Startups in the spotlight at Startup Zoo

Any good ecosystem has a community. The tech ecosystem in Kalamazoo became a little more robust this week with the addition of a way to shine a light on local emerging startups.

The first Startup Zoo Spotlight, sponsored by a group of entrepreneurs working to make sure Kalamazoo is part of the burgeoning tech growth that's been happening in Michigan in recent years, took place June 17 in the headquarters of Southwest Michigan First.

Ryan Goins, one of the co-founders of Startup Zoo, told the group gathered that Startup Zoo Spotlight was a way to let the community know about the tech advancements that are happening locally.

Startup Zoo was formed to help entrepreneurs in the area connect with one another and learn from one another. As the tech community has grown through regular meetups and other events, the participants are learning from one another.

Now they want the larger community to find out what all the excitement is about.

The first Startup Zoo Spotlight featured four early-stage startups: Joe Armstrong of Sportech Labs, Andy Peninger of Chalq, Kori Jock of La Vie en Orange, and Dan Jeffries of HappyGraph.

Armstrong talked about growing TrakGear, a new way for athletic departments to keep track of the equipment they distribute, into a company recently acquired by  8to18 Inc. Armstrong says the company got its start when he realized the need to streamline the way athletic departments keep track of athletic gear. Many still use Excel spread sheets, he says.

The company launched at a national conference and Armstrong quickly found, "I suck at sales." He brought on Todd Owen and the company began signing up schools who wanted to use its software service.

Purchasing by large universities can be a fairly long process, but the two persisted and got their first sale from Colorado State. "It really took a lot of talking with them and finding a person who wanted to try something new because they were unhappy with what they had used the previous year."


The two began to look at the possibility of getting seed investment money for the company when they received their first acquisition offer. Further investigation showed them that the timing was not right to start a round of seed investment. Then 8to18 came back with a different offer.

Ultimately, the decision was made to join 8to18 and a strategic partnership formed in February 2014, two years after the company launched. It is poised to help manage the inventory of athletic departments from high school through professional teams.

Armstrong says two of the lessons he learned is that "timing matters" and "don't try to do it alone." He's also learned "acquisition is stressful."  The back and forth between lawyers and the time consumed by the process were part of the stress of the deal.

Now Armstrong is moving to Chicago to work with 8to18, but says when he is ready to start his next company he will come back to Kalamazoo to do it.

Peninger described Chalq, the app he is developing that people will be able to use to see what is trending locally. Current social media are good at dealing with a global audience, but not the local scene. Another social network problem is that small businesses don't know what to post or who to post to. Chalq will help in both areas, Peninger says.

The first build of the app has just come together and Beta testing is now under way. For more about Chalq, please check out this story in Second Wave.

For Kori Jock, making your own underwear is a family tradition. She's been making her own since 2005. Now her company that turns old T-shirts into handmade underwear is growing. It's growing here because she and her husband decided to move to Kalamazoo from Seattle to take advantage of the less expensive lifestyle the area offers.

Jock's high energy and story of her underwear business fascinated the crowd. Read more about her business in Second Wave in July.

Dan Jeffries has been studying the research on what it takes to be happy and work. Now he's taking that information and turning it into an app that will help people keep track of what makes them happy and encourage them to do more of those things.

The app, HappyGraph, is focused on happiness at work. People have found that working harder does not lead to happiness. The expected happiness doesn't come with money or success either. Jeffries explained that as soon as success is within one's reach, the mind resets the goal, so that it is once again beyond us. "We never get there," Jeffries says. "As we go toward the horizon we set a new goal without even realizing it."

Those who have learned to be happy have learned to be happy where they are (rather than anticipating happiness at some future point).

The goal is to make a product that is as easy to use as it is to like something on Facebook. So the app is connected to a your calendar and you rate activities with one of three faces: happy, neither happy or unhappy (a meh face), or unhappy. The ratings for activity are compiled and used to plan future weeks so that if possible you can schedule more of those activities that make you happy.

Jeffries says the HappyGraph is in the early stages of development. As development proceeds he hopes to build in happiness triggers that will encourage acts of gratitude and kindness, meditation, exercise and sleep--activities happy people engage in, research shows.

Building happiness and therefore productivity at work is the goal.

"Happiness at work is what I understand," Jeffries says.

Each of the presenters answered questions from those in attendance and afterward snacked on crackers and cheese and sipped beverages with other entrepreneurs.

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.

More Startup Zoo events can be found here.  

 
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