Guess What? Everyone Has Competition

By Kate Sackman

“The purpose of a competitive analysis is to get insights about yourself.”

-Rhys Ryan, serial digital entrepreneur and graduate of Empower Accelerator Cohort 4

Even though you think your startup company’s product is unique, it’s not.  Ok, you may be one of the rare creatures in the universe that has a monopoly technology.  If so, that’s pretty cool. But never assume that is the case. If you’re like most people, you definitely have competitors.

In the Empower Accelerator at StartUP FIU, we frequently see entrepreneurs who either 1. believe they have no competition, or 2. totally underestimate the competition.  By the end of our 14-week program, however, they understand their competitive risks, including especially that it is likely larger companies will try to compete with them and probably have already initiated an effort to develop and sell a similar product.

Who is your competitor? Look at what your potential customers are doing now to address the problem you want to solve.  If you want to create a digital tutoring service, your competition is live tutors, schools, Kahn Academy and other online courses, books, libraries, tutoring centers. You get the idea.  Perhaps no one has a digital tutoring platform right now, but who are the digital education companies that could enter that space?  They probably have very deep pockets and could enter the market quickly, blowing your market share right out of the water.

In order to do a useful competitive analysis, you need to complete your deep, in-person end-user research. See my previous blog on this topic or use any thorough method that appeals to you, but don’t take any shortcuts. End user research is your foundation and it must be solid as a rock.

Finally, never underestimate your competition.  A thorough competitive analysis starts with reviewing every bit of information you can dig up – Google searches can come up with contracts, pricing, and all sorts of tidbits not available on the competitor’s website. Then analyze how satisfied people are with the competitors’ products. Map the structure of the market and notice the features and benefits around which the competitors cluster. Identify your unique offerings (features, functions, benefits, customer service, etc.). Then describe your competitive advantage using the language of your own customers. Ultimately, customer research is about understanding how you stand out. Make it work for you.

About Kate Sackman

Kate directs the Empower Accelerator at StartUP FIU and is a serial entrepreneur with industry experience in software, medical devices, media, environmental science, marketing and finance. She believes powerfully in the potential of passionate entrepreneurs when their energy is focused and persistent. As an adjunct professor at FIU, she teaches Global Social Entrepreneurship in the Honors College and Technology Entrepreneurship to master’s students in the Engineering school. Since joining FIU in 2016, she has truly enjoyed helping over 100 start-up founders innovate in all areas of strategy, business model, funding and pitching.

Attention Founders: Your Customers Know More Than You

By Kate Sackman

Just gotta say this to all aspiring entrepreneurs: Customer research is NOT a universe of one (you). Nor is it 10, or 20, or just your family and friends.  How are you going to know whether strangerswill buy your product if you don’t talk to them first?

In fact, waaaaaaay before you get enamored with your great new product or solution, go talk to 100 people who have the problem you think you want to solve.  This is not an online survey. It is conversations with and also quiet observation of 100 individuals.  Ask a lot of questions. Ask why and then ask why again and then again.  Simply sit and watch how people currently address the situation that you are undertaking to fix.  The solution you have in mind may be right on the mark or may not be appropriate at all.

For some reason, entrepreneurs are often reluctant to talk with their prospective customers. They procrastinate, they pretend, they convince themselves that a small sample of people they know will be good enough.  Why? Because they believe that their own concept of the ideal, never created before, home run solution is already perfect. Because they don’t want to hear about needed modifications. Because they have already designed a product without asking anyone about what they need. Because they don’t want to get rejected.  Well here’s the tough love part. Get over it and go talk to customers.

In the Empower Accelerator program at StartUP FIU, we have seen the full range of good, better, and non-existent customer research.  Inevitably, everyone who does thorough in-person interviews and observations with at least 100 potential customers is changed.  Inevitably they discover incredible insights that only could come from that type of qualitative research. As a result, they modify their offering, sometimes significantly.  They have a better understanding not just of how the product of service should function, but also of how to price it, how to deliver it, and how to be noticeably, beautifully different that the existing solutions. So get out there. You will thank me later.

About Kate Sackman

Kate directs the Empower Accelerator at StartUP FIU and is a serial entrepreneur with industry experience in software, medical devices, media, environmental science, marketing and finance. She believes powerfully in the potential of passionate entrepreneurs when their energy is focused and persistent. As an adjunct professor at FIU, she teaches Global Social Entrepreneurship in the Honors College and Technology Entrepreneurship to master’s students in the Engineering school. Since joining FIU in 2016, she has truly enjoyed helping over 100 start-up founders innovate in all areas of strategy, business model, funding and pitching.

