Identifying the Missing Puzzle Piece of the Customer Journey

Are some people born to be entrepreneurs? After all, it takes a certain type of person to identify a need in the market and work to find the optimal solution, all while shouldering greater than normal financial risk to do so.

It all started at the ripe old age of seven, when Jake Corday, co-founder and CEO of Waev, a best-in-class guest engagement platform for the hospitality industry, started his first entrepreneurial endeavor. “I saved up my Halloween candy and began selling it on the school bus,” shares Corday, “Before I even knew the word ‘entrepreneur’ I was bringing in five bucks a day, which felt like a whole lot to a 2nd grader.”

Throughout high school, his entrepreneurial spirit grew stronger as he learned how to program websites and leverage technology for local businesses. After graduating from the University of Florida, Corday returned to the Charlotte area to join a new startup who were in the process of growing their business. “As the tenth team member, it was a great opportunity to see firsthand what it looks like inside of a well-funded and rapidly growing startup.”

As a marketing major with a strong technology background, inspiration for Waev’s concept struck Corday one afternoon as he sat in a local restaurant. “There was a coaster in front of me that had Blue Moon advertised on it, and it suddenly struck me that these huge brands like Blue Moon, Bud Light, and Jack Daniels are all spending hundreds of millions of dollars to advertise on television, billboards, and social media, but at the point where the customer is actually ready to make their purchasing decision, their best marketing option is a stagnant relic that fails to capture attention in the digital age.”

From there, Corday’s wheels began turning. What if there was a way to create a dynamic, captivating, and ultimately more effective medium for marketing right within the restaurant or bar? And what if it not only allowed advertisers to promote their brand but also helped the restaurant or bar to highlight specials or high margin items to help inform a customers’ purchasing decision right at the point-of-sale?

In 2018, Waev officially launched its first suite of digital Waev displays in Charlotte. These in-venue communication platforms allocate 50% of its airtime to restaurant content and 50% of airtime to branding, engaging patrons throughout their visit.

Corday joined Innovate Charlotte’s Venture Mentoring program during what he calls a crossroads with his startup. “Early on we had opportunities in several different verticals, and I was seeking guidance on what we should be focusing on, and in what direction we should be steering the business,” Corday recalls.

He describes INCLT as a safe space to talk through the many decisions founders typically face on a daily basis, providing the much-needed structure so many startups struggle to navigate during their early stages. “One thing I’ve learned along the way is that mentorship is one of the most overlooked, yet critical pieces of the entrepreneurial journey,” Corday says, “INCLT does a great job of pairing the right mentors with the right entrepreneurs. The pairing process involves identifying mentors with industry experience relevant to your business, as well as identifying who you naturally click with on a personal level.”

Despite having graduated from the program, Corday maintains regular contact with his mentors. “I’ve formed friendships with my mentors, and their counsel remains tremendously beneficial to Waev.”

When asked what advice he’d give to others just starting out as a new founder or entrepreneur, Corday shares one word that has encompassed his personal journey: persistence. “I always refer back to Steve Jobs’ quote, ‘I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance,’ and that has always spoke to me because I know the amount of roadblocks you can, and will, run into,” Corday explains, “But the ones determined to find their way over, around, or through them have the best chance of being successful.”

“It’s a very inspiring story that Jake shared, and it is exciting that he was able to find mentorship support from Innovate Charlotte at the right time on his entrepreneurial journey” said Olga Muller, CEO at Kepler Team.

Waev recently closed their seed round and is looking to add talented team members to their Charlotte-based team. For more information, visit their website to apply.


From TikTok to table

After graduating from NC State with a degree in business administration, Guyton spent several years working in industries ranging from automotive to IT. Food and nutrition were always more of a personal passion, but as he learned more about nutrition, he realized ‘clean eating’ wasn’t so simple. There was so much to learn, and it could be overwhelming.

He started helping out friends and family on an informal basis, developing workout routines and meal plans. Then, Guyton began sharing recipes and nutrition tips on TikTok. It was there he saw the opportunity to turn his passion for food into something more.

“Everyone was asking, ‘How do you do this?’ or ‘Can you do this for me?’” Guyton said. “I started thinking I could really do this for people.”

In October 2019, Guyton launched Allen & Denise’s Child Catering and Delivery Service. The name pays homage to his parents. He grew up with 13 brothers and sisters and wants to underscore the importance of those relationships in everything he does.

"Food is very comforting in a lot of ways for a lot of different individuals. It ties in with memories that we have with our loved ones and families. You usually congregate around food, and that’s the connection I wanted to make,” he said.

The business offers individual and group catering, customizable meal prep subscriptions and virtual cooking classes. Guyton’s goal is to put a tasty spin on healthy ingredients, and he enjoys the challenge of finding a way to help someone enjoy a food they think they don’t like — whether it’s zucchini hot dogs or split pea burgers. 

“You can take things you may not like at all, and I’ll whip it for you. If I make it in a certain way, you're going to like it,” he said.

For skeptics, he recommends starting with his Mac & Twist, a cauliflower-based macaroni and cheese. That dish, he says, can sway anyone.

Guyton’s dream is to develop an authentic local following, build a team and further scale out Allen & Denise’s Child Catering and Delivery Service, which currently offers local delivery around Charlotte and national shipping. He sees INCLT as a way to gain valuable resources and connections to accomplish those goals.

“Innovate Charlotte seemed to be the perfect outlet to find individuals who are like-minded and can help you out along the way,” he said.

“It's amazing that mentorship at Innovate Charlotte is available not only to high stakes technology businesses, but also to founders who are building a company with a local impact such as Isavier” said Olga Muller, CEO at Kepler Team


Building a big business out of nanoscopic molecules

Margaret Kocherga describes herself as an “accidental entrepreneur.” 

