You're up, Europe

Houston SaaS company expands in Europe following acquisition

With its new German office, Houston-based DiCentral looks to grow into other European markets, such as France, Italy, and Spain. Pexels

After slowly expanding worldwide for years, a Houston-based software-as-a-service company finally has a firm footing in Europe following its acquisition of a German company.

In December, DiCentral closed its deal with a Munich-based supply chain company named Compello Germany. With that acquisition, DiCentral Europe was born. Steve Scala, executive vice president of corporate development, says the deal was made possible after the company raised $15 million from Kanye Anderson Capital Advisors LP in 2016.

"We have a large supply chain network over Asia and North America, which gave us great coverage for our clients. In Europe, however, we're dealing with different supply chains," Scala says. "We had few people on the ground in Europe even though we have clients based there as well as clients elsewhere who conduct business there. We saw the need to fill that gap."

The new German office opens doors for the company to enter other European markets, and Scala says the company is looking into France, Italy, and Spain.

Currently, DiCentral's largest offices are in Houston and Ho Chi Minh City where they employ 150 and 300 people respectively. The company, which was founded in 2000 by Chairman and CEO Thuy Mai, has about 600 employees in total, and focuses on bonding buyers and suppliers, so both sides can optimize both the physical and digital supply chain.

DiCentral offers cloud-based electronic data interchange and supply chain solutions to its clients. By using DiCentral's propriety software, its clients, which include retailers, original equipment manufacturers, suppliers and more across many industry verticals, can find solutions tailored to their business.

"Global supply chains quickly can become very complex, especially when you add web purchases or individual orders from retailers that are sent from the manufacturers but made to look like they were sent from the retailer," Scala explains.

DiCentral allows businesses to improve their visibility of the supply chain by automating fulfillments, shipping and receiving processes.

"The end result for clients, whether they are a manufacturer, retailer or a third-party involved in distribution, using our software is improving the efficiency of supply chain," Scala continues. "With our solutions, clients can ramp up their operations even when navigating incredibly complex supply chains."

As DiCentral plans its continued European expansion, the company is facing various challenges from training its new 35 employees in Munich to potential logistical and regulatory issues.

"Our primary focus in 2019 is integrating the German operations with DiCentral. There are a lot of privacy challenges in Europe with GDPR, which means we need to be smart and cautious with how to deploy data centers because of stricter data privacy rules," Scala says.

Despite the challenges, Scala expects the new acquisition to lead to large growth for the company.

"I'm excited for the future. We closed on some great business contracts last year, however, the way our business works, we don't make money until there are transactions taking place across our network," Scala says.

It can take months to fully integrate clients into the DiCentral network, but Scala looks forward to the new revenue source. New contracts with large companies will allow DiCentral to continue fueling its global growth. The company continues to grow and hire, both abroad and locally, for various positions in sales, customer support, product management and marketing.

While the business continues to grow with an eye on new market sectors and areas for expansion, the DiCentral global headquarters are still located right by NASA. As a company founded in Texas, many of its original client base is based within the state.

"Texas has been a great location for us. We have data centers here in Texas, our headquarters are in Houston, so the original infrastructure of the company is all in Texas," says Scala.


Steve Scala joined DiCentral in 2014 to focus on growing the company worldwide. Courtesy of DiCentral

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Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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