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Houston, we have liftoff: Preparing your startup for launch

What you need to know before your startup takes off. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Everyone wants to know how to build a startup. Venture capital, hiring employees, marketing, all happen once you're in the process of actually launching your startup. But nobody ever talks about what needs to happen before you start a startup. What do you have to do to position yourself to be ready to even think about launching your company?

"There is this attitude among universities that it's only a matter of time before you generate massive revenue from your newly developed tech. Fiction. It's fiction. You have to be realistic about what to expect," warns Shay Curran, professor of physics, associate director of the UH Advanced Manufacturing Institute, and CEO and chairman of Integricote, Inc. Shay spoke in front of an engaged audience at the Startup Pains event at the Technology Bridge in early March.



Integricote is one of 28 startups that have launched at the University of Houston over the last decade. This startup is a nanotechnology company that has developed its own brand of reactive penetrating sealers called CaraPro, a non-film-forming sealer that protects wood, stone, and concrete from water damage.

"Integricote didn't just pop up overnight and it certainly didn't start pumping money into my wallet right away. It took a lot of time, patience and sweat just to get to a point where we were ready to even launch the startup," Curran says.

Discovering your tech

Before you even dream about a startup, you have to have something to sell. For Google it was PageRank technology. For Chuck Hull it was the 3D printer. For Integricote it was CaraPro. For Tinder it was love. Okay, maybe not love. Tinder did have an innovative, game changing swipe feature that spawned a generation of dating apps emulating it. The point is, every tech startup starts with the discovery of innovative technology.

"Whenever you ask how long it takes to commercialize your technology, you usually get the same answer. Five years. Sounds great. After a few years you'll commercialize your sci-fi tech and be loaded. That's just not true. Even Google took six years!" Curran tells the audience at the Startup Pains event.

Build your IP profile

The next step on the road to launching your startup is building an IP portfolio. There's a lot more to building your IP portfolio than merely protecting your flux capacitor, or whatever your technology is. A solid IP strategy will protect any artwork, branding, literature, software, or any other aspect of your technology that may qualify for protection by trademark, patent, or copyright.

Your job is to identify at an early stage which parts of your technology can be protected. This is a lengthy process because each kind of IP, whether it be patent, copyright, trade secret, or trademark, has its own unique protocol that will protect them from pirating.

Failure to protect all relevant aspects of your technology before you launch could lead to having to protect it defensively later. That's never a good thing. It is a costly, messy ordeal that involves myriad attorneys and a lot of time away from focusing on your company.

"If you build a single patent, you open the pathway for others to see how you did something, and they tend to go around you. The singular patent is almost dead. It will take a family of patents to cover all your bases and protect your technology in all its aspects," Curran says.

Don't hate — validate

So, you've got this great piece of tech and you have an IP portfolio that protects your technology like a junkyard dog. Sure, it's taken you years to get to this point. It's taken a lot of time, perspiration, mistakes, stress, and Advil, but you're here. It's time to validate your startup idea now.

Validation is essentially proof that your product is something people will pay for. No matter how game-changing your tech is, you won't be making money if people aren't going to pay for it. You could have created a piece of technology that rivals Robin Williams's flubber, it's all for naught if you don't have proof that your tech solves a problem, is something people want, and is something they will actually spend money on.

"First, you'll need to find a problem that's worth solving to commercialize your technology," Curran says. "For Integricote, we found that our product could be used by companies to save money on annual cleaning and renovation expenses, since CaraPro keeps their walls, signs, and structures free of water damage and stains for long periods of time throughout the year. There was no need for them to continue to pay for cleaning multiple times a year."

All systems go

It's time.

You've gone through all of the painstaking, hot coal steps just to get to this point. Pat yourself on the back with that robotic arm you just developed in your lab.

You've discovered highly innovative technology, you've taken the necessary steps to protect it as much as possible, and you've proven that it's marketable and something people will throw their wallets at. It took years. You're almost burnt out. You've pulled your hair out so much people mistake you for Walter White.

What now?

Now, you get to do it all over again.

"Anybody who tells you this is an easy process is either lying or highly uninformed. There will be no sugarcoating here. All of the steps involved in launching and running a company take a long time, and if you're not willing to commit and work hard, there's no point in wasting your own time," says Curran as he wrapped up the Startup Pains event.