Kocherga’s background is in academic scientific research, and it was her PhD advisor who first brought up an idea of a startup. She wasn’t familiar with the entrepreneurial world at that time.

“Maybe if I knew, I wouldn’t have done it,” she jokes. 

She must have done something right. Kocherga launched Light and Charge Solutions LLC in November 2019 after receiving a grant from the NC IDEA Foundation, and this winter, it was named among Charlotte Inno’s Startups to Watch in 2021

The company is working to develop materials for electronics that are better for the environment and take less time to manufacture. It is currently in a pilot stage and is working with potential customers to develop the technology. Kocherga’s ultimate goal is to be able to look at her phone or her car and say, “Hey, I make stuff for this.”

Kocherga is also participating in Chain Reaction Innovations through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and splits her time between Chicago and Charlotte. As a result of the funding she received through that program, she was able to make the switch to becoming a full-time entrepreneur.

“You feel permanently unqualified to do everything that you’re doing,” Kocherga says of entrepreneurship. ”There’s always something that comes up. As soon as you learn one thing, you need to be learning the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing. That’s the biggest thing: adjusting to not knowing what’s going to come next and learning to quickly act.”

She has also built a tough skin. Working in a male-dominated field, Kocherga often found herself as the sole woman in a room of 200 people. She says having female mentors to help guide her through those situations was one of the most helpful resources thus far. She also learned that standing out can be a good thing.

“I would see people two years after meeting them, and they would remember me. I would think, ‘How do you remember me? Oh, well, I’m the only one in the room. Of course they’re going to remember me. I’m the oddball of the party,’” she said.  

Kocherga has also learned that having the right network of people around you is an important piece of successful entrepreneurship. INCLT’s mentorship program has proven to be a unique way to create those relationships and to learn more about what she doesn’t know. 

“Maybe you have the right talent in your company, but you don’t really know how to utilize it. That's the next level. That’s something you can’t just learn by taking a class,” she said.

Stories like Margaret's are what make Charlotte’s entrepreneurial community so diverse. “I am very excited to see people from the Russian speaking community tapping into the mentorship networks of Charlotte.” said Olga Muller, CEO at Kepler Team


Conversation with Innovate Charlotte’s New Executive Director

Back in November, Innovate Charlotte got a new executive director. You’re just hearing from him now because, for the past four months, Juan Garzón has been hard at work. 

In a non-pandemic world, he would likely have been running from one coffee meeting to the next, adding in a few lunches, drinks and events throughout the week. In our current reality, he’s spent a lot of time on the phone and Zoom, asking local founders, leaders, and investors what works well at Innovate Charlotte — an organization founded to serve entrepreneurs and the entrepreneurial community in the Queen City — and what more there is to be done. 

It’s the kind of work that has driven Garzón for years. He is the founder of the consulting firm The Garzón Company, and he has long begun client engagements with a needs assessment. The process is designed to understand the most pressing issues a company is facing so that Garzón can get to work on a solution. Now he’s doing the same at Innovate Charlotte: For the past few months, he’s been asking members of the entrepreneurial community what they need, and how Innovate Charlotte can help. 

“We are in the process of finding opportunities and gaps and trying to turn the ship slowly in a direction that better serves our community,” Garzón said in a phone interview from his home, where he also serves as headmaster, lunch chef, and truant officer for his four children as they navigate the new homeschool normal. “The next step is to incorporate some of these changes and updates, and then we’ll start rolling out new programming and initiatives that I think will be very exciting for the community.” 

 

A resume rich in ecosystem experience

Garzón’s involvement in Charlotte’s entrepreneurial community extends well beyond his role as founder of his own company. He is also the executive director of PitchBreakfast, a nonprofit organization that gives founders an opportunity to practice pitching their startups before an audience of investors and community leaders. He is also the founder of StartCharlotte, the predecessor publication to Charlotte Inno. When Charlotte Inno’s parent company acquired StartCharlotte, Garzón became general manager for Charlotte Inno and head of ecosystem development for Inno publications across the country. 

He’s also no stranger to the work of Innovate Charlotte, particularly its signature program, the Venture Mentoring Service. He joined the cohort of leaders who traveled to MIT back in 2018 to learn the VMS methodology, and he’s been involved in various other ways throughout the history of the organization. 

All that history and all that potential are coming together at the perfect time for Garzón and for Innovate Charlotte. 

“Founders need a lot of support these days, with everything going on in the world, and it’s not just the usual connections to potential clients and investors and access to resources,” Garzón said. “It’s the emotional support of having someone who will listen to them. That could be connecting them to other founders or just listening to the challenges they’re having.” 

It could also involve creating programs built around their most pressing needs, which is the inspiration behind the first three initiatives Garzón is planning for Innovate Charlotte. 

 

A plan designed for ecosystem transformation

The first is an initiative he created back when he ran StartCharlotte. It’s called Intro to the Startup Community, and it will offer entrepreneurs and those interested in taking the plunge with a crash course in what Charlotte has to offer startups and their founders, from accelerator programs and coworking spaces to investment and networking opportunities. 

The second initiative is to create a formalized navigator program, which would give entrepreneurs access to Garzón and other ecosystem leaders for 30-minute meetings designed to understand their needs and introduce them to the right resources within the community. 

“It’s the kind of thing I’ve been doing over coffee meetings for years. Now, I want to formalize it and get more people involved,” Garzón said. 

Other focus areas will include expanding the current office hours program, offering new educational opportunities to founders, and engaging corporate and other partners in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. 

 

A goal centered on maximum impact 

Just a few months into his role, Garzón has already come to understand the potential impact of that work. 

