Business Plan Challenge

All systems go, but validating concept, gaining traction come first

Room2Care founders Todd Florin, left, and Richard Ashenoff launched a cost-sharing senior home-care service. Edith Leake is a customer.
Room2Care founders Todd Florin, left, and Richard Ashenoff launched a cost-sharing senior home-care service. Edith Leake is a customer. Courtesy of Room2Care

ROOM2CARE

Seeing a void in the market for reliable, affordable homecare, Todd Florin and Richard Ashenoff set out to change that.

Room2Care connects seniors with those who can provide them care or services. Operating in the so-called sharing economy, Room2Care hosts list a space in their homes to offer basic care and supervision for a fee. Seniors can then select which services they need and pay for each of them individually, enabling them to save money. They also have the option to provide a room in their house to the caregiver free of cost. “It’s a win-win for everybody,” said Florin, a physician.

Room2Care, which launched in December 2014, also benefits part-time or retired nurses, home-care employees or nurse assistants looking for extra cash. Both the caregivers and seniors go through thorough background checks. The cost-sharing senior home care service was the Challenge Champion and first-place winner of the Business Plan Challenge FIU Track.

“Our biggest milestone really rests with the extraordinary quality of the people that we have been able to find to serve as caregivers for seniors,” Florin said. “The light of God shines through these people.”

The team remains focused on South Florida, where it has 400 caregivers signed on to its platform, and it has added Jacksonville as another market. As to features, it recently added RoomAide for shared living aides — young people who live in seniors’ homes and assist them.

Still, as Room2Care tries to introduce a new concept in a traditional industry, acceptance has continued to be its biggest challenge.

“Everything is locked into the standard breakdown. Major organizations do not want to deviate from organizations that are licensed with Medicaid and, in order to be one, you must fit one of the previously accepted criteria — home health, assisted living, nursing home. Since we are none of these, third-party payers are very reluctant to deal with us,” Florin said.

With customer acquisition costs running much too high for this startup, Room2Care has been trying to hire seniors as sales reps to spread the word, calling it Rep2Care. “We need them to evangelize for us,” he said. “Selling to seniors has been much harder than I thought it would be.”

Room2Care is also negotiating with AARP on a pilot project, which could go a long way toward validating the concept, Florin believes. “We need the large scale validation in order to bring on the next level of funding and growth.”

And if a door shuts, entrepreneurs always look for a back window in. Europe seems more open to the concept, Florin said. To that end, Room2Care in the past few months has created a London-based subsidiary and has begun the process for receiving European Union funding to develop the area of shared senior living in Europe. It has also fielded inquiries from groups in India and China and Latin America.

Room2Care was named one of the most innovative startups in healthcare by PM 360, a trade publication, and has been a member of the Startup Health digital health incubator program based in New York. It is a finalist in the Global Urban Innovators contest hosted by the New Cities Foundation, and will compete and exhibit at SUP-X: The Startup Expo next week in Fort Lauderdale.

The company has been looking for a chief technology officer but has not yet found the right fit. It is also on the lookout for senior advisors in the healthcare industry.

Room2Care’s advice to contestants entering the Challenge: “Try to present your vision as clearly as possible. ‘Realistic boldness’ would be my catch phrase,” Florin said.

WUELTO

Frustrated by their own experiences in the online-retail world as sellers on Latin America’s largest e-commerce site, Venezuelan cousins Alejandro Gómez and Gerson Gómez Arellano launched Wuelto.com to give small businesses in Latin America more visibility online.

Wuelto allows businesses to build their online brands through customizing their profiles in this social online mall. “It’s a social network for commerce; you can follow stores and interact with friends while you shop. Everything featured on the site you can buy,” co-founder Alejandro Gómez said.

For the Wuelto team, second-place winners in the Business Plan Challenge, success is in the numbers.

The Wuelto site, which launched in February 2015, had 3,000 members by April. Not bad. But now? More than 70,000 registered users.

The Wuelto site, which launched in February 2015, had 3,000 members by April. Not bad. But now? More than 70,000 registered users.

Today it has more than 200 stores selling on its platform, up from 15 to 20 when it launched. In addition, the co-founders launched iOS and Android apps and raised their first $100,000 from angel investors. Today, Wuelto has more than 30 members on its team, four times the size of a year ago, as it has brought technology development in house, rather than relying on outsourced development.

Wuelto, located at the Miami Entrepreneurship Center in downtown Miami, originally launched in nine Latin American countries. It was too much, too soon: It scaled back to Venezuela, and late last year, added Colombia as well as affiliate sales in the U.S. “We learned we were spreading ourselves too thin,” Gómez said.

