Ian Sells: StrongVolt

by Courtney Hong

StrongVolt co-founder and CEO Ian Sells, 32, has always wanted to be an entrepreneur. “I just had the motivation to always try new things and to see what I could develop on my own. I’ve been starting businesses since I was a little kid – dog walking services to website design. I would try out any type of business that I thought was profitable. I would just go and give it a shot, never worrying about failing. I always just saw opportunities,” said the Los Angeles native, whose company has developed a proprietary, patent-pending technology for portable solar chargers that it calls the world’s most advanced solar charger.

The idea for the San Diego-based startup began in 2011 during Sells’ trip to China with co-founder Adam Weiler as they searched for new business opportunities. They discovered solar chargers at a giant trade show, saw an opportunity in the industry, and began selling solar chargers for laptops online. Soon, they began to make the chargers smaller to meet their customers’ demand for reliable chargers for smaller devices such as tablets, iPhones, and iPads. “We knew there were problems because smart devices required a constant power source. From that we were able to spend some money and develop our proprietary patented technology.  We hired engineers to help us. We knew what problem we were trying to solve and we found the talent that could help us. The process to develop the technology took about four months.”

The online business began as a part time business for Sells while he was still working in real estate. He had studied finance with an emphasis in real estate at San Diego State University. Before he graduated in 2004, he and two business partners started a real estate investment company to develop single-family homes into college rental properties within walking distance of campus. After four years, they moved on to commercial property in Texas. When Sells moved back to San Diego three years later, he started his own real estate and property management company. When he came upon the solar chargers opportunity in 2011, Sells says “it started to become prevalent that there was an opportunity to take it to the next level.”

In mid 2013, after seeing the potential growth of the business, Sells and Weiler enrolled in a local incubator called San Diego Sport Innovators where they were mentored for six months by CEOs and CFOs of small and medium sized companies. “That pushed us in the right direction to start a company,” said Sells.  

After they developed the SunTrack patent-pending technology, they launched a Kickstarter campaign in February 2014 to put their product out, tell their story, and educate customers. “We were able to reach our goal within 24 hours and ultimately raised over 680 percent of our goals, about $70,000 dollars and we gained 1,000 customers instantly.” Sells attributes the product’s success to its ability to solve the problem of having accessible portable power, particularly while doing outdoor activities and during natural disasters. “By actually creating a product that people need and don’t know about, we were able to accomplish success.” After filing their patent, they hired a patent attorney – who is also an electrical and chemical engineer – to facilitate the company’s process to obtain a patent within a year on the fast track program.

Milestones thus far include StrongVolt’s successful launch and Kickstarter campaign, signing the company’s first nationwide retail distributor and international shipments. “It’s not as easy as it sounds,” said Sells. The most difficult part about starting the company has been the need to change the technology more quickly than the product is being sold. “We’re constantly improving and we’re always coming up with new ideas. We’re always trying to catch up with ourselves. I always say, do it. What’s the worst that could happen? That’s my motto with everything. You have to go through some no’s to get a yes.”

Another challenge that Sells has experienced as a founder and CEO is staying focused, learning to better delegate responsibilities, and finding talent with like-minded goals and lifestyle that will help the company to grow. “What is really going to change our company’s future?” Sells describes his team members as people of high integrity and dedication that like to enjoy life, get out there and do things, do not feel constrained, get the job done, and strive for the best.

The team consists of two full time employees that handle shipping/customer service and graphic design/marketing and a few part time employees. “We like to outsource as much as possible in order to conserve costs and overhead. Hiring specialists at an on-call hourly rate really helps us grow quickly,” said Sells who handles front-end sales, marketing, and product development while Weiler oversees sales, logistics, and customer service.

A typical day for Sells is spent dealing with sales calls and emails, marketing, talking with the media, seeking outside investment from angel investors for the first time, and fueling the company’s growth. Sells spends a lot of time meeting with different people in various industries, getting their help, advice, and networking. “Being connected to the right people makes all the difference in the world.”

In building a global customer base, Sells says providing good customer service and making sure customers are happy has been the key to the company’s success. “We have the best technology, the best team, the best advisors, and a great sales force. The industry is growing rapidly. When we first started, we were one of the only solar charging companies. Now, there are a few. We’re constantly working on our technology and products and making it more efficient.”

Connect with StrongVolt via Facebook and Twitter.