“I spoke with one founder recently who expressed lots of stress and concern because of everything going on in the world and in the community, and just in that conversation, I realized how a few pieces of advice and connections to other people made a big difference to her,” Garzón said. “Those are the conversations I’ve always enjoyed throughout my career.” 

And there is much more of that to come. Garzón hints at several recent conversations with ecosystem partners that could yield exciting new opportunities for local founders, in addition to what he has planned specifically for Innovate Charlotte. At the same time, the mentorship program will continue to be a powerful resource for the community. 

“If you’re a founder, check us out. Apply to be part of our mentorship program on the Innovate Charlotte website, and sign up for our emails. If you’re an ecosystem support organization, let’s talk about how we can work together for the community,” Garzón said. “The need for connection, resources, help, and advice is higher now than it has been in a long time, which makes an organization like Innovate Charlotte that much more important.”

Kepler Team, a local software development startup, understands that need firsthand. “This past year has challenged all companies, but startups in particular,” said Olga Muller, CEO of Kepler Team. “We are already running lean, working toward the next big milestone, and any external challenge deals a significant blow. Having organizations like Innovate Charlotte that offer resources specifically designed for this community and our needs helps us feel supported and gives us a place to turn when we need it.” 

 

If you’d like to get involved with Innovate Charlotte — as a mentor, a mentee or as an ecosystem partner — visit the Innovate Charlotte website today. 


Inside one founder’s experience with the INCLT Venture Mentoring Service

By Mary Johnson, INCLT VMS Mentee

In building my business, my business has always come last.

Mary Johnson, INCLT Mentee

It doesn’t make a lot of sense, when you think about it. If I want growth and scale in my venture, shouldn’t all my energy be focused on achieving those two goals? 

The short answer is, yes. But it’s not that simple. I run a marketing agency called Brave New Word. We provide content strategy and creation for brands that are looking to make a statement, to become thought leaders in their respective fields, to be brave. And in pulling out all the stops to make our clients sound good, I routinely put Brave New Word last on my list of priorities. 

I know that’s the wrong approach, and yet I also know I’m not alone. Entrepreneurs and small business owners are told this all the time: If you want to grow, you’ve got to work in the business less and on the business more. Figuring out how to do that has always been the challenge. 

If I have learned anything about myself over the past three-plus years as an entrepreneur (and a dozen or so more in journalism), it is this: I need deadlines and accountability to get anything done. And so it would stand to reason that I need some external force holding my feet to the fire when it comes to putting my business first. 

Enter the Innovate Charlotte Venture Mentoring Service. 

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve come into the INCLT with more than a cursory understanding of the process. For the past few years, I’ve been writing about its efforts, recounting for the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem in Charlotte the impact a team of skilled, seasoned mentors can have on a fledgling organization. And at first, I didn’t think it was for me. I’ve always thought mentorship works best when the mentor/mentee relationship takes shape organically — when you just-so-happen to meet someone who takes a liking to you and your business and offers his or her wisdom for free. I’ve also steered away from situations that promise to put more work on my plate. Most weeks and months, I’m drowning. Do I really need someone else telling me what else I should be doing? 

But 2020 had a way of pushing me, and most others I know, out of our comfort zones. I knew I wanted more from my business. I knew I needed help, and I knew I didn’t want to wait for fate to put the perfect mentor in my lap. So I applied and, a few weeks later, found myself on a Zoom call with four mentors who wanted to know more about Brave New Word. 

The process of putting words around what you’re struggling with is powerful — the process of talking about your goals and big ideas, even more so. And that’s what I found myself doing in that first call. It was part therapy session and part business dissection. The mentors took turns asking probing questions about revenue streams and clients, pricing and services. They asked what was weighing me down and what got me fired up. They asked me to paint a picture of my perfect day in the business — and then challenged me to break down what it would take to bring that day to life. 

When you sign up for the INCLT mentorship program, you don’t choose your mentors; your mentors choose you, based on your business, your challenges and your goals. I had no idea what to expect in that first meeting, and yet I found myself pleasantly surprised at the outpouring of support, the pats on the back, the offers to provide more guidance in particular areas. I’m highly critical of myself — a quality I’ve often considered the secret behind much of what I’ve achieved — but my mentors took a decidedly different approach. They wanted to celebrate my wins as much as they wanted to pinpoint the work that still needs to be done. 

I walked away from that first meeting inspired, with a renewed commitment to dig in and focus on the business. I had a long list of to-do’s, which my mentors quickly walked back to a much more manageable list of two key deliverables for the next time we met. I had no doubt I could carve out the time to give them the effort they were due. 

Then, I went back to my day to day — and those deliverables once again fell to the bottom of my list. 

That’s right: All that inspiration meant nothing when the realities of life as an overworked entrepreneur (and wife and mom of two small kids and dog parent) once again settled over me. And isn’t that so often the case? We read that motivational quote or that bestselling self-help book, and we resolve to be and do better. But without accountability, our best laid plans fall flat. At least they do for me. I’m only as good as the people who are keeping me honest. 

While I fell off the wagon and focused solely on my clients for the next three weeks, the approach of my next mentor meeting snapped me back to reality. I knew I was facing another Zoom call with four experienced, busy leaders who were carving out an hour and a half of their day to make me and my business stronger. I couldn’t show up empty handed. 

So I found the time. I carved out a few hours to give my homework assignments real, intentional brain power. And when my second meeting rolled around, I was ready. More than that, the work I did has legs. It has the potential to focus and hone my business, my client base and our approach to the work we take on. And quite simply, it would not have happened without my mentors — at least not any time soon. 

When you sign up for the INCLT mentorship program, you commit to the program for a year. Some companies stay in it even longer than that, and I can see why. It’s not just the expertise and experience you can leverage; it’s the accountability, the sounding board, the team of people who want the best for you and understand that the path there requires a push to focus on you. 

