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Tenavox leader on expanding in Texas and LGBTQ representation within innovation

This month, InnovationMap is profiling the faces of Pride within innovation. Marissa Limsiaco, CEO of Tenavox, discusses her career and the company's expansion plans. Courtesy of Tenavox

After founding her second startup, Marissa Limsiaco thought that would be her last.

But years later, Limsiaco, a U.S. Army veteran with three degrees under her belt, was pulled back into the entrepreneurship world by Tenavox, a commercial real estate leasing company that gives tenants negotiating power through an online platform that shares space requirements, location and an expected price for the unit.

This month, InnovationMap is profiling the faces of Pride within Houston innovation. Limsiaco spoke with InnovationMap about her career, Tenavox, and the importance of the LGBTQ community in entrepreneurship.

InnovationMap: What has happened with Tenavox in the last eight months since InnovationMap has spoken with you?

Marissa Limsiaco: Oh gosh, it has felt like years. In the startup world, eight months is like two years and three months is like a year it feels. (Back in November), we were just launching our sales efforts.

Since last year going into this year, our (monthly recurring revenue) has grown over 100 percent. We've now connected tenants to agents and generated over $3.5 million in deals. So that's been really exciting that we're making those connections. And now most recently, we've closed a round this month. We are kind of focusing on a new offering called Tour Ready that we're selling to customers are on the project leasing side. Ultimately, it allows people who are looking for space to see and book a tour in a matter of minutes if it feeds their needs.

IM: I know that you took your service in the military and used that experience with leadership and management to become a successful entrepreneur. You have been a part of different startups in addition to Tenavox. Could you have imagined yourself at this point in your career 5 to 10 years ago?

ML: Absolutely not. I would not have even thought this was an option 5 or 6 years ago. Even though I was out of the Army, I was still learning business and going through that transition. After that second business that I started I told myself "I'm never going to do this again," and now I'm on my fourth.

IM: What compelled you to keep going in the startup world?

ML: It was this opportunity and the impact that we can have on everybody that we're helping on this platform, from business owners all the way to commercial agents and ownership groups. As a business owner myself, I experience the struggle firsthand of finding space and how frustrating that was. And it's sad that in 2019, one of the most effective ways to find spaces is driving around, calling signs with little to no information. When I saw how big the problem was and how antiquated the industry is where nothing has changed as far as making it any better for people to search for space to lease, I was just super determined to solve this problem.

IM: The last time InnovationMap spoke to you, Tenavox had just received funding from RealCo, an accelerator program funded by Geekdom fund. What has that funding been used for?

ML: Oh, yeah, we've raised more funding since then. And we have enough money now to go to the rest of Texas, which is exciting.

IM: When are the expansions?

ML: Well right now, we're in Houston and Austin and then we're going to go to Dallas towards the end of this year. We are also going to raise a round to go out of Texas. Josh [Feinberg, my co-founder,] and I have a larger vision vision for Tenavox and we really want to take it national. So we're going to prepare toward the end of this year, and next year we're going to open up on a bigger round of fundraising to be able to go to other states.

IM: What are some of the ways the tech and innovation community support their LGBTQ colleagues throughout the month of June?

ML: Expanding to other industries and awareness of minorities in other industries, whether it be LGBTQ or women, I think highlighting folks that are in those groups that are in the industry helps a lot. Two years ago when I became CEO and we started this company, it was daunting and scary. There's not a lot of women doing what I do, right? Something that keeps me going is that I have to show another girl or whoever that it's possible to be in my position.

IM: What advice would you have for a young gay or lesbian entrepreneur heading into the military or tech and real estate industries?

ML: Don't be scared to do things that you're scared of. I know everybody's different but the times I found myself in positions like I am today was because I was scared of it. I was scared of what happened, but I knew that I had to do it to overcome it or to see what would happen. The last industry in this whole entire world ever that I would have thought about five years ago would be commercial real estate. And yet when the opportunity presented itself, I just went for it. I just knew that I was going to grow and because I challenged myself and whenever I've faced that, I've come out totally another person, especially just me personally in this role. I tell a lot of the young people that I mentor that if an opportunity presents itself and it may not interest you, you should still look into because you just never know.

IM: What does Pride Month mean to you?

ML: It means empowering the LGBTQ community. The importance of having a whole month in this year that is dedicated to reminding everybody — and it even extends beyond LGBTQ — that you should just be who you are. Be proud of who you are. And I think that means a lot.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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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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