Entrepreneurship journey

November 2013

With a recent transaction involving Movitas, I thought it was time to document my story from the beginning along with some lessons learned.  Of course as with any good story there are multiple histories. This is the one from my seat…

It all started during a 2005 marketing class while getting my MBA at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business.  Fellow student Doug Bellenger and I (along with two other students who subsequently left the venture) came up with a concept of a restaurant finder for cell phones. This was before the iPhone and cell phones were just starting to get some technology smarts that we thought we could leverage.  Our business model was based on developing a consumer-facing brand that people would use to find hyper-local information.  We filed for some IP, named the company PhindMe and went back to focusing on our MBA and careers. Lessons learned: Some early decisions you make have a big downstream impacts. 

In 2006 we decided to test our idea some more so we entered Drexel University’s Baiada Institute incubator competition and were one of the presenting companies.  We didn’t win, but it gave us a good forum to test our model (which had expanded to include a social network feature) and to develop our network. After graduating in 2006, we returned to our day jobs while doing some light development, continued business model exploration and production of some very bad videos.  Lessons learned: Talk about your idea early and often.

In 2007, the world changed with the introduction of the iPhone (thank you Steve Jobs!). And our business model was going to change with it.  We realized it was going to be difficult to gain a first-mover advantage as a consumer brand, so instead we thought the opportunity was going to be to help the thousands of businesses who were going to need to get their web content and web marketing onto the upcoming wave of smartphones. We also realized that now was the time to get this thing started, so Doug and I left our day jobs and went full time (with some backup via severance packages and consulting agreements with our employers as safety nets).   The company named PhindMe Mobile was officially started on Oct 1, 2007. Lessons learned: Even if your idea isn’t fully baked, it’s good to be part of a fast-growing emergent market.

In 2008 we raised $250K in capital, moved into the Drexel Baiada incubator, hired our first full-timers, and got the first version of our platform launched to be timed with the Oct 2008 launch of the first Android device.  We evolved the platform to include a version that marketing agencies could use to help their clients get mobile websites built, along with a self-service version that any business could use to build mobile website content and run text message marketing campaigns. Lessons learned: Get your first customers before you have a product.

By 2009 we had some good technology, had a solid team, had real revenues and were getting some notice in the market.  But we were also burning through cash like crazy and were trying to raise our next round.  Unfortunately the recession wasn’t helping us from a fund raising perspective, and convincing investors about the promise of mobile technologies seemed to be an uphill battle.  Fortunately I had developed a relationship with the co-founder of another mobile tech company that was well-funded but having trouble building technology and team.  So in late 2009 we put the two companies together and rebranded with their company name, Movitas.   The PhindMe executive team took lead roles in the merged company, and I stayed on to lead business development and operations while the Movitas CEO kept that role. Lessons learned: Know your competitors. Someday they may be  your partners. 

With skills that Movitas brought into the business, in 2010 it was decided to refocus on one vertical instead of the wide variety of verticals that PhindMe was deployed across.  That vertical was hospitality/tourism.  It seemed to offer good use cases as everyone was starting to travel with their mobile devices.  We raised $3M that year with that focus (having first gained a few marquee customers in that space) and moved out of Baiada after two years of incubation. Lessons learned: Focus is extremely important to a startup. 

In 2011, leveraging a strategic relationship that came with the funding, we started to build solutions for hotels and travel agencies catering to travelers going to Mexico and the Caribbean.  With proof of concepts in hand, we were introduced to Telmex. Part of America Movil,  Telmex is the largest telecom company in Mexico (and 4th largest in the world) and their customer base includes a high concentration of the hotels in Mexico.  Ultimately we inked a deal with Telmex to deploy our mobile app solutions initially to about 30 hotel properties in Mexico and the Dominican Republic that are run by a hotel management company called AMResorts.   The mobile app technology we built for this deal included a powerful voice call component that allows the hotel mobile app to become the guest’s room phone.  We also built a version of this for Apple Vacations which can be used today by any traveler who books a trip through Apple Vacations. Lessons learned: Strategic partnerships take time and it’s important to understand how they want to buy from you.

In March 2012 we launched the first of those hotel apps to much fanfare and stress to get everything working on iPhone, Android and Blackberry devices.   We then spent the next few months fine tuning things and rolling out additional hotels.  But the hotel launches weren’t coming quickly enough so we had to make a few tough decisions to keep expenses under control.  We were fortunate to have a supportive board who brought some more capital to the table so we could continue delivering on our contract with Telmex. I took on the role of President, and through mid-2013 we launched our mobile apps into numerous hotels in Cancun, Riviera Maya, Puerto Vallarta and Huatulco.   Lessons learned: Be sure you have a board that is in it for the long-haul.

In 2013, we started to look at long-term options.  Given our strong position in the Latin America resort market, we wanted to find ways to leverage that while staying ahead of competition.  We knew that it was going to take additional investments in sales and product development to expand our rollout while simultaneously expanding our product line.  To make that happen more quickly, we formed a partnership with Allin Interactive which provides interactive guest technologies to the cruise ship and casino industries.  Their platform includes interactive TV (ITV) solutions such as video-on-demand, in-room gambling and some other features we Movitas didn’t provide.  Movitas the finalized a deal with Allin on November 8, 2013 to form Allin Interactive Latin America (AILA).  Allin will take over the product development and operational aspects of Movitas, allowing AILA to focus on its relationship with Telmex and continue focusing on rollout of mobile apps to AMResorts hotels. Lessons learned: Find synergies with other players in your market. 

There have been many more subplots and character stories than can be told here.  Hopefully this story gives other entrepreneurs some insights into a journey that certainly has not been on a straight line but one that continues from that germ of an idea while sitting in a classroom.

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