I’m ready for the next step in my business, and I know I can’t get there alone. Now I don’t have to. 

Stories like Mary’s are what make Charlotte’s entrepreneurial community so strong. It’s an ecosystem built on helping each other in the interest of helping the community as a whole. “All the research shows how important mentorship is to people at all stages of their careers, and founders are no exception. If we want them to succeed, we’ve got to invest in their professional development, starting now,” said Olga Muller, CEO at Kepler Team

INCLT is looking for more founders and mentors to do just that. If you’re an organization in need of help, apply. If you’re a business leader looking to give of your time and expertise, become a mentor today. 


McKinsey provides support to INCLT mentees

The Day of Service is a company-wide initiative at McKinsey in which employees are given opportunities to make a positive impact. There are inspirational speakers, volunteer opportunities in their local communities and chances to learn from those creating meaningful change around the world. 

McKinsey chose INCLT as one of the recipients of that service, specifically two participants in the INCLT Venture Mentoring Service: Kevin Giriunas, who owns Advent Coworking, and Wendy Hickey, the founder of ArtPop Street Gallery. Both have been long-time mentees, working intimately with their mentor teams and using their experience, knowledge and advice to make better informed decisions as entrepreneurs. 

For Giriunas, his mentors have helped him make data-driven decisions and organize his finances. He said they have also been helpful in navigating the chaos of running a coworking space amid a global pandemic. 

For Hickey, her mentors have helped her navigate ArtPop Street Gallery’s long-term success, creating a strategic, five-year plan and helping her meet her goal of three years of organizational sustainability. 

Given the success they’ve had with mentorship so far, both Giriunas and Hickey were excited to speak with outside consultants at McKinsey and hear their perspective on how they can amplify their efforts.

“They have zero skin in the game,” Giriunas said. “They don’t know who I am, so it’s a fresh set of eyes on some of the problems and ideas. It adds a different perspective to the mix.”

INCLT mentor Mark Steinman agreed this fresh set of eyes from a completely unbiased perspective was a unique opportunity for the mentees. 

“Not only did they get the chance to hear different ideas, but they were also able to receive validation of their current approaches,” Steinman said. 

Before the session, the consultants asked Giriunas and Hickey to provide a problem statement outlining the current state of their venture, the desired future state and any gaps between the two. 

After a particularly unprecedented and challenging year, Giriunas was most focused on finding a way to increase his revenue back to where it was pre-COVID-19. In response, the consultants advised Giriunas on what to focus on — and what to avoid — amid a time of uncertainty. Specifically, they cautioned him that not all of his ideas for potential revenue streams will make sense after the pandemic. Right now, long-term planning can wait. Instead, they advised, he focus on the short term.

“I felt oddly reassured and calmed afterward,” Giriunas said. “Several of the individuals said I need to focus on the next six months from now — and know that the next six months are still going to be very challenging financially. But there is hope on the horizon.”

The consultants also advised Giriunas on the next logical step for a new market he plans to tap into. While he had already discussed it with his mentors, hearing it from an outside perspective gave him the extra push to get started.

That outside perspective also provided meaningful insight and an extra push for Hickey, whose primary focus was to figure out a strategy for ArtPop Street Gallery’s corporate partnerships. Hickey was able to obtain high-level ideas on target markets that she could connect with and insight into exactly what companies in those markets would look for in a nonprofit to support.

“With their huge portfolio, being an international company connected to companies all over the world, we wanted to know what they are seeing in the world of corporate partnerships and if they had suggestions of how we can improve our corporate partnership offerings,” Hickey said.

When one consultant in the session was puzzled by the nonprofit’s mission and goals, it was a wake-up call for Hickey to refine ArtPop Street Gallery’s message. If one consultant didn’t understand it, she said, there could be others in major companies who don’t understand it, either. 

“He was so helpful at making sure that was clear at inception so that we didn’t come across someone like him and they don’t know what we’re doing,” Hickey said. “We’re already working on fine-tuning our corporate partnership packaging, taking that advice of getting crystal clear on our message.”

Hickey’s goal of creating meaningful relationships also came to fruition on the call, as two consultants with interest in the arts mentioned they were willing to spend some additional time with Hickey to provide support beyond the conference call.

Participating consultants were impressed with their sessions with both Giriunas and Hickey. But what stood out was the entrepreneurs’ commitment at the local level.

“The entrepreneurs we spoke with displayed passion for their work and a true focus on building the community in Charlotte,” Harrison said.

For Giriunas and Hickey, these sessions left them feeling motivated, with action plans to move forward.

Beyond the direct impact on local founders, the interest McKinsey has shown in Charlotte’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is a sign of the growth and impact this community has achieved in recent years, said Olga Muller director of operations for local software development company Kepler Team. “I have been part of the Charlotte startup community at every stage of its development, and this interest from a global organization like McKinsey confirms what we already know: Now is a fantastic time to be an entrepreneur in the Queen City.” 

For more information on the INCLT Venture Mentoring Service, visit our website. We are currently accepting applications for both mentors and founders looking for guidance. Apply today!

 


From hopeless to hopeful: An INCLT Pivot Story

At the beginning of the pandemic, “survive” was the word on everyone’s minds. 

Six months later, we now know survival isn’t enough. We must rethink our old ways of doing business. We must pivot.

That doesn’t mean the process of shifting course is easy. That’s why INCLT is sharing the stories of local entrepreneurs who have been forced to change their fundamental business models. We want to shed light on the transformation process and the role mentorship can play. 

Last month, we told the story of Macie Mata, former founder of MAZE Services. This month, we interviewed Samie and Ryan Roberts, the husband-and-wife team behind Charlotte-based startup Bustld, which makes the wedding planning process easier for both couples and vendors. 