 

Founders’ Mindset: Be Coachable

By Kate Sackman

No one accomplishes anything alone. No one. Not even Olympic athletes. They have coaches, teammates, physical therapists, trainers.  The same is true for entrepreneurs.  Every ambitious entrepreneur wants to build a big company, retain 100% control, and make a lot of money.  Having confidence in your intelligence and abilities is great, but understanding your weaknesses is essential to creating success.  Other people are weak in areas that you are strong. Accept it. And pick the right people with the necessary skills to complete the team.

Founders need advice and have may ways to find it.  Mentors, experienced entrepreneurs, trainers, and your co-founders all have wisdom and advice to share. The founder’s job is to listen to the advice, consider it thoughtfully, filter it, and decide.  If the founder is closed and stubborn, no matter what advice he receives, it will have no value.

In the StartUP FIU Empower Accelerator program, our job as teachers and coaches is to stimulate innovative thinking in our early-stage founders.  The short 14 weeks of the program are an intense period in which we help founders reduce the risks of launching their company and become investor-ready. During that time, we are constantly challenging the entrepreneurs to deepen and improve their research to understand customers’ needs and desires as well as their competitors’ advantages and methods. We ask them to clarify and test all their assumptions about their business model.  For the know-it-all entrepreneur, this is a waste of time. But for those who are open and wise, the teachers, mentors, and peers in the program are an excellent source of wisdom. The coachable founder will be open to exploring ways she had not yet considered and inevitably her business model, strategy, and plan will change for the better.

 

About Kate Sackman

Kate directs the Empower Accelerator at StartUP FIU and is a serial entrepreneur with industry experience in software, medical devices, media, environmental science, marketing and finance. She believes powerfully in the potential of passionate entrepreneurs when their energy is focused and persistent. As an adjunct professor at FIU, she teaches Global Social Entrepreneurship in the Honors College and Technology Entrepreneurship to master’s students in the Engineering school. Since joining FIU in 2016, she has truly enjoyed helping over 100 start-up founders innovate in all areas of strategy, business model, funding and pitching.

Alana Athletica

Talent and training here but employers don’t see it, panel says

By: Camila Cepero

MiamiToday

StartUP FIU helps Miami software startup Addigy scale

By Jason Dettbarn

Originally posted on The Miami Herald

Addigy, a local Miami software company that helps corporations manage their Apple Mac fleet, is preparing to expand its global reach with the help of Florida International University’s StartUP FIU. Addigy is a quintessential Miami startup with deep roots within FIU. As founder and CEO, I hold a Masters in Computer Science from Florida International University and cut my teeth in the industry managing worldwide sales operations at Kaseya, a major Miami tech company. Three years ago, I left Kaseya in order to devote my full energy on creating and building the first full-stack IT management platform for managing Apple Mac computers.

Addigy is a self-funded company based on the sweat labor of extremely talented local Miami talent. The engineering team consists fully of FIU computer science graduates who have immigrated from Cuba over the past 10 years. Addigy was recently honored as one of the Top Ten late-stage Miami startups selected for eMerge Americas two years running and is one of the fastest growing companies in StartUP FIU’s program. Building upon Addigy’s 100-plus customers globally that use Addigy to manage their company’s world-wide Mac networks, the company’s growth is expected to increase significantly in 2017. Addigy continues to expand at a record pace helping customers not only secure and manage the ever vulnerable Macs in their enterprise, but also helping them attract the top millennial talent, some of whom have never used a PC.

StartUP FIU is an intensive 14-week accelerator program that rapidly guides entrepreneurs through the paces needed to develop their new business ideas into successful growth companies. The accelerator program is open to FIU students, faculty and early-stage startup entrepreneurs in South Florida. All types of companies are welcome including traditional companies, high-tech ventures and social enterprises.

StartUP FIU has been integral to helping Addigy prepare for the next stage in funding and scaling our growth. StartUP FIU has provided us with an abundance of resources at FIU and very deep networks of talent throughout Miami. Our mentor Mario Cruz (director of Watsco Ventures), for example, has been integral in guiding us through critical areas of the Addigy business. There is nothing else like StartUP FIU in South Florida, period.

Keep an eye on Addigy as it breaks new ground in Miami and globally in the coming years, as well as the many other great companies being groomed for success in the StartUP FIU Accelerator program in Miami.

Jason Dettbarn is founder and CEO of Addigy, a Miami-based tech startup.

