We check in with last year’s Miami Herald Business Plan FIU Track winners, who have sage advice from the startup trenches.
If the cost of healthcare is making you sick, ValueDOC, a free online health and wellness marketplace in development, has a treatment. But launching the platform to launch has taken more time than expected.
ValueDOC, founded by Alain Fernandez, is envisioned as a platform to connect cash-paying patients with transparency at the core. The uninsured who want to book an appointment for a general physical, a mammogram or a general cleaning, for example, would be able to see what doctors and dentists in their area will charge and also see ratings by consumers. In exchange for offering discounted rates to self-payers, doctors would be paid at the time of booking, instead of waiting months for payments from insurance companies.
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Entering and then winning the Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge FIU Track last year encouraged Fernandez to jump-start his business idea.
Since then, he and his team have been on-boarding doctors in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, and Fernandez said he is planning to launch in South Florida this spring. He and his team have grown the platform from about 38 doctors and dentists last year to more than 120, and the goal is to have about 300 by the time of launch, when the full website, ValueDOC.com, will be unveiled, said Fernandez, a managed-care executive who has worked for 25 years in the healthcare industry.
Don’t fall in love with your initial solution to fix the problem you’re addressing. The solution sometimes takes turns and evolves into what it was meant to be.
Alain Fernandez, ValueDoc
With the likelihood of Obamacare being dismantled and questions about what a replacement may be, doctors have been asking more questions about what will happen to the patients, Fernandez said. “We are telling them, ‘We are really not sure but if they do lose coverage and by you being part of ValueDOC it allows you to give them great care ... and it’s better for you because you get guaranteed payment upfront.’ It’s a streamlined process for the doctor.”
ValueDOC brought on a branding expert to oversee its marketing strategy as well as two doctor-relationship managers to assist in recruiting doctors and dentists and spreading the word about the service. Fernandez’s wife, Paola, handles operations.
So far, ValueDOC has been bootstrapped with $60,000 in savings and friends and family funding. The startup also won a $25,000 no-interest loan and mentorship by winning a first-place American Entrepreneurship Award from the Libra Foundation. ValueDOC hopes to open discussions with angel investors after its launch, for funding to execute expansion into Orlando, Tampa and North Florida.
Fernandez’s advice for Business Plan Challenge contestants: “Don’t fall in love with your initial solution to fix the problem you’re addressing. The solution sometimes takes turns and evolves into what it was meant to be.”
Aydin Bonabi, a young lawyer, wants to make it much easier for lawyers and potential clients to connect. His idea: Jurbid, a legal services marketplace.
Through Jurbid, consumers post their cases on Jurbid’s secure platform for free. Vetted, qualified lawyers in the network respond with proposals that consumers can review and compare. The process streamlines the search for a lawyer, provides transparency, introduces competition, and also reduces the intimidation factor of reaching out to lawyers. It makes money in proposal fees it charges lawyers.
As a Public Benefit Corporation, Jurbid was started to to ensure that those in need of legal services have a convenient and affordable way to find a lawyer, said Bonabi, Jurbid’s CEO. “For too long, the legal market has been inaccessible and the net result is that people are wrongfully convicted, lose their livelihood and face an overbearing amount of stress, which impacts other facets of their lives.”
Jurbid, with a team of four split between Miami and New York, launched in June after testing the service in New York and Miami, but hit some bumps. It worked through those and went nationwide in November. It now features a network of more than 200 lawyers, Bonabi said. Jurbid plans to launch a new version of its website next month, he said. Last year, it placed second in the Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge.
For too long, the legal market has been inaccessible and the net result is that people are wrongfully convicted, lose their livelihood and face an overbearing amount of stress, which impacts other facets of their lives.
Aydin Bonabi, Jurbid
“Another accomplishment we are proud of is that the average years of experience of lawyers in our network is close to 15 years,” Bonabi said. “We were diligent in targeting seasoned lawyers.”
Bonabi thought most of the requests would be employment-related cases, business contract drafting and contract dispute work, and Jurbid does get those kinds of cases, as well as personal injury cases. “But to our surprise, we received a lot of requests for criminal representation. We had to pivot a bit to target criminal lawyers.” Each case is reviewed by Jurbid before being put on the platform.
“Just with any other startup the challenges are countless,” Bonabi said. “Generally, we planned on using 2016 as a learning experience. We dedicated a lot of resources to better understand lawyer and client behavior with the platform. We also studied expectations both parties have and are looking forward to releasing a second version of our platform to address their needs. For instance, some clients had difficulties understanding proposals lawyers submit. The second [software] release will further improve the facilitation of communication between a client and lawyers. Additionally, we are rolling out with additional features for lawyers to improve their experience with us.”