The startup launched in 2016 after Samie, a wedding planner, worked with a client who wasn’t the right fit. The wedding itself had been a success, but Samie wanted to find a better way to serve both sides of the wedding marketplace so that couples could find the right vendors to bring their dream weddings to life. Her husband and co-founder, Ryan, brought his data and technology background, as well as his entrepreneurial spirit, to the conversation and got to work figuring out the analytics and algorithms to take the idea from concept to reality. 

The result was Bustld, and it wasn’t long before the business had gained traction in Charlotte. That inspired Samie and Ryan to expand their services to Raleigh in 2017. After more than 100 people attended their Raleigh launch party, the two knew they were onto something big. Then, in 2019, they joined the INCLT Venture Mentoring Service. 

“One thing that’s missing when you’re bootstrapping is the guidance that you can get from your investor,” Ryan said. “We were in our own little bubble, but to get that outside perspective is incredibly powerful. Innovate Charlotte allowed us to get that level of mentorship without the financial obligations or bias that an investor can bring. Especially when you come from corporate, you remember what it’s like to have access to everything — an HR department, a financial department, accounting and sales department, leadership and all these different things. [When you’re a startup], it’s really just a handful of us. It helps to have that guidance.”

With the INCLT mentorship program, that guidance comes from a team of mentors, which has provided significant value for Bustld as it has grown. 

“Having multiple perspectives is really nice because everybody comes with their own perspective of what their work life is like and what they’ve done in their past, and they can provide us that insight,” Samie said. “It’s nice to hear different things and take that back and use that information to make our own decisions.”

Samie and Ryan’s mentors have helped them consider possibilities and ask questions they may not have thought of before to make more informed decisions. The mentors also helped the two network with other INCLT mentors and local business owners. In February 2020, just over a year after the couple joined the INCLT Venture Mentoring Service, Bustld saw its most successful month in the history of the company.

Then, the pandemic hit, and widespread panic ensued. States across the U.S. went under lockdown. Paper towels flew off the shelves, and hand sanitizer was out of stock online. But it didn’t become real to Samie and Ryan until weddings started to get postponed and then flat-out cancelled. 

“It was really scary,” Samie said. “We only had this one product, and it’s all based on wedding vendors. We started throwing around all these different ideas of what we could do to generate money and keep the business moving, given the state of weddings.”

Samie and Ryan put together a long list of ideas — one that included concepts like Bustld merchandise and a “wedding-in-a-box” concept — and brought that list to their mentors. Their mentors then helped them refocus their efforts and advised the two to pick one idea out of the many.

The question was, which one had the most potential? As the couple debated, INCLT Executive Director Keith Luedeman stepped in to offer his perspective: virtual weddings.

“He kept texting us both, telling us that we had to do virtual weddings,” Ryan said with a laugh. “Samie and I, being the romantics of weddings, were like, ‘No. We don’t like that.’”

The founders had seen the challenges that came with Zoom weddings: issues downloading the app, problems logging on, bad WiFi connections and an overall loss of the magic that comes with a wedding day. They knew what didn’t work, and they started to wonder, what could? 

“At that point, we thought, ‘We don’t like it, but we’re going to figure it out. But it can’t be Zoom,’” Ryan said.

Ryan started researching and reaching out to different producers at ESPN and NASCAR to explore how virtual weddings could happen without standard video conferencing software and offer couples the same special experience of a wedding. 

The result of all that research and repositioning became LoveStream, a new product that turned Busltd’s romantic founders from hopeless to hopeful.

LoveStream allows guests to stream weddings from any device just by clicking a link — no apps required. To get the footage, the bride and groom set up their phones on tripods, and Bustld takes over to control the camera angles and add slideshows, videos and music to give guests the full wedding experience from their screens. A live chat feature is available for guests to offer congratulations. Every couple gets their own wedding website, which includes the wedding video, a virtual guestbook and more. And the video is available on demand, which means guests in different countries and time zones are able to watch the wedding when it is convenient for them.

“It was so important to make it easy,” Samie said. 

While April and May were tough months for Bustld, LoveStream reignited the spark in the company. In August, as a global pandemic continued to batter the wedding industry, Bustld celebrated its most successful month to date. 

Looking ahead, Samie and Ryan are confident virtual weddings are here to stay as an important component of planning a wedding.

“It’s not going to have the same growth trajectory that it has now, but it’s going to be one of those things where you have a photographer, you have a caterer, and you have a livestream,” Ryan said. 

Now, Ryan and Samie’s mentors are challenging them to look ahead and prepare their team for the new roles that have come with the pandemic. As the company continues to grow, it helps to know there is a group of mentors guiding them and cheering them on through their success.

“Having someone who is unbiased, who truly just wants what's best for us and guides us there is just so important,” Samie said. “I feel so grateful that we have found that in our mentor team.”

Creating opportunities for collaboration and guidance is core to INCLT’s mission, and it’s a critical part of building a more robust entrepreneurial ecosystem. Olga Muller, director of operations for local software development company Kepler Team, has seen that firsthand, both as part of a startup and as a member of the broader entrepreneurial community in Charlotte. “No business or founder can succeed in isolation. Success requires a collaborative approach and help from those who have been there and done that when it comes starting and building companies.

To learn more about Innovate Charlotte and how you can get involved, visit www.inclt.org.


Finding beauty in the pivot

In many ways, “pivot” has become the defining word of the pandemic.

We’ve had to pivot the way we parent, the way we work, the way we learn, the way we lead. While change has always been constant, it has never — at least in our lifetime — been so rapid and so intense. 