Stephanie Pollaro : iSanctuary

iSanctuary-Stephanie-Pollaro

When International Sanctuary founder and president Stephanie Pollaro, 38, was a child, she wanted to be a mom when she grew up. “I’ve had 16 teenage girls at any given time in my life to be responsible for,” said Pollaro. Founded in 2007, iSanctuary works to rehabilitate girls and young women in India and the U.S. rescued from human trafficking. The non-profit – in partnership with other organizations – has empowered nearly 300 women with skills to pursue futures free from bondage. iSanctuary’s programs provide medical assistance, education, leadership opportunities, employment, and financial stability. According to the iSanctuary website, there are more than 100,000 sexually exploited people in Mumbai, Asia’s largest sex industry center.

Pollaro, who grew up in Orange County, recalls enjoying her previous job that had utilized her background in counseling and student development in higher education. She first found out about human trafficking in 2003 through an article in a friend’s fashion magazine. “It landed on me like a ton of bricks. Once I learned about what was happening in India, I had to do something. I was responsible.” Two weeks later, Pollaro found out about an opportunity to serve for two weeks in India with her church and immediately signed up. “It’s been a roller coaster ride ever since.”

After two short trips to India and one year volunteering with an Indian non-governmental organization, Pollaro saw a need to provide skills training and sustainable employment alternatives for rescued girls. Pollaro set out to find out if the girls living in after care homes in Mumbai would be interested to earn income through making jewelry that would appeal to a Western market. The girls were excited to learn how to make jewelry; Pollaro – who had taught herself how to make jewelry as a hobby – was willing to teach them. Pollaro envisioned each girl having her own bank account where earnings could be directly accessed.

Pollaro says the most difficult part of founding iSanctuary was “getting people to believe we can do it.” She was faced initially with the distrust of the girls she was trying to help and the mentality that foreigners will ultimately leave and never return.

“You can’t make promises to these girls you can’t keep. You can’t run this business in your comfortable home in America. You have to be here on the ground and make things happen. My advice for those who want to start something in a foreign country is, don’t do it unless you’re able to give everything you can possibly give and then more. The best of intentions can cause a lot of hurt,” said Pollaro.

Pollaro moved to Mumbai a year before founding iSanctuary in 2007 with co-founder Wendy Dailey. Dailey, whom Pollaro met during her second short trip to India, oversees iSanctuary’s U.S. operations. “I had no intention to spend the last eight years in India,” said Pollaro. “Once I heard the need, I couldn’t say no to it. You have to be willing to give up everything – the chance at having a normal life, family, and marriage.”

The best part of Pollaro’s job has been doing life with her girls in Mumbai. “There’s always a lot of crying and reprimanding in loving ways. Taking a hard situation and making it enjoyable is something I feel really makes a difference. I love helping women see that they can be more than what they think they can be.”

Since March, Pollaro has transitioned to iSanctuary’s Irvine office full time to allow the Mumbai team to take the lead on the ground. A typical day in the Irvine and Mumbai offices similarly deal with troubleshooting and ensuring both teams are on the same page. “The only thing I don’t get to do is sit with the Mumbai girls and come up with designs. That part I do miss,” said Pollaro.

On what success looks like, Pollaro repeats the advice a stranger had given her six years ago: “You have to measure tiny increments of success.”

Recently, iSanctuary hosted a wedding in Mumbai for one of its women. “One of our ladies told me that this was just like a real wedding. To me, that felt like a real success. I was able to meet their expectations for what normal is, and do it within our organization so we were able to bring dignity and joy, and not have any inkling of exploitation.”

iSanctuary has given over $120,000 in the form of paychecks to the women it employs. Employees in India are paid more than double the fair trade wage. “It was always my goal to be a self-funded non-profit. 70 percent of revenue comes from jewelry sales. We still can’t do everything we want to do. We need to make up the deficit with donations. We’re hoping to get some grants in the future,” said Pollaro.

Other future plans include providing high quality education for iSanctuary’s women. “They don’t have a concept of returning to school at an older age. We’ll have to do a lot of fundraising for that. We have some things to work through, so that we won’t break promises.”

Pollaro’s top recommended resources for startups:

  • Materials by Patrick Lencioni to keep your business focused and organized
  • StrengthsFinder for team building
  • Get a mentor or consultant to bounce ideas with, look from an outside perspective, and be critical so you can improve your business.

Connect with iSanctuary via Facebook and Twitter.

Tyler Patterson : Povertees

Povertees-Tyler-Patterson

Long before he became founder and CEO of Povertees, Tyler Patterson, 24, often felt like an outsider. During a high school biology class, his teacher called him out for a good test grade and asked what he did to study. In a high pitched voice from his seat at the back of the classroom, Patterson said, “I took good notes.” A senior football player from the front of the class turned around and yelled, “He hasn’t gone through puberty yet,” as the class burst into laughter. “In retrospect, I find that story to be really funny, but it’s not funny as a socially awkward kid. I have countless stories like that,” said Patterson. Later as a college student, Patterson and a few friends he knew from high school frequently dialogued about what makes life meaningful. “To us that meant community and companionship. We were focused on treating people with respect and making a difficult life a little more bearable,” said Patterson. Povertees – a non-profit that sells clothing to help homeless friends in downtown Los Angeles to get out of the cycle of poverty – began out of these dialogues.

