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.