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Elite Innovations’ First Year Reflection

Looking back on our first Elite year

Wow, a year gone by already for Elite Innovations?! For a startup, it’s hard to say whether you are more surprised that you still exist or that you have actually done quite well!A little over year ago, Ed Hall and I were setting up shop on 18th street, literally, a big a$$ shop known as a Makerspace. The goal there was start serving Wilmington’s “inventrepreneurs” by giving them access to 3D printing, Computer-Aided-Design (CAD), metal fabrication, textiles, electronics, and more. Our Grand Opening was October 18th, 2014. I’d say it was quite a success given the turnout, mostly attributable to Ann Revell Pechar and Emilyanne Atkinson’s exhaustive event planning skills (Also Vittles was there, that was my contribution to the effort). It’s also exciting to see that those are two increasingly popular names around town, well deserved of course. Our partnership with UNCW’s Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (initiated by Jim Roberts) introduced us to various local product ideas and opened the doors for really making an impact on the entrepreneurial ecosystem in town. Ron Vetter got us engaged with the Center for Marine Sciences to get our first R&D project under our belts. The month’s to follow certainly proved there was a need for a product development service in town, our doors were flooded with inventors who needed help turning their concept into a reality. I’m not one to “toot my own horn,” but I can at least say we’ve made some solid traction over the past 12 months. Did that traction come easily, or without pain? Nope… So what did we learn?

Our original plan happened in reverse order… As we used to say in the Marine Corps, “Don’t fall in love with the plan,” or “a plan is great until the first round goes down range.” Remember the unknowns also play a part in every outcome. I expected more product-focused entrepreneurs, full of energy and motivation, to knock down the doors of the Makerspace. While many did show, what we saw most was product development customers. Basically, this meant we needed to scale personnel sooner and faster. It would be one thing if the first batch of customers had simple ideas; they didn’t… We first brought in an industrial designer (Jonathan), TacLace sales rep (Jay) and two programmers (Andrew and Jason). This kept our capacity up through the present day.

We came across things we were unfamiliar with, imagine that! That’s why we have Barnes & Noble, the internet, and a local research library.

We had internal disputes. Go figure, we are humans.

We played corn hole, A LOT!

Hosted the Wired Wizards build season in the Makerspace. The Wired Wizards, headed by Jazmin Caprezza, are an NCFirst robotics team comprised of local high school students (geniuses).

Our pace increased, yet again. We brought in our Director of Operations (Liz) to manage our pipeline and functional responsibilities. Since then over 60 product ideas reviewed and scoped, 24 prototypes complete, four in production or ready to start.

In the past quarter, we have seen a surge in IOT related projects. One additional designer (David) and a web developer (Ken) was added to the team. Project management is now more than just a collateral duty for some team members, but essential serving our clients well. We are thrilled to say that six of our team members are UNCW graduates and one is a CFCC Graduate.

We partnered with Edison Nation out of Charlotte, NC. This landed us in front of SVPs at Amazon where we were able to pitch TacLace for their Launchpad and Vendor Express programs. They loved it and we were awarded both opportunities.

We have been honored to speak at various local entrepreneurial events and play a strong role in this year’s Cucalorus Connect.

Most importantly, we have had the opportunity to embed ourselves in Wilmington’s entrepreneurial community. We have met some excellent thought leaders, networked with other local startups, and seen firsthand the progress being made in town. We cannot express our excitement for where this scene is headed and sure hope we have made some impact on helping Wilmington get there.

Now for a few things I find important at Elite that I hope help others:

Team – there is no I in team, unless you ask Jonathan Dineen, our industrial designer. He likes to doodle a “designy” TEAM where he emphasizes the negative space in the “A” and it inherently makes an “i.” I digress. One of the toughest calls in a startup is when and who do I hire? Initially, it’s great practice to bring in team members that tie directly into the revenue streams. However, at some point you have to identify some administrative positions that have less “tangible” impact on the business. Who can manage your pipeline and how much time does that save you? Once you analyze this, you start to realize that these impacts are quite a bit more “tangible” than you thought.

Tools – You’re a manager, right? Your job is to provide resources to your team; that includes time, money, personnel, the list goes on. Sometimes these tools have that same “intangible” impact on your business, but at the end of the day, they empower your team to excel in their jobs. The obvious firsts include accounting tools, better yet an accountant. Hire one… Spend a couple hundred a month, the amount it costs comes back in a matter of hours. The next thing is a CRM tool. Get one… Salesforce, Sugar CRM, there are tons. The first time you see your opportunity pipeline as real potential, you’ll quickly realize what you are missing otherwise. Combine some of these formerly “intangible” items together and you’ll be pretty excited about what it does for you. The next thing needs to be a billing tool. Just think about it, you handle business with similar people. We are all busy and it’s easy for bills to be put off. Invest in a billing tool to cut down on your receivables, you’ll sleep better at night.