But, while larger companies have struggled to embrace that change, entrepreneurs have been uniquely suited to the challenge. Pivoting is par for the course for the vast majority of startups. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Ideas are like babies. When you have one, it can be hard to see its flaws. That’s why INCLT is beginning this series of conversations with local entrepreneurs to break down the process of changing your fundamental business model and the role mentorship can play in the process. 

First on our list is Macie Mata, the former co-founder of MAZE Services and Curl Lounge. Mata joined the INCLT Venture Mentoring Service in the thick of building MAZE, a mobile beauty concept that brought hair stylists, manicurists and other beauty professionals straight to the client, whether they were at home or the office. It was born out of a very real problem Mata had encountered as her finance career took her across the country, forcing her to abandon relationships with professionals she liked and trusted. She and her co-founder, Samonica Ngo, had been building the platform and the business behind it. They had gone through what Mata jokingly calls a “dummy round” of fundraising (during which they raised nothing), and they realized it was time to come up for air — to get plugged into the Charlotte startup community, to get more educated on fundraising and to get help. 

“We were right around beta phase when we decided to join INCLT. We had our heads down for so long building this technology and doing case studies and research, and it was time to resurface and look around,” Mata said. “We needed to dive right into this startup community and surround ourselves with people who challenge our thought processes. We had been so embedded in our business, we knew we needed someone from the outside looking in.”

Mata is one of those people who welcomes feedback. She craves it and credits it with helping her build a successful career in finance. But feedback on your business is different. It hits harder, and as a result, she describes her relationship with her group of INCLT mentors as “a love/hate relationship.” Her mentors asked tough questions that forced her to rethink aspects of her vision. More than once, she and Ngo would leave mentor meetings fired up and frustrated.

“But the majority of the time, our mentors were right. I might not have wanted to hear what they had to say, but I realized pretty quickly that it was something I needed to look into,” Mata recalled. “You should always want to have someone on the sidelines who you can go to with questions. I believe so much in the mentorship program because of all the things they did to challenge us.” 

And it was working. Mata and Ngo went in pursuit of a seed round and soon found themselves in negotiations to raise $350,000. 

“We were ahead of schedule, so we decided to hold off on the funds. For one, if we were to hit these awesome milestones, we knew it would give us more negotiating power in a few months. Two, we were informed that we were breaking the law,” she said. 

In North Carolina, each cosmetology license must be tagged to a salon location so the state Board of Cosmetic Art Examiners can ensure all necessary procedures are followed. The license cannot be mobilized, meaning that hair stylists, manicurists and other beauty professionals can’t take their services on the road, unless it’s to serve someone with a special need. Mata can laugh about it now, but at the time, that realization posed a very real threat to the business she wanted to scale, fast. Overnight, she went from founder and CEO to lobbyist, fighting in Raleigh to change the law that stood in the way of MAZE’s success. 

“This is an industry that needs to change and needs to be disrupted, but the process to get a bill passed is pretty brutal. At that point, the burnout was different for me. Every entrepreneur experiences burnout, but it was draining my passion,” Mata said. “I’m not a lobbyist. I wanted to build this company and scale it. This put my scaling model from five years to 10, and it was no longer intriguing to my team or my investors.”

Mata and Ngo started hashing through options for the business. 

“Our mentors were a huge part of this. We went through multiple ways to pivot our company, to see if it was something to pivot into something else in the beauty industry or a completely different vertical — and then what is the right dollar amount for us to walk away,” Mata recalled. 

In the end, they decided to shutter MAZE and sell the technology they had built to a couple in Canada, where it’s being used in a completely different industry.  

“In those moments, we were moving so quickly that my emotions were removed,” Mata said. “We voted on it, and we felt good about it. A few months after it was over is when I started having this extreme identity crisis. This was my identity for the past two and a half years. What is next?”

For Mata, it was a new business — a salon concept called Curl Lounge focused specifically for women with curly hair. The idea was to franchise the business from the start, allowing it to scale with speed. Mata raised $350,000 within the first 30 days. She pitched it to her mentors, who agreed to help her through the process. She was in negotiations on a lease for her debut space. 

Then, the pandemic hit. 

“That’s where I’m not alone in saying things got a little weird,” she said. “But in the end, it was almost a blessing. I was going through some initial growing pains of trying to find the right business partner or co-founder, and I had some really high expectations. Also, this was a very specific target market. It was a curly-hair salon, and I don’t have curly hair. As much as I believed in the mission and that this demographic deserved this type of diversity in the space, it would be 10 times harder for me to represent that brand.” 

Before anything was signed, Mata decided to give the money she had raised back to her investor. Once again, she was an entrepreneur without a startup. But she didn’t stop working. 

Mata believes there are many more businesses in her future. It’s part of her entrepreneurial mindset and drive. She thinks in business ideas, beyond the beauty space, and it began almost immediately after she shuttered the salon concept. 

For one, she started working with other founders who were involved in the fundraising process, helping with due diligence and investor connections. In the past year, she’s helped startups raise $5.5 million. 

She has also ventured out into the real estate space. Mata and her new business partner are building 14 townhomes that will become workforce housing. She’s also interested in affordable housing, and she’s contemplating the creation of a real estate fund in the Queen City that will focus on both. 

“The community impact is really what we get the most excited about. Being able to provide this type of product and do it well is what we want to become great at,” Mata said. 

She left the INCLT mentorship program after the salon concept fell through — the program requires founders to have a business concept in progress — but she came away with an ongoing mentor relationship, ironically enough with one of the mentors who challenged her the most. 

“He became an individual mentor to me, and he’s brought extreme value because I'm all over the place,” Mata said. “He’s still challenging me to see what’s most important to me, and when I figure out what that is, we can dig deep on these specific projects.”

Now, she’s paying that forward. 