You’re invited to FIU Pitch Day on Dec. 6

Pitch Day is an important milestone for the inaugural Empower Accelerator Program cohort. By this day, StartUP FIU teams will have successfully completed the 14-week Empower Accelerator program. They would have participated in nearly 30 presentations and workshops, taken part in critical mentoring and business advice, and presented their required weekly deliverables in preparation for this one day. It will be 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Dec. 6 at the Graham Center Ballrooms on the Modesto Maidique campus.

 

Four-woman team of undergraduate students compete for top prize in social entrepreneurship with help from StartUP FIU.

By: Jane Schreier Jones

The 7th Annual Hult Prize, the world’s largest student competition whose winner receives a cash prize of $1,000,000 to launch their social venture, this year challenged participants to build a sustainable, scalable start-up enterprise. The emphasis in the 2017 competition is to develop a product or service that will restore the rights and dignity of 10 million displaced migrants, including refugees, by 2022.

An all-female team of four undergraduate students from Florida International University (FIU) formed the social venture called WeWomen and emerged as the winners of the Hult@FIU competition on December 9, 2016. The win secured them a spot in the Hult Prize’s Boston Global Regional Finals and Cohort 2 of StartUP FIU’s Empower Accelerator Program.

“We’re thrilled to be competing in Boston and are grateful for all the support from the StartUP FIU team as well as our mentors, advisors, and professors,” says team member Dorothy Peck. StartUP FIU, which is sponsoring the WeWomen team in Boston, is an initiative to develop and foster innovation and entrepreneurship. Cohort 2 of its Empower Accelerator Program is designed to help FIU students, faculty or staff and early-stage startup entrepreneurs create and grow their traditional or social businesses.

“Being part of The Empower Accelerator has been awesome,” said Peck, speaking of the program which started late January with 20 teams in its second cohort. “None of us on the team are business majors, so the super intense learning has been extremely valuable.”

The diverse women of WeWomen are: Abeer Albarghouthi, a junior in biomedical engineering originally from Palestine; Isra Ibrahim, a junior in biological sciences originally from Sudan; Peck, a junior in international relations originally from the United States; and Allicia Rolle, a senior in sociology with a certification in women and gender studies originally from the Bahamas.

“It’s exciting to see women from different countries and different majors coming together to develop a sustainable business to provide real help for refugees and other displaced migrant women,” says Daniela Cadena, who oversees social entrepreneurship for StartUP FIU and has been the team’s advisor since October 2016.

Restoring dignity, empowering refugee women

WeWomen is dedicated to solving a real problem for millions of displaced migrants: the lack of feminine hygiene products in refugee camps. Their solution is using leaves from banana trees to produce environmentally friendly menstrual pads.

“Menstruation is stigmatized in many cultures,” said Peck. “The pads are also expensive and not seen as a necessity in households where men make all financial decisions.” Women and girls can often miss 50 days from work and school every year, a burden inconceivable to these students who grew up in the United States and the Bahamas. The issue is particularly acute in refugee camps where women have resorted to using soiled rags or garbage that can sometimes lead to toxic infections.

“And when periods are seen as a burden, women are seen as a burden,” thundered Peck during WeWomen’s business pitch on Saturday in front of a panel of five judges and peer teams.

The team’s business plan involves buying machines invented by an engineer in India to make the pads and obtaining banana leaves from Northern Colombia, another region with displaced migrant women, and employing them to prepare the leaves for export. WeWomen would sell its product in the U.S. market using proceeds from the sale to heavily subsidize the product in refugee camps in Africa and the Middle East.

Entrepreneurs don’t give up

Out of 50,000 applications and 65 Boston Global Regional teams, WeWomen narrowly lost its bid to be named one of the six finalists to Arizona State University’s team. “It doesn’t end here. It’s not a linear path, but entrepreneurs never stop,” said Cadena, who traveled with the team.

Ultimately the Rutgers University team won the Boston Regional Hult Prize competition earning them a spot to pitch for the top cash prize in September.

“I am extremely proud of WeWomen for taking FIU further than ever before at Hult Prize,” said President Mark B. Rosenberg, who followed the competition from Miami. “They are paving the way for students to create companies to help change the world!”

The team has already regrouped since Saturday. “We will be applying for the online wildcard spot at Hult and will continue in the Accelerator until Pitch Day,” said Peck. StartUP FIU co-founder and director Bob Hacker brought the Hult Prize to FIU as a way for students to engage in social entrepreneurship. “It’s exciting to see the evolution of our students from year to year,” says Hacker, who has been teaching Social Entrepreneurship for over ten years. “This generation will change the world.”