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What one winning entrepreneur wishes he had done earlier

Miami Herald - 2/12/2018

Feb. 12--The Business Plan Challenge includes a dedicated track for students, faculty and alumni of Florida International University, a Challenge sponsor. When we checked in early this year, two of the companies were marching forward. The third-place winning app to aid communication with nonverbal children on the autism spectrum, Use Your Words, had disappeared.

Here's an update on the top two winners.

Designed for hotels

In any industry, insiders quickly learn what doesn't work. Florida International University alum Juan Carlos Abello leveraged that knowledge into a software platform that helps hotel staffs quickly respond to guest problems.

Since his company, Nuvola, took first place in the 2017 Business Plan Challenge FIU Track, it has garnered investor funding from hotel industry players. Part of that investment has gone to its sales force, resulting in double the number of new clients -- from 15 to 30 per month -- since August. Nuvola also tripled its engineering force so it could broaden its app.

Today the app works on any device to help hoteliers stay in touch with their teams for preventive maintenance, housekeeping, package delivery, lost-and-found service and guest requests. On the consumer side, guests get a link that lets them check in or out, lock or unlock their rooms and request various services.

Since Nuvola was created, a number of new hotel apps have launched, Abello said. Because his company was ahead of the curve, it was able to move beyond a single niche to create a more holistic platform for both hotel teams and their guests. "We discovered we needed not to be niche but to expand the product we offer. It really paid off."

His hard-won advice:

-- "Be persistent. In the first year or two, a lot of people are going to slam doors in your face."

-- If you have limited resources, focus on sales. "If you get too academic and focus too much on forecasting, you might not have the time to get the sales you need."

-- Though Nuvola is finding success by adding functions, Abello says that in the beginning, "don't try to be everything to everybody." Too many companies expand their products beyond their core business, only to find they struggle to maintain too much, too soon.

-- Look for smart partnerships. "That gives you the possibility to cross-sell your product. It created a revenue source we never forecast and helps in terms of visibility. I wish I had done that earlier.''

Munch out

Balancing school and a start-up is a challenge in itself. Having a team break-up doesn't help.

But co-founders Tara Demren, now a senior, and Eliana Alba, a recent marketing graduate, decided it was the smart thing to do when they realized that they and their third partner, a University of Miami engineering student, had different visions for the business.

To avoid potential future issues, they closed down MunchSquad, the second-place winner in the 2017 FIU Track. Then they started again from scratch, as Bridgit (as in bridging the food waste gap). While the name and app are new, the FIU students' goal is the same: to diminish excess waste in restaurants by selling the food at discounted prices to hungry students in flash sales.

It wasn't an easy -- or cheap -- decision, Demren said. "I invested my own money to get [a new app and design] outsourced." Then she and Alba met Sammy Yousif, a recent transplant from Texas, who has invested his time to make an even better app.

By then, the holidays were here. In the week before school let out, the team tested the program for three days with the campus Vicky Cafe. They sold 10 boxes of food in three days with no photos or description of the goods inside.

Now that winter break is over, they plan to begin a new test.

Her advice:

-- Go first to your customers and find out their needs and wants.

-- Test your assumptions. "Some assumptions weren't as accurate as we thought," she said. "Dealing with vendors is a lot more complex than we thought, and vendors were more hesitant."

And most important for her:

-- Don't just jump into a team or relationship. "Values are so important, it's crucial. In the beginning it's very romantic. But you don't want to fall in love -- personally or in business -- without assessing the other people's values."


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