Featured Innovator

How a Houston corporate lawyer is making short-term commercial space easier to find

Reda Hicks create GotSpot — a digital tool that helps connect people with commercial space with people who need it. Courtesy of GotSpot

It only took a natural disaster for Reda Hicks to make her startup idea into a reality.

"I had been thinking on what it would be like to help people find space to do business in and how businesses find a way to stay in business a long time," Hicks says. "But, I was afraid of the tech."

Hicks, who has practiced law for almost 15 years, wanted to create a website that allows for people with commercial space — a commercial kitchen, conference room, spare desks, etc. — to list it. Then, space seekers — entrepreneurs, nonprofits, freelancers, etc. — can rent it. When Hurricane Harvey hit, Hicks was kicking herself for not acting on her idea sooner.

"It was really Harvey and having so many people desperate to find space for emergency purposes that made me realize there are so many contexts in which people need space right away for something specific," she says. "Certainly the primary user is the entrepreneur trying to grow their business, but there are so many other reasons why a community would need better access to the space it already has."

GotSpot Inc. soft launched last June with 17 listings. The company now has 37 and new listings are generated daily. Hicks has won two pitch competitions and is headed to Silicon Valley in March for Women's Startup Labs.

"In 2019, we're going to be working with local business partners, like the chambers. We'll be working on building out a team. I'll be hitting the road in March headed to Silicon Valley for Women's Startup Labs."

She spoke with InnovationMap on her career and what it takes to be a mom, a wife, a corporate lawyer, and a startup founder — all rolled into one.

InnovationMap: Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?

Reda Hicks: I feel like I kind of grew up the way a lot of small town, lower middle class kids do. The options you're aware of were either people you know or what you see on TV. Growing up there were no people in my life who were entrepreneurs. Even as a professional, it never even occurred to me. It's more about seeing a problem I wanted to be solved more than I just wanted to own my own business.

IM: How does GotSpot work?

RH: I have two types of users. One is the person who has the space — a shop on Main Street or conference rooms you're not using — and you're looking for a way to monetize that space. We call those our spot holders. It's so easy to go on the platform and create your profile and generate a listing. On the other side, I have spot seekers who can go on the site and search the available listings they are interested in booking for hours, days, or weeks at a time. It's not fully automated right now. The booking process and the calendar is all ran by me. In the next two to three months, we'll have it up and running like that, and it will feel a lot like Airbnb.

It's strictly website based right now, and I did that intentionally. Spot holders don't want to build their profile on their phones. But the site is mobile friendly.

IM: What are some early challenges you faced?

RH: My biggest challenge honestly was having a problem and wanting to solve it, but not knowing where to start — especially because I'm not a tech person. From a subject matter and contacts perspective, I felt like I had the resources. My first question was, "Who can I call?" It's a testament to Houston. No one I called said no. We talk often about how we are a new ecosystem, but we also are an extremely generous and connected city. What I see and what I hope continues is that we are an ecosystem that builds by leveraging all the awesome that's already here.

IM: Where did the name come from?

RH: I reached out to three military spouses I know and asked them to help. We spitballed a bunch of ideas. I wanted it to be simple and clear, because so many brands come up with a cute name but it takes forever to explain. We literally pulled out a thesaurus and thought of all the words that mean "space" and "finding," and that exercise is where GotSpot came from.

IM: What makes GotSpot different from anything else out there?

RH: There are a few different marketplaces out there for commercial space, but they tend to be more specialized. But another way GotSpot is different is I'm being very intentionally community driven. I look at GotSpot as your digital sidekick to grow your business — whether it's helping you pay your rent by creating a new way to make money or helping you say yes to more opportunities. But I'm also collecting information on how that same space can be used for the community. Harvey is a part of my origin story. Every time I onboard a new space, I ask if you are willing to be activated in case of an emergency, and if so, how can you be used — industrial space or washer and dryers. In other communities, there are other kind of emergencies. And, I also know half the nonprofits in Texas don't keep their own space any more, because donors don't want their money to go to overhead. I ask my space holders if they are willing to give a discount to nonprofits.

IM: What expertise from your career as a corporate lawyer do you bring to your startup career?

RH: A couple of things. I've spent my whole career working in large corporations. I really understand how the inside of a company works and how to think creatively and mitigate risks. It's so interesting because when I start talking to people about GotSpot, I have to be honest about how this is my first entrepreneurial experience. So when I say that, people tell me, "well, you're going to have to have really good counsel." And I tell them, "well, actually, I am really good counsel." The demeanor of who I'm talking to — whether it's an adviser or a potential investor — fundamentally shifts.

IM: What's been the most challenging aspect of still working full time and having a family?

RH: Probably the thing that has been the most challenging has been access to resources as a female founder. What I mean by that is there's all this great programing and things happening around town are always in the evening. It's hard to make happy hours. What I'm starting to see is more programing is a diversity of when that programing is available. I'm privileged in that I can do my job from anywhere during the day, but if all of the golden opportunities are on a weekday at 5 pm, my mommy duties win. Always.

IM: How has Houston been as a home for your startup?

RH: I think one aspect of the secret sauce is how open and can do of a city it is. It is not the traditional thing you think of when you think of startups. But we know better. In the startup space, what I love, is that I am kind of seeing it like we're building the plane as we're flying it. We have some people who have been around for a long time, but even some of our incubators are startups on their own. We have the ability, since we're still building it now, to have an ecosystem that reflects our city. We have a long ways to go, there are still some things that we are working through — capital is one of them.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Building Houston

 
 

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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