV has helped 30 companies through the program and because of its contacts with investors has secured $3.8 million in funds for six companies to grow.
“Even with the economy going great guns and a fair amount of capital out there looking for investments, as an entrepreneur you have to execute,” Saling said. “It’s not just about your idea. You have to either have shown a track record where you have executed somewhere else, and you are translating that into this business. Or you have some proof of whatever your idea is whether it’s selling skis or technology or services, that people in the market care and trust you and are going to buy your stuff. You need proof of life.”
StartUpNV has a wide variety of businesses in its program from e-retailers with one company that is a women’s underwear subscription service to another that’s a genetic researcher who has developed a formula that says if a cancer gene is switched on or off, Saling said.
Saling said he helped found StartUpNV because there were 1,200 business incubators in the U.S. and Canada but none in Nevada. The mission is to help Nevada diversify its economy by helping startups succeed. Saling said people need to have confidence to move forward with their plans.
“Get out there with it,” Saling said. “It’s not going to be perfect. It never will be.”
In the end, however, it comes down to execution, Saling said. The idea is the seed, but it’s worth 3 percent to 5 percent of your success, he said.
“It’s going to come to how you execute this idea and have a plan and know what to do next,” Saling said. “And you need to be flexible. Whatever you think is going to happen is probably not going to be that. It will be something different. Be flexible and fierce and stay with your idea.”
Colin Seale, a lawyer and former middle school and high school math teacher, has done just that with his company, thinkLaw. In the 2016 competition at the conference, Seale won $5,000 in cash for first place and 11,000 for in-kind services, including technology services, software support and virtual finance services. His company is an educational program that helps educators teach critical thinking. His concept has worked because educators have bought into the concept and bought textbooks.
When it launched three years ago, the company soon served more than 1,000 students in 14 Las Vegas schools with annual gross revenue of $200,000. It expects to reach $500,000 million in revenue this year and is on its way to be a multi-million-dollar a year company, Seale said.
This year we opened in 14 states,” Seale said. “The whole idea of transforming young people to unleash their critical thinking potential has caught on like fire.”
Seale said the startup infrastructure in the state helped his company grow because he learned how to work with government.
“There’s no way I could be in New York City public schools or schools in Charlotte, North Carolina, without understanding how the Clark County School District worked,” Seale said. “They were pivotal in helping us.”
The 35-year-old Seale loaned himself $10,000 to start the business, was able to pay himself back in two months and made $7,000 in his first year. He said having a lean model to start with has helped the company sustain itself and grow over time. Too many entrepreneurs think their products need to be perfect or super complex, he said.
“We went the other way,” Seale said. “We kept it simple. We don’t need a huge software platform to do this. We can do in a printed workbook and get printed at the print shop and do things as they’re bought. And use the revenue we get in to use it what we need to pay for.”
Seale said he makes a little more than he does as a teacher but talked about the impact that he’s making on kids.
“It’s exponential,” Seale said. “And when your bottom is impact, there’s not stopping you. … Get out of your own head. You have a story to tell and a problem to solve. You are qualified to solve that problem. Believe that, and you’re already on your way.”
Nevada Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, who hosted the budding entrepreneurs at a panel discussion, said it’s great to see the evolution of these businesses over the last couple of years to become even more successful. Anyone who has an idea should get out there and promote it and work with the tools offered by the state to help them succeed, he said.
“Having been an entrepreneur and small business owner, it’s about perseverance, tenacity,” Hutchison said. “Never giving up is the No. 1 characteristics you see in all of these entrepreneurs that are successful business owners.”