“I am now mentoring two different people a quarter,” Mata said. “I let them know, ‘You have three months. What are your goals, and what do you want to learn?’”  That commitment keeps the cycle going, and it helps keep Charlotte’s startup community growing, in powerful ways. Olga Muller, director of operations for local software development company Kepler Team, has seen that firsthand, both as part of a startup and as a member of the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem in Charlotte. “No business or founder can succeed in isolation. Success requires a collaborative approach and help from those who have been there and done that when it comes starting and building companies.” 


Devin Collins presenting

Ventureprise — Helping Founders with Customer Discovery

At INCLT, we’re committed to connecting entrepreneurs to all the helpful resources the Queen City has to offer. One such resource is Ventureprise — UNC Charlotte’s entrepreneurship and innovation hub, which was designed with a laser focus on customer discovery, with programs for students, faculty and the community at large. And our work often goes hand in hand.

Devin Collins presenting
Over the last couple of years, quite a few ventures that graduated from Ventureprise Customer Discovery programs went on to join the INCLT Venture Mentoring Service:

Graduates

Ascend GoalsGig Connected
Genubot.
BovaMetrics
Vizlatech

 

Current INCLT Ventures

BatteryXchange
Dormitory 101

Smart Girls HQ
Pollination Apothecary

Ventureprise helps founders lay a strong foundation for their business. Then, our mentors have helped them to grow and scale.

To illustrate the impact of Ventureprise, let’s take the story of Dr. Margaret Kocherga, Ph.D. As co-founder of Light & Charge Solutions, she knew a market existed for organic light-emitting diode technology, but she didn’t know how to break through and connect with the right customers. Then, she found Ventureprise. 

Kocherga, Margaret

Kocherga participated in the Spring 2019 cohort of the Ventureprise Launch National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps program for her venture. Through Ventureprise, she received funding to travel to trade shows on the West Coast to network with potential customers and learn more about how her materials could help. 

Then, in April 2020, she was selected for Chain Reaction Innovations (CRI), an entrepreneurship program at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, where she’ll take part in a two-year fellowship. 

“Margaret came through these programs and discovered that she was very entrepreneurial and she wanted to be in the startup world,” said Devin Collins, interim executive director of Ventureprise. “She wanted to continue to take her technology out of the lab and not just be a professor but go start a company. Now over the last year, she's worked towards that.”

Ventureprise played a critical role in that process. 

The program is one of the oldest programs in Charlotte’ entrepreneurial ecosystem. It began as the Ben Craig Center in 1986 and was one of the nation’s earliest small business incubators. Now funded through the university and grant programs, Ventureprise hosts a variety of launch programs for early-stage startups. For science-based startups, there’s the I-Corps program, which equips students, faculty and staff with customer discovery knowledge so they can introduce research-driven projects to the marketplace and prepare for the national I-Corps program.

Similar to the I-Corps program, the Ventureprise Launch NC IDEA Program helps startups both on- or off-campus test their innovations with the goal of assessing their commercial viability. Both programs take place in six-week cohorts of eight to 12 teams. Ventureprise accepts applications on a rolling basis and is free for participants. 

We have a variety of stages,” said Laura Smailes, assistant director. “Some people have revenue. Some people are fleshing out their idea and building something that may not be finished at this point. Everybody’s able to relate to each other.” 

Idea-stage ventures are also eligible, as long as participants have made progress or gained traction. Customer discovery can be equally important for funded ventures, too.

“We’ve had teams that have raised $800,000 and then come to participate because they built the wrong product to begin with for the wrong customer,” Collins said. “Now, they have to pivot to a new customer.”

Customer discovery requires some pounding the pavement and cold calls, which can seem frightening on the surface. Collins has enjoyed watching participants’ mentalities shift over the course of the six-week program. He has also seen the outreach result in students landing jobs. 

“After 30 interviews, students are suddenly surprised that people will talk to them,” Collins said. “It’s like muscle memory. Once you start and become comfortable, it becomes much easier.” 

Ventureprise also helps eligible startups lay the groundwork to compete for additional funding. Like Kocherga, several participants have gone on to receive $10,000 microgrants from NC IDEA. 

Once the cohort begins, participants take part in weekly lessons — most recently, in a virtual setting — with a discussion of topics such as value propositions or market size. Then, teams will present what they’ve learned from the exercise. Participants are encouraged to push boundaries and consult with industry experts, potential partners and customers. Each week, participants walk away with a more fine-tuned idea of their target customer and the questions they need to keep asking. 

“People really enjoy the camaraderie and networking with the class,” Smailes said. “They even said this about the virtual cohort, as well. They meet people who are going through the same processes they’re going through.” 

Ventureprise has approximately 250 alumni from its cohorts. Those alumni then become eligible to participate in Ventureprise Launch 2.0, an accelerator program focused on developing business models. The 2.0 program explores funding sources, cost structure and other resources while preparing participants to submit for NC IDEA seed grants. Ventureprise also hosts the Charlotte Venture Challenge, an annual innovation showcase where teams can pitch their big ideas and win prizes. 

In the future, Collins expects Ventureprise to focus on providing more opportunities to students and faculty, pending grant developments. With about 30,000 students, UNC Charlotte is practically a city within a city, and the work of Ventureprise goes a long way toward nurturing promising entrepreneurs.

“We want to give all our students an opportunity to be introduced to entrepreneurship, to actually go practice so they can learn by doing and creating,” Collins said. 

Customer insights benefit entrepreneurs at every stage. Olga Muller, director of operations for local software development company Kepler Team, has experienced that value firsthand. “Customers are an entrepreneur’s best teacher. We are grateful that Ventureprise has equipped so many business leaders to think collaboratively about customer interactions.” 

To learn more about Ventureprise or apply for an upcoming cohort, visit entrepreneurship.uncc.edu 


Meet Summer 2020 Class of INCLT Mentees

There’s a story behind every startup. 