Leadership – You might be able to manage a fortune 10, but if you can’t lead your way out of a wet paper bag, the startup scene isn’t for you! The startup environment is transient and chaotic at best. Take the beatings, but motivate and inspire your team. Know that they could have chosen the status quo and not the path less traveled. My favorite leadership quote didn’t come from a General, Politician, or Business Tycoon. It came from a U.S. Marine Corporal who said, “Think of leading people like using a lasso. If you throw that lasso around your team and push it, the lasso loosens and they scatter to the winds. If you throw that lasso around your team and pull them through, it tightens and they follow you as one.” This is not saying management skills are unimportant, after all, you have to conduct business. I am saying that leadership is not easily learned if it isn’t inherent, but management skills are. Know your strengths as well as your team, be humble, and leverage both accordingly.

Pivot – As previously mentioned, unknowns will surface and you will be forced to change. First off, never have knee-jerk reactions. Always take the time to assess your situation and determine whether the current obstacle is isolated, or representative of a trend. If it’s the latter, pivot. Stress is the body’s natural response to change, the good news is you’re already stressed in a startup so a pivot is not going to make it any worse! That’s sort of a joke, basically, don’t be afraid to stand by your perspective on where your business is headed. Update your plan and communicate this clearly to the team. In high-velocity markets, your ability to adapt as markets and technologies change is instrumental to your future (I learned that in MBA school).

Network – You are strong as your network, plain and simple. Also, build your Alma Mater networks, I don’t care where you went. On average, you’re one degree of separation from that connection you need to take it to the next step. Attend our local events, expand outside of them then share your local networks outside the area.

Sense of Pride – I don’t see our area as just a vacation town and being at the beach is not an actual employment benefit, so don’t tell your employees that it is. Also, I hate the term “Wilmington prices.” Let’s not show up to outside events and expect others look at us like we are just “figuring it out.” Rather, let’s lead the charge and expect others to look to us as the example. Please don’t confuse the word “pride” here with its negative connotation, and obviously being humble is equally as important.

So here is to an Elite year and we hope for many more.

We would like to thank those within the community for ongoing support, now for my Oscar line up: Our Clients, Jim Roberts, Ron Vetter, Laura Brogden, Anne Revell, Adam Burke, George Taylor, Ed Wolverton, Craig Snow, Rob Kaiser, all the Wilmington Biz Journal folks, The Star News, Dr. Arch, Corey Heim, Geoff Fox (FLIPPZE), Ted Zoller, Chuck Whitlock, Elijah Huston, Tek Mountain (Audrey, Derrick, Sean, Jason), Cucalorus and Dan Brawley, Roger Johnson, Allen Davis, Doug Tarble, Mike Hunter, Mike Rhodes, Mickey Finn, VMI Alumni Chapter, and so many more.

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The Elite Family

Jonathan Dineen Lead DesignerAndrew, you are our Father! (Darth Vader voice)

Being an employee of a small business is like being in a family. You have your head of household, the good kids, a rebel child or two, and a few who just come and go for dinner. We’re no different at Elite Innovations. We have our founding father, Andrew, who has brought his dream of Wilmington’s own product development facility to real life. And then there are the children (employees) who live in the house, (office) running around helping out our Dad, and from time to time nagging him beyond belief. [“Where’s Andrew?” Video] But hey, what’s any good household without a little chaos? Let’s call these crazy children Liz, Eddie, Jay, and Jonathan. We do as many chores as we can to help out our father, but occasionally we break a window throwing a ball around inside. Wisely, Jay and I have learned to throw a Koosh around instead, so we don’t get in any more trouble.

Koosh

But let us not forget our extended family who is constantly stopping by for dinner. Let’s call these wacky members Jason, Drew, Emily, and Joey. The thing about being in a family is that you must sacrifice for one another, help each other along the way, and above all else, stand together. As with any family, disputes will arise, arguments will happen, but thankfully we have cornhole boards to settle any dispute. [“You Might Work for a Start-up if…” Video]

The Start in Start-Up

After developing and turning a profit from his first product, TacLace, Andrew set out to start a maker space. A maker space was not a new concept when he built it, but one had never before been built in Wilmington. Andrew originally wanted to build the facility in Raleigh, but with the incipient entrepreneurial boom he noticed in Wilmington, along with a strong local business school, and “a desire to give back to the community he grew up in,” Andrew made the decision to move from Raleigh to Wilmington. And thank goodness he made that decision, because otherwise none of us would be where we are today.

The Family

Eddie was introduced to Andrew back in June of 2014. Eddie had recently purchased a 3D printer for prototyping his product, Petrics Inc, and “was looking into starting a small maker space in the CIE” (UNCW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship) to benefit all the entrepreneurs there that were trying to start product based businesses. The CIE is where Eddie met Andrew and found out that Andrew had just signed a lease for a 6,000 square foot facility downtown to build just what Eddie had envisioned. “The timing was right for me to join his team and help build the product development resource the Wilmington community needed.” Eddie started on contract, and has now taken over the operations of the maker space as well as business development functions at Elite Innovations.