In 2007, Patterson and his friends decided to walk through the streets a few blocks away from Skid Row in downtown LA to pass out food to people. “Fortunately, we met some people who were welcoming and happy to talk to us,” said Patterson. The next day as it rained, they returned to pass out donated jackets and umbrellas to the same people. “We hung out with them for a long time. We still hang out with them.”

The downtown LA visits took place about once a week for several years in the midst of school and other jobs. As Patterson’s group got to know their new friends – about 20 to 30 people – they discovered practical needs they could meet, such as DMV, court, and bus fees, as well as prevalent jay walking tickets. During college at Hope University in Fullerton, Patterson and friend Matt Donahue began to sew t-shirts in their dorm rooms to sell on campus. Donahue, who named the t-shirt endeavor Povertees, had taught Patterson how to sew in high school. The proceeds from t-shirt sales directly helped their friends in downtown LA. Currently, 20 percent of Povertees’ profit goes toward outreach – 10 percent toward caring for provisional needs and 10 percent toward sponsoring a rehabilitation program at The Midnight Mission.

Patterson had what he calls one of several existential crises after he graduated suma cum laude. He questioned his decision to go to graduate school for experimental psychology research. “I was trying to figure out exactly what was going to be the right career for me in terms of my interests and skills and make me not miserable.

It’s a big decision for everyone. A lot of people going to college aren’t ready to make that decision. I was one of them,” said Patterson.

A week before he was to start his graduate program in 2011, Patterson dropped out in order to focus on Povertees full time while earning income through two side jobs. Povertees officially became a non-profit in March 2013. Since then, Patterson and college friend Hughie Hughes – Povertees president – has worked full time alongside volunteers and interns.

“If I were speaking to my younger self, I would ask, ‘Are you willing to receive a minimal salary for difficult work? Are you willing to have a career you can never really escape from psychologically or do you want a job that allows you to go home at night and decompress without thinking about it?’ If I had to answer those again, I know I would end up doing it,” said Patterson.

Patterson envisions Povertees’ mission growing beyond downtown LA. “We’re learning what it means to create a community built upon our premise of life sewn together. That involves working with art community groups, missions, and partner organizations to build a communal aspect into the recovery process. As we expand, we’re looking to other cities for potential Povertees chapters, but we know that each city presents a new context for the issue of homelessness.”

Patterson shares a story about one of Povertees’ formerly homeless friends with whom they frequently spent time. Their friend often returns to the same streets to spend time with those who continue to experience addiction, mental stress, and lack hope. “He truly is so grateful and feels so impacted by the relationship we’ve had. He’s the template for what we want in terms of the idea of creating a cycle of reciprocal giving to fight against the cycle of poverty.” Povertees’ goal is to begin employing formerly homeless people by the end of the year. “It’s definitely a complex issue. We’re not rushing into it. We’re trying to make sure we’re informed,” said Patterson.

A few pieces of key advice Patterson shared:

• Ask for the opinion and expertise of other companies and organizations that are ahead of you in terms of business development. Use your humble position to your advantage. Make it your strength rather than your weakness.

• On cultivating great communication with team members: Communicate both the positive and negative aspects of the way you’re feeling or the jobs you’re doing.

• On building a strong team: When people are feeling overwhelmed with work, you need to step up and support them and see how you can help alleviate some of those issues.

• Create a culture that values its employees and volunteers and is conscious of how it affects people and other organizations. Stand for something that brings value and meaning to the world.

Connect with Povertees on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

BitLit CEO and Co-founder on the grind of entrepreneurship

BitLit began when CEO and Co-founder Peter Hudson, 33, had an argument about a book with a friend in June 2012. The friend, Dan Allard – one of BitLit’s investors who is on the board of directors – said, “I wish I had the e-book with me right now so I can show you the page.” His comment launched Hudson and Allard on a search to find out if a solution existed that allowed publishers to offer readers print book and e-book bundling. “The elation when we got on Google and couldn’t find the solution was even bigger than the moment we had the idea. If we could figure out a way to do this and patent it, this could be really big,” recalls Hudson who says he did not sleep properly for two weeks. At the time, Hudson was a founder and full-time executive at water monitoring and analysis software company Aquatics Informatics. He was in the process of preparing for the company’s biggest sale that would be negotiated in 10 days. In two weeks, Hudson and Allard figured out a solution and filed a patent for BitLit, an app that offers users free or discounted e-books of print books they own. Through cutting edge computer vision, the app validates users’ ownership of print books. Four months later, Hudson amiably left his nine-year post with AI to launch Vancouver-based BitLit in December 2012. “Founding a company is super easy. The hard part is what you do after that,” said Hudson.