The highs and lows each founder experiences has a tremendous impact on their vision and, ultimately, their success. At Innovate Charlotte, we see that firsthand, in the startups that enroll in our mentorship program.

Now, during one of the most challenging times in recent history, we’re welcoming a new class of mentees to the program, which connects startup founders with mentors to guide them through the early stages of their businesses. And we’re introducing them to Charlotte’s startup ecosystem here, with a look at their journeys so far and how this community can support their evolution and growth. 

Summer 2020 INCLT Mentees

You can learn more about our new class below.

  1. Lawpods (lawpods.com) helps law firms create engaging, professional podcast content that speaks directly to potential clients in a friendly and informative way.
  2. Plush Lifestyle Management  provides luxury high-rises with 24/7 luxury front desk concierge services.
  3. Genisys Renewable Energy helps solar developers have prime land that is ready to be leased and is permitted.
  4. Treehab (https://treehab.co/) offers a convenient way to access medical marijuana in your local area.

    If you’re interested in becoming part of the program — either as a mentor or mentee — you can find more information
    here

Robert Ingalls, founder of Lawpods

Robert Ingalls wanted to be a dad, and he knew long hours as a lawyer weren’t going to cut it. So, he started reading money management books. Soon, he progressed to podcasts and fell in love with the medium. 

“A month later, I owned $1,000 worth of podcast gear,” Ingalls said. “Thankfully, it worked because I didn’t have to go sell that stuff on Craiglist like most people do.” 

He started his own podcast out of his law firm in June 2016, right before he found out he was going to be a father. Podcasting took off for him, and he soon launched Lawpods, a podcast production company dedicated to working with law firms that want to position themselves as thought leaders. 

“We wanted to make sure we could build a company that was sustainable,” Ingalls said. “It was going to be easier for me to build and defend that niche when the time came. That strategy has already helped us get in the door, and some of the biggest law firms in the world are on our client list.”

Through the INCLT mentorship program, Ingalls is looking to learn about business development and marketing from seasoned mentors. 

“The mentors that have stepped up and chosen to work with me all have a solid background in those areas, so I’m really excited,” Ingalls said. 

Alex Pascal, founder of Plush

Alex Pascal has had a hustle going for most of his life. He grew up in Brooklyn and started bagging groceries with his brothers at the age of 10 until one day when he broke someone’s pickles.

 “I was so embarrassed that I never went back,” Pascal said. “Still, that was my first taste of entrepreneurship.” 

Since then, Pascal has made a career out of it. He managed a smoke shop, opened an Internet café and eventually started his own dog walking company. Then, he was approached by a high-rise building that needed black car service. Pascal didn’t have a black car, so he bought one, and Plush, a luxury transportation service, was born. Now, he has three drivers working with him.

“The car smells new every time you get in it, and that’s what my clients like,” Pascal said. 

Pascal is looking to his INCLT mentors to help combine his natural business instincts with formal knowledge. He wants to grow into a lifestyle management brand with front-desk concierge service. 

“The best room to be in is with people who are smarter than you, people who have been there, done that and have wisdom and guidance,” Pascal said. “I come from the school of hard knocks.”

Daniel Rusu, founder of Genisys Renewable Energy

With renewables coming into their own, the 2020s look to be a landmark shift for the energy sector, and Daniel Rusu has been planning for that reality.
Rusu has worked in land acquisition for seven years. His speciality has been land leasing for both oil and gas and renewables such as wind and solar. It was through this work that he came across an opportunity for his own venture. 

“I worked for a developer, and we had a tough time leasing land,” Rusu said. “A lot of the renewable energy incentives would get lost because it would take time to make an acquisition or to close a deal. So, I saw that opening.”

He began working on the concept in 2018 and ultimately launched Genisys Renewable Energy in late 2019. The company offers land brokerage for wind and solar developers. Rusu specializes in the Southeast, and he has been working on a database of tracts well-suited for development. 

Now, Rusu is looking to INCLT for help with business development. He believes the company is at a pivotal point.  

“If I can get some professional advice from successful entrepreneurs, I think that would help me a lot on how to get that first contract,” Rusu said. 

 

Brandon Terrell, founder of Treehab

For Brandon Terrell, the road to a startup began with helping a relative.
Terrell, a marketer by trade, had a family member who was looking to find physicians willing to discuss alternative medicine. It took several months to find the support they needed, but Terrell didn’t stop learning about the industry. 

“I was very fortunate that I was able to travel the country and go to markets such as California and Colorado, where I had firsthand experience about the blossoming cannabis industry,” Terrell said. “I began to identify individuals who had the same problem that my family experienced with finding a doctor.” 

To fill that need, Terrell found Treehab in 2017. Treehab is a network of experienced physicians, mainly in the Georgia market, that advertises to consumers who may be interested in learning about medical marijuana. The company launched a new website this year, and it has experienced an uptick in demand during the pandemic. 

“Last month, we had over 10,000 inquiries from individuals who wanted to request an appointment to meet with a doctor,” Terrell said. “That was a milestone we are very proud of.”

Terrell understands the value that outside input can bring, and he looks forward to hearing the insights of INCLT mentors.  

“I’m really looking for mentors who can help identify the next phase of development, and it may come from something outside of my wheelhouse, which is marketing,” Terrell said. 

When businesses like INCLT’s new recruits get the opportunity to grow, the entire Charlotte community benefits. Olga Muller, director of operations for local software development company Kepler Team, has seen that firsthand, both as part of a startup and as a member of the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem in Charlotte. “No business or founder can succeed in isolation. Success requires a collaborative approach and help from those who have been there and done that when it comes starting and building companies.”  

To learn more about Innovate Charlotte and how you can get involved, visit www.inclt.org.