Jay was then introduced to Eddie through the CIE as well. Eddie brought Jay to the maker space and had him meet Andrew. This was all before Elite Innovations had officially opened its doors. Jay was currently working on a product line of his own, Fuego Lighters, and needed to begin the prototyping process. He earned second place in a pitch competition presented by tekMountain with the help of his first prototype that he built at Elite Innovations. For this, Jay was awarded three free months as a maker at Elite Innovations. Jay spent as much time as he could picking Andrew’s brain on manufacturing processes, prototyping, and any other product development procedures Andrew would explain to him. “I told Andrew that one day that I was going to work for him whether he liked it or not.” Jay said. This persistence paid off, as Jay proved his sales acumen as a commissioned sales rep for TacLace. As sales increased over the next few months, Jay earned himself a full time position through TacLace as the sales director, which has since led him to his current role as Elite Innovations’ sales and marketing director.

I myself first saw Andrew on the local news when a story broke about the maker space and I said to myself, “I need to meet that guy.” Time went by and I had forgotten about that story. I was currently half way through my final college internship when we had a need to quickly 3D print something locally. Since I was the only one who had any experience working with a 3D printer, my internship signed me up for the maker space, and I was able to use the printer and the space. This is where I formally met Andrew. Upon completion of my internship, my college requirements were finally fulfilled, and Andrew offered me contract work that I heartily accepted. One project grew into two, then four, and now all of the sudden after successfully designing a handful of projects, that our customers were thrilled with, I have found myself employed as the lead designer here at Elite Innovations.

Liz was living in California in August of 2014, managing film festivals, when she got a call from an old friend. Andrew informed her all about his new business, and that he had decided to open the doors in Wilmington, NC (Liz’s favorite city from her days as a double major at UNCW). Later that year, Liz’s husband was informed by the Marine Corps that his job would be taking him back to North Carolina at a nearby base to Wilmington. Liz immediately called Andrew, and explained in excruciating detail every single way she could both make and save Andrew money. When reviewing her resume, which after her interview was mostly a formality, Andrew said to her, “You went to the Burgundy School of Business and that reminds me of Ron Burgundy!” A few witty one-liners later, Liz became a part of the Elite family. So in part, Liz has Will Ferrell to thank for getting her job. She is now the Director of Operations at Elite Innovations.

We all have come to make Elite Innovations our home. Though we often poke fun at the way we each ended up working here, every one of us had to work extremely hard to put ourselves in the opportune positions that landed us here. We all owe it to Andrew for having faith in us individually, bringing us together as a team, and making us a family.

Meet the Elite Innovations Team

There is an Eye in Team

Famous poet and writer Maya Angelou said, “in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.” Our individual backgrounds are all astonishingly diverse given the fact we are a ‘small start-up’. However, this gives us a substantial advantage over our competition. Our family includes a Mechanical Engineer, an Industrial Designer, a Sales and Marketing specialist, a Program Manager and Department Coordinator for film festivals, a Business Development Guru, a pair of Programmers, a Database Administrator, and a Videographer. These diversified backgrounds are the roots that have planted Elite Innovations in such a strong position in the product development industry. Not only do our family members wear different hats, we also see through very different lenses. I mean this in the sense that we all view problems very differently, but thanks to our aforementioned resilience, we all come to thorough conclusions. On the rare occasions we all agree on something, it’s always interesting to look back and see how different the roads that led to one ultimate conclusion were. This, though it may sound time consuming, is absolutely vital to the product development process here at Elite. In the world of product design, almost everything begins with what we call a “pain point.” Though we may all see the same pain point, the source of the perceived pain is almost always varied throughout the family. Two minds are better than one. But at Elite, we have at least ten pairs of eyes and five creative minds look at every single product that enters our doors, and this paves the best possible path to a successful product. We all get together to ideate and discuss our paths at what we call ‘family dinners’ where we all gather around a table and feast on the problem at hand. After emptying our plates of ideas, comes the sweet taste of dessert. Once we have brainstormed sufficiently, we get to do the fun part. Implementation. Putting our plan into action, and turning local inventor’s ideas in fully functioning products ready for the store shelves.

A Family that Plays Together Stays Together

Positech CEO Brian Maschler was quoted saying, “When I look at my wife and three kids, I don’t just see a family—I see a tiered personnel structure composed of four valued team members who share common goals.” If a family can be represented as a business, then the opposite can be true as well. And if a family that plays together, stays together, then the tighter a business is, the more likely it is to not only survive, but to thrive. In order for a small business to be successful and grow, it is paramount that you surround yourself with valuable, hardworking individuals who care more about the greater good of the company, than they do of their own general interests. This does not mean they need to be purely selfless. It means they need to understand that as the business grows, so will their careers, and they must be willing to make those sacrifices.

A TIGHT Knit Group

Literally. There is a very important term in small business, and the term is ‘small’. As money is a factor in everything, we at Elite don’t have our own individual offices with glass walls overlooking a lush forest on the 100th floor of some famous office building. We have to start out at the bottom, and start small. There is truth in modesty as we have learned. Despite just recently moving our offices into a second location, our family members still work within 20 feet of each other with no walls or barriers between us. And even though this stirs the pot sometimes, we realize that it is beneficial that we work so closely together. It sparks the collaboration which fuels our success that ultimately benefits our clients and our city.Downtown Wilmington NC