Hudson says the hardest part about launching BitLit was reaching out to publishers. “The first 29 days were brutal. After 29 days, I got one publisher, ChiZine Publications, who said that sounds like an interesting idea.” While Hudson’s strength lies in pounding pavement, BitLit’s co-founder/CTO Marius Muja’s strength is in technical skills. Hudson and Muja had met through a mutual friend at mountaineering club. At the advice of Hudson’s former colleague at AI, they hired a lawyer to draft a contract to offer bundled e-books to publishers. "Some things were really easy. A lot of people would say the hard part is fundraising. We've had help along the way. We got quite a lot of National Research Council's Industrial Research Assistance Program money," said Hudson, on the financial support the government of Canada provides to qualified businesses. The company closed in May a seed-funding round in an undisclosed amount. Investors included BDC Venture Capital, Mike Volker of WUTIF Capital, super angel Jim Fletcher, and Three Angels Capital, the venture fund launched this year by Michael Serbinis, the founder and former CEO of Kobo. Currently, BitLit has contracts with nearly 100 publishers, offers close to 20,000 e-books, and has thousands of active users in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.

Although BitLit has received substantial support, the company has experienced its share of criticism. “You’ve got to be motivated when people tell you no,” said Hudson. The Vancouver Island native recalls being in the second final round of the New Ventures BC competition that gives early-stage tech entrepreneurs education and mentorship. After reading BitLit's eight-page company blurb, one of the judges wrote as feedback, "Nothing other than I don't get it." Hudson remembers thinking, "I’m going to frame that. When we have a billion dollar IPO and I find out who that guy was, I'm going to hand him that framed copy."

Hudson’s doggedness as an entrepreneur began when he started his first company as a 16-year-old. Hudson had spent summers pulling weeds at an asparagus farm next door to his family’s Vancouver Island sheep farm. He learned to write HTML through attending a science and entrepreneur camp. Hudson decided to try his hand at building websites and reached out to a nearby law firm and high tech hardware company. “That was a lesson in cold calling and what to do next when there’s actually interest,” said Hudson, who earned $400 per website he created that summer.

Hudson’s undergraduate engineering physics program at the University of British Columbia included a co-op in Sweden where he worked for giant multi-national company Westinghouse. Although he appreciated the experience, Hudson realized he wasn’t interested to work for a big company. “I wasn’t making an incremental difference.” Through his time with Aquatics Informatics, Hudson gained experience in grinding – the other half of being an entrepreneur that Hudson says includes cold calling, attending conferences, networking, and working on weekends.

As a founder, Hudson discovered the critical component of team culture when he and Muja made a couple of hiring mistakes in the early days of BitLit. “It’s hard to bring someone on and have to let them go,” said Hudson. Since then, the founders have built a talented team of experts that respect each other and have a beer together every Friday.

An integral growth opportunity the BitLit team had was a three-month cohort with accelerator GrowLab. Takeaways included getting detailed feedback from VCs and angels and learning how to communicate well with VCs. Hudson emphasized the importance of knowing when to take feedback into consideration. “You can get mentor whiplash or mentor fatigue. Sometimes you've got to listen. Sometimes you don't. Someone who's spent five minutes thinking about your business isn't necessarily going to tell you the brilliant insight of how you need to pivot, change your team, or how much more or less money you need to be raising,” said Hudson.

The same goes for startup blogs, a resource that Hudson recommends. “You need to know when to listen to the blogs out there and when you need to ignore them and go with your own feeling of what's right." Startup blogs that Hudson has found helpful include Version One Ventures (his mentor Boris Wertz’s blog), Feld Thoughts, Steve Blank, and Union Square Ventures. Hudson also recommends Managing Startups: Best Blog Posts, a book published by one of BitLit’s partner publishers. “If you own the physical copy of the book, you get the e-book through us.”

What’s ahead for BitLit is content – finalizing contracts with more publishers so that additional e-book titles will be available for BitLit users and making the discovery of available e-books easier for users. "In the end, it's about serving your customer and loving your customer," said Hudson.

The BitLit app is available for free through the App Store and Google Play store. The ebooks can be read on the following devices: Kobo, Nook, Kindle, and iPad.
 

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