This year, Jurbid’s focus will be on marketing, Bonabi said. “The power of choosing a lawyer and knowing the price with a few clicks is an incredible value proposition. ... The greatest hurdle we will face in 2017, however, will be to make consistent revenues and aim for the company to fund itself.”
Bonabi’s advice for contestants: “Patience. Persistence. Perseverance.”
International e-commerce is complicated and SkyBOX Checkout has a fix for that.
SkyBOX Checkout is an international e-commerce checkout platform that helps international customers pay for and receive merchandise. It is accessed by adding a plug-in to retailers’ websites. Last year, SkyBOX Checkout placed third in the Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge.
“We’ve worked on publishing new plug-ins for SkyBOX Checkout on Magento and Shopify. We’ve expanded local payment offerings and local logistic services to the destinations we support and we’ve strengthened our network internally with our sister company, SkyNET, to better optimize the international shipping and offer even more competitive shipping rates to our clients,” said Taylor Philippi, sales and marketing director. “We’ve had interest from the industry to white-label the technology.”
One feature SkyBOX Checkout has started to highlight as an add-on product is the option to utilize its sister company SkyNET’s SIMS inventory management system because the company found many clients are interested in outsourcing all of their international business to SkyBOX Checkout including the inventory management component.
Believe in your core product but don’t be afraid to listen to your customers. They are the ultimate users and best advocates of your business.
Taylor Philippi, SkyBOX Checkout
The weakening of global trade as well as the growth and presence of large retailers like Amazon in international markets have been challenges in the past year.
“It’s been challenging to compete with corporations that have such a large budget and staff to participate in trade shows, and other paid marketing initiatives. We’ve had to be much more selective in what we wanted to invest in terms of paid marketing than some of our competitors,” Philippi said. “We’re confident that our strength lies in our personal relationships with our clients and our 40-year history as a logistics organization with sister companies SkyBOX and SkyNET,” Philippi said.
SkyBOX Checkout, now a team of 10, is continuing to add new clients. It is creating more plug-ins/apps with add-on capabilities such as inventory management and fulfillment for e-commerce platforms, and in 2017, the company will be opening a new fulfillment hub on the West Coast.
Philippi’s advice for Challenge contestants: “Believe in your core product but don’t be afraid to listen to your customers. They are the ultimate users and best advocates of your business. Customers can offer great insights into new features or enhancements to the product that will help you succeed as you go to market.”
Apparently dogs give this product two paws up.
Pooch Perks, a subscription dog box startup founded by Tina Vidal, tripled its revenue last year and is on track to double this year. “December was so big we had to reorder three different times to get enough product to fulfill our orders,” she said. But this dog lover (Vidal has six rescue dogs) faces hefty competition and sees future growth coming from a new B2B segment.
“We are providing dog boxes to the W Brand Hotels worldwide. We also just recently won a contract with a dog-friendly hotel in Key West,” she said. “We are presently looking at two new hotel brands to work with, and we are getting more into the private label side as well.”
A portion of every Pooch Perks purchase goes to organizations that rescue abused or neglected dogs.
Responding to customer feedback and to better compete in a crowded marketplace, Pooch Perks is adding much more customization to its boxes and has brought prices down. Pooch Perks is relaunching its website this month and now offers boxes of four to five treats, toys and accessories. The boxes can range from $11.95 to $35.95 depending on the customer’s choices. Also available are all-treat or all-toy boxes.
To keep it fun, the monthly boxes are themed, such as a popular alien invasion in July and “50 Shades of Ruff” coming out in February.
Pooch Perks, part of the hot “pet-tech” sector, is launching an upgraded version of its e-commerce website this month. Vidal has three graphic designers, two coders and an operations specialists, most of them interns from Florida International University, working with her. Pooch Perks, winner of the Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge People’s Pick, is bootstrapped; Vidal plans to seek funding once Pooch Perks has hit more milestones.
“Time always seems to be our biggest challenge — finding enough time to get everything that needs to get done done,” said Vidal, who formerly did corporate turnarounds in the finance world. A portion of every purchase goes to organizations that rescue abused or neglected dogs, including Ralph’s Place,which has a vision to build a sanctuary for the worst cases of abuse and neglect.
Vidal’s advice for Challenge contestants: “Focus on how your idea will change the marketplace and what potential competition you may have.”
Note: Tina Vidal will be speaking at the Business Plan Bootcamp Feb. 28. More info is here.