Easy options option

This new-to-Houston startup is simplifying trading for the next generation of investors

Andre Norman founded Jellifin, an options trading platform, flipping the script on the traditional investment process. Courtesy Jellfin

Say you're a young, working professional who wants to get involved in trading. Where do you start?

If you get involved in options, which are contracts that give investors the ability to buy or sell a stock at a specific price on or before a specific date, you might go the traditional route and seek out a brokerage that focuses on options trading. There's a major catch, though: most brokerages tack on a fee of anywhere between $7 and $20 per trade, says Andre Norman, founder of Jellifin, an online options trading platform, is disrupting that norm.

The company works with individuals and brokers to provide an options trading platform at a flat monthly fee. This allows investors to trade as frequently or infrequently as they please, and to not factor in the cost of a trade fee when considering what's best for their portfolio.

"A lot of people don't invest because of the high costs associated with trading," Norman said. "We allow them to get into investing without having to pay huge amounts of money."

Jellifin was founded in early 2017 in Gainesville, Florida, but relocated to Houston in 2018. Norman moved for his then-fiance's job, but had little to no expectation for the city.

"I did light research, and realized it was trying to foster an entrepreneurial community, as well as innovation, so I came in with no expectations," he says. "When I got involved with Station Houston, I was blown away by what's being done and what's currently in play. It was a great move. This is where we're going to stay forever."

Pivoting Jellifin
When he started the company, Norman says his goal was to provide investors with a cheaper way to trade options. Originally, the company worked commission free — same way of trading at a reduced price. The company worked that way until 2018, when Jellifiin pivoted toward more of a B-to-B clientele — brokerage firms, trading companies, and trading companies. It became more of a white label company where the brokerages could license the software.

"We realized our core expertise was in the software development itself, and we realize customers like our product, but we saw more opportunity in working with brokerage firms which will then inadvertently disperse our platform toward their customer base," Norman says. "So, in the end, we're still serving the same core customer and the same demographic, but now we figured out a way to target them more effectively at a larger scale."

The pivot was ultimately a good move, but it didn't mean it made things easier for Norman and his team — in fact, the opposite happened.

"Surprisingly, it's increased our workload. When we started working with brokerages, one of the core problems we realized is that they're small, and they don't have the in-house expertise or resources to build their own trading platforms," he says. "Our value proposition to them is that we can be their support."

How it works
The brokerage firms that use Jellifin's services license the trading platform — they agree to a minimum of two years — and they pay a monthly subscription fee.

"It's a volume-based pricing system — the brokerage payment covers what [the individual customer] would pay," Norman explains. "The brokerage pays for the software itself, and whatever sort of arrangement that the user has with the brokerage is up to them."

The current industry norm is $7 per options trade, Norman says, plus the contract fees. An option trade could run you anywhere from $7.50 to over $20 per trade.

"That's a big problem in the industry," he says. "What we've brought to the user base is [the ability to spend] $9.99 per month for unlimited trading. The actual cost per trade is pennies on the dollar, but brokerage firms still mark it up thousands of percent, because the average user doesn't understand what goes on when they click 'Place Trade.'"

Because of this ease of use, the company has attracted millennials — specifically the age range of 28 to 33.

"They invest quite frequently — I wouldn't say they're day traders, but they're very actively invested in the stock market," he says. "They're not a passive investor. They trade on a weekly basis."

Norman says, based on their assessment, that their average user earns an income of anywhere from $70,000 to $120,000 annually.

Weighing the options
The company plans to grow — and is even looking for sales and marketing hires.

"Right now, we're a team of six, and we're all engineers," Norman says. "I would say we're hiring, but for the right positions. … we're looking to grow more organically and not raise huge amounts of capital. We work closely with our partners, and we grow as they grow."

So far, the company has raised just under $500,000 to date, but is planning to raise an amount in the millions of dollars.

"We will be raising a new round hopefully sometime soon, but there's no rush to get to that," Norman says. "For us, personally, our generating capital from the companies we work with."

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Building Houston

 
 

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

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