This past year, i’ve had the great privilege of writing about five entrepreneurs. I interviewed each of them at a critical moment in the life of his or her startup – rather easy to do, actually, as practically every moment in a seed-stage venture is critical. In this, my final column, I’m returning to them to see how their decisions shine in hindsight’s glare. Much to my delight, not only do all five companies still exist, but their founders report that they are thriving. Such assurances may, in part, reflect the necessarily optimistic outlook shared by all those who start companies. But as my old business partner, Jeet Singh, used to say, half of winning the battle is showing up to the fight.
Bill Zebuhr, founder of Ovation Products, fervently believes that millions of kilometers of water mains and sewer pipes will someday be replaced by his Clean Water Appliances, humming away in basements – and in remote villages that now lack clean water – and efficiently transforming wastewater into pure drinkable water. When I wrote about Ovation last December, Zebuhr had exactly one “alpha” unit working and was trying to raise the necessary financing for the next version.
Fortunately, Zebuhr was able to close on $1.4 million in angel investment, which allowed him to create a “beta” model that boosted output from 45 to 75 liters of clean water per hour and dropped production costs from the $50,000 range down to less than $10,000. Now he’s back out on the fund-raising trail, this time hoping to raise four or five million – enough to tool up for real production.
When I spoke to the founder of SwapitShop, Jonathan Attwood, for the March issue, his plan to create a universal currency for children was in danger of failing to reach a critical mass of recognition and credibility. Product manufacturers use Attwood’s “Swapits,” which are redeemable for toys and other goodies on SwapitShop’s eBay-like website, as incentives for children to buy their goods. But without enough children demanding Swapits or enough manufacturers buying and distributing them, the currency and company could slip into fatal obscurity.
Attwood happily reports that he’s increased Swapit sales to the point where the company is profitable and he is planning to double his staff. “Last year, if someone offered us £100 to sweep the street, we’d have taken it,” laughs Attwood. “Now we can finally start thinking about how to strategically grow our business.”