Wuelto launched iOS and Android apps in the fall. To get the word out, it has been using Facebook ads and social media, and the company partners with social media influencers. Instagram in particular proved fruitful. The company recently formed an alliance with PepsiCo in Venezuela, where Wuelto gift cards are part of Pepsi’s employee incentive program.

In December, the team went all-in on marketing with a big campaign in which customers could create a wish list for the holiday gift season. Wuelto also added a new “group gift” feature, so customers could easily organize a larger gift involving multiple family members or friends for any occasion. The company closed the year with 700 transactions — about half of those in December.

This year, Wuelto plans to focus on building up Colombia, a relatively new market for it, and build up to at least 500 stores. It also plans to launch in Chile.

Wuelto’s advice for this year’s entrants: “Be open to feedback and new ideas, and focus on developing and mastering your concept before you start growing too fast and spreading yourself too thin,” Gómez said.

SENZU FOODS

This team was truly passionate about their concept — even willing to eat bugs in the name of entrepreneurship.

The trio of then-Florida International University students — Nicolexander Garza, Valerie Yoda and Ricardo Delgado — set out to make insects a staple of the American diet. In the spirit of entrepreneurship, they whipped up some creations and offered them to the Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge judges.

The cookies were tasty, but the Challenge judges gave higher ratings for their plan on bringing the insect-based food product company to market. The team, which won third place in the Challenge FIU Track, said the U.S. is quite behind in the trend when it comes to entomophagy, or insect consumption. More than 80 percent of the world already consumes insects, which are a rich source of protein, according to their research.

Insect-based foods make sense for environmental and food safety reasons, too, the team said. Insects are less difficult to keep, requiring a fraction of the land, water and feed compared to traditional protein sources.

Yet, Senzu Foods might still be ahead of the trend in the U.S. The team attempted a Kickstarter campaign in the summer, but it didn’t gain enough traction. It seems as this concept has not yet gotten off the ground, but attempts to reach the team were unsuccessful. If we hear from them, we will report back.

The Senzu Foods team had the ingredients for a good idea, with a heaping helping of entrepreneurial passion thrown in.

COURT BUDDY

Court Buddy has been marching across the nation.

The online service matching consumers with attorneys for à la carte services such as family law, misdemeanor offenses, bankruptcies and small claims, launched in South Florida just before it won the People’s Pick in the Business Plan Challenge FIU Track last year. Today it has 260 attorneys using CourtBuddy.com and about 1,000 total members, CEO James Jones Jr. said.

Based on response to demand in July, Court Buddy expanded into six more states and Washington, D.C. By December, it added seven more states. California, Florida and New York are the company’s biggest markets.

“We helped hundreds of people and small businesses save thousands of dollars in legal fees by matching them with attorneys based on their budget, and helped hundreds of attorneys get matched with new clients to grow their practice,” said Jones, who founded Court Buddy with his wife, Kristina. “The way our platform is designed, we can scale to other states in response to demand.”

But it wasn’t as smooth a year ago: “It takes a while to get the traction; we were overly optimistic in our plan,” Jones said. In response to what its customers told them, James and Kristina tweaked their pricing model to get more attorneys using the platform.

Hearing from attorneys that they wanted to see if the matching service works before committing to monthly fees, Court Buddy introduced a pay-per-match model, in which attorneys can pay $39 a match rather than a monthly fee that includes matches. It’s now the most popular attorney membership, and some have since upgraded to regular monthly memberships, which run $79 (basic) and $149 (premium).

“It’s a great introductory membership since the attorneys weren’t very familiar with Court Buddy,” said Kristina Jones. “With this, they can test it out, and once they see matches, it becomes more cost-effective to switch to the monthly membership.”

Similarly, the company also introduced a free “limited matches” membership plan to consumers and small businesses, with the option to upgrade to a paid membership plan.

Because of a nationwide shortage of positions for law graduates, about 90 percent of the attorneys on Court Buddy’s platform are solo practitioners. Court Buddy has features in place to help the attorneys market their services and build up independent businesses.

The team, now a team of 10 including part-time contractors, has put fund-raising on hold as it continues to work on building up revenue first. But exposure and potential prize money wouldn’t hurt: Court Buddy will compete as a finalist for a $25,000 prize in a PowerMoves pitch competition in Miami next week.

We knew that there was a need for this service, but in hearing the stories over and over again we are reassured our company is really helping people. It keeps us moving forward.

Kristina Jones, co-founder of Court Buddy

“We knew that there was a need for this service, but in hearing the stories over and over again, we are reassured our company is really helping people,” said Kristina Jones. “It keeps us moving forward.”

Court Buddy’s advice to contestants: “People were able to live, breathe and function before your business existed, so focus on creating so much value in people’s lives that they can’t imagine life without the product or service that you offer,” James Jones said.

Jackie Salo contributed to this report.

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