Finding ways to deliver valuable products to companies is what gets iValu8 Co-Founder and CEO Andrew Fox out of bed in the morning. Fox has a long history in the startup world, beginning when he left IBM to join Seattle-based RealNetworks and got hooked on the pace of startup life.
Once he came back to the Triangle in the early 2000s, Fox founded several businesses in the mobile app space. But leading up to 2013, Fox was grappling with a new question: how could he make marketing technology useful for small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs)?
That’s what sparked Chapel Hill-based iValu8 and the startup’s eventual pivot to its current primary product, VivaSpot. Fox will be presenting at CED’s Venture Connect conference on April 7 in RTP.
Initially, iValu8 raised about $750K to build a marketing platform with the goal of enabling restaurant owners to create engagement campaigns through social media. But after a few years of attempting to sell the product to customers, the platform had received little traction.
“The big issue was the fact that you just really can’t sell a platform to a small-or medium-sized business,” Fox said. “That’s not what they want. So we had to take another look at what we’re doing. How do we create something that would be very turnkey for these businesses that they can just literally deploy it and it would start to work?”
After realizing the market was looking for something else, iValu8 could have decided to fold up shop—or they could decide to take the leap and pivot into what the market was actually looking for, Fox said.
The decision was to pivot. After a number of conversations with Cisco, iValu8 decided in 2016 to partner with the company and integrate what they built with Cisco’s Wi-Fi devices. That’s how VivaSpot was born. It’s essentially a marketing platform that runs entirely through a business’s Wi-Fi device.
The businesses can collect information from customers who use their Wi-Fi and automatically engage them with follow up emails, coupons and other business campaigns.
Fox said there’s nothing better than the product in the marketplace in terms of value proposition. Businesses can start with just a $19-a-month subscription to capture their customers’ emails when they connect to Wi-Fi. With the more expensive subscriptions, businesses can capture foot traffic and also integrate this information with services like Mailchimp to automate revenue-driving campaigns.
The price works since most SMBs don’t have the capital to spend on many of the other marketing solutions out there. Loyalty apps are expensive but not very efficient, Fox said. Similarly, traditional email, social media and text marketing can cost too much money and are too time-intensive for a traditional small business owner who is focused on day-to-day operations.
“These are entrepreneurs themselves, and they usually invest their life savings to build these businesses,” Fox said. “Sometimes marketing takes a backseat to everything else that they’re doing because they’re managing the business and managing their employees, managing cash flow, managing operations.”
Most SMBs rely on word-of-mouth marketing, but this can only take them so far, Fox said. That’s where iValu8 and VivaSpot come in.
VivaSpot has already deployed at 500 customer locations, including both independent and franchise restaurants, nail salons, vineyards, movie theaters, bowling alleys and apartment buildings. The startup is hoping to raise a new round of funding for its next stage of growth and development, ideally in the neighborhood of $1 million.
Fox compares his business journey with iValu8 to a tennis match. At the beginning, you’re not exactly sure how it’s going to go, but as you get further along into the match, you start to hone in on a win.
Their plan at the beginning was not actually connected to iValu8’s target customers as much as they thought it was. Now, the solution has been validated in the market, and it’s time to scale, Fox said.
“I think the lesson there is you just don’t give up,” Fox said. “You go back to the drawing board when you feel like you don’t have the approach right, and you refine it.”
Fox advises other startups to meet with partners and pivot when it turns out the first strategy isn’t working.
For instance, when Covid first hit, restaurants struggled badly. Fox knew that since restaurants were seeing far fewer customers walk through their doors, many would want to discontinue the VivaSpot services.
iValu8 worked to prevent that by allowing many businesses to continue using the service while suspending payments for a period of time. The startup also introduced additional capabilities to help restaurants manage through Covid, including contact tracing.
In the long run, Fox said it helped iValu8 because they built stronger relationships with clients and expanded their services. And the restaurant industry is on a recovery swing back.
“The restaurant industry is definitely still changing but I think it’s poised for a comeback this spring,” Fox said. “Barring another huge Covid resurgence or another variant that just shuts down the economy, I think we’re past a lot of the pain point.”
As one of the company founders presenting at CED’s Venture Connect, Fox said he is looking forward to hearing other people’s stories. While the Triangle isn’t yet on the wavelength of tech hubs like Seattle and Silicon Valley, Fox believes it can get there.
“A lot of us have just been holed up in our house,” Fox said. “So getting out and running into people that I’ve worked with, I think that’s going to be exciting.”
Fox wants to do his part to give back—all local businesses in the Triangle can use VivaSpot with a 25 percent discount
In the meantime, iValu8 is working on the next version of its platform, slated for release later this year. After their years of business experience, Fox said iValu8 knows what they’ve done wrong and how they can improve the technology and scale at a greater level.
“You’ve got to keep pushing the rock up the hill regardless of the challenges you have out there,” Fox said. “You’ve got to just keep pushing forward, and so that’s what we’ll continue to do.”