Now that you've positioned yourself for launching your startup, it's time to, you know, launch your startup. All you did was complete the road to getting you on the road to bringing your tech to market. Now, you'll get to experience a whole other set of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, frustrating mistakes, and demoralizing setbacks.

Don't worry. The Big Idea's Startup Experience section will produce more pieces to help guide you with the help of established entrepreneurs from UH's Technology Bridge who've been there and done that.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

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Building Houston

 
 

AvidXchange executives explain why a crisis like the pandemic can provide opportunities for growth or realignment. Photo via Getty Images

From esports to telemedicine, some technologies are having a major moment during the COVID-19 crisis. As many businesses are operating remotely with work-from-home policies in place indefinitely, payments automation is another technology that's seen an opportunity amid the pandemic.

AvidXchange, which has invoice and payment processes automation software for mid-market businesses, is one of the companies in this payment automation space that's seen growth in spite of the economic downturn caused by the virus. The Charlotte, North Carolina-based company was founded in 2000 and went on to acquire Houston-founded Strongroom Solutions Inc. in 2015.

Since the acquisition, AvidXchange has quadrupled its presence in Houston and does a good deal of business locally. Equipping companies with tools for remote work is crucial — now and especially in light of Houston's propensity for challenges. Tyler Gill, vice president of sales for AvidXchange based in the Houston office and former CEO of Strongroom, joined Houston Exponential on a virtual panel to discuss this topic.

"We've had a history of disasters in Houston. Any time we can help businesses move to a more cloud-based infrastructure is going to be better," Gill says on the livestream. "I think working from home is maybe the new normal for a lot of employees — so how do we enable this?"

Gill and his colleague, Chris Elmore, senior sales performance director at AvidXchange, joined Joey Sanchez of HX for the talk about the acquisition, the pandemic, and growth for the company. If you missed it or don't have time to stream the whole conversation, here are some impactful moments of the chat.

“Economic downturns have a tendency to put a very bright light on a feature set or a product or a service that’s underperforming."

— Elmore says on how the pandemic affects innovation and startups. "My hope is that entrepreneurs will see this as a real time to get focused on their business — what's working well and what's not working well — and my hope is that they'll say, 'I need to fix that,' not 'I wish this was better,'" he says.

“For a young entrepreneur looking to build a business, make sure you’re looking for the people who are germane to your business.”

— Gill says about starting his business in Houston. At first, he was trying to find investors in oil and gas, but he found more success working with companies with a background in finance technology. "Houston has a history and density in fintech — I just had to find it."

“The fact that Strongroom owned the automated payment process in HOA that made them so attractive to AvidXchange because we didn’t.”

— Elmore says on the 2015 acquisition. He explains that AvidXchange had set up a presence in multifamily and commercial real estate, while Strongroom had a hold on homeowner's association, or HOA, business. The two companies competed for a while, and if Strongroom hadn't had their HOA specialty that made the company ideal for acquisition, Elmore says the two companies would still be competing today.

“When Strongroom was added to AvidXchange, our culture improved. By the way, we went from 40 employees to 1,000 within 14 months, and Strongroom was right at the beginning of that.”

— Elmore says on growth following the acquisition. The company now has 1,500 employees across seven offices and just closed a $128 million round of fundraising in April.

“Customers don’t care how big you get or how much money you raise from investors. They care about if your service is still doing the things they need to operate their business.”

— Gill says, reminding entrepreneurs to always prioritize and be focused on the client experience — through mergers or acquisitions, fundraising rounds, growth, etc.

“When you replace human interaction with technology, what you have to do, is to now move that person on to something more impactful and more important for the business. I don’t like tech for tech’s sake.”

— Elmore says on the importance of automation. "When you automate something, the output of automation is time," he adds.

“Houston couldn’t be a better place to build a business — I found great investors and employees here. It’s a city that’s used to risk. But it’s got to be you, the entrepreneur, that’s got something festering — that’s how you know it’s a great idea.”

— Gill says on inspiring future innovators. "What kept me motivated was I wanted to win. I felt like we had a great product, and we had a big market to serve. … I wanted to build something lasting and build a great team."

“We continue to be a great Houston story — some of my angel investors in Houston are still benefiting."

— Gill says on AvidXchange's presence in Houston. He adds that he's proud of how his former Strongroom team members have risen through the ranks of the company following the acquisition and that he sees the company, which is still privately held, moving toward IPO.

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