As co-owner of two Plato’s Closets franchise locations – a store that buys and sells gently used, name-brand clothing – Miller was inundated with unwieldy data each night as it printed from the point-of-sale system.
But, likely unlike many franchisees, Miller was undaunted by the stacks of numbers. Instead, he saw opportunity.
“Within the franchise industry, we see a lack of tools for understanding sales data,” says Miller, who previously worked as an application and database developer for Nashville companies myEmma, Magazines.com and BorderJump. ”Yes, we have point-of-sale systems with information stored in them. But there is a hole in the market where analytics software should be. The same holds true for small businesses. Owners need a way to spot trends and measure performance without digging through an 80-page report.”
Miller ran his Plato’s franchises while working as a consultant for the Janis Group, where he created business intelligence dashboards for Fortune 500 companies. It was second nature to apply his consulting experience to his stores and eventually develop a dashboard tool for small businesses, called Bizen.
Enter the 2010 season of Jumpstart Foundry, to which Miller pitched his idea for these business intelligence tools, and the first iteration of Bizen was born.
“I pitched Jumpstart Foundry in September of 2010, saying, ‘I’ve got these tools I’ve been using in my business. They’re helpful and I think other people might want them,’” Miller says. “This is the culmination of pulling back together the technology and the retail sides of my life, coalescing into where I’m solely focused on retail and food service technology.”
Classifying himself as a career-long “startup programmer,” Miller says the $15,000 in seed-stage funding from Jumpstart Foundry helped him bring that focus to bear on this singular idea, allowing it to flourish.
“That first dollar is always hugely valuable, because you’ve convinced somebody to write a check. For someone to say, ‘I think there’s value here,’ is pretty validating,” Miller says. “We’ve all got a billion ideas, but when an entity says, ‘This one’s valuable. Here’s 15 grand,’ it helps you focus and think, ‘OK, this is the one I should work on.’”
Miller spent the fourth quarter of 2010 encamped at Nashville’s Entrepreneur Center, honing not only the ideas for Bizen’s toolset, but also his own understanding of the potential marketplace.
“It was the market opportunity that was the ‘A ha!’ moment, because what I’m doing with Bizen is kinda best practices, industry standards kind of stuff,” Miller says. “But what normally happens is they contract the business objects for the core system with the dashboards and Crystal Reports and whatnot, and then they bring in somebody like me, paying them $200, $300 an hour to implement it.
“And we get there and they don’t really know what numbers they want on the dashboard, and according to Gartner, there’s a 70-80% failure rate on those kinds of projects, costing between $200,000-400,000,” he continues.
“What I found in the franchise area is that it’s a bit of an untapped market, because the franchisor is not making that kind of investment, largely because they’re not incented on the bottom line. And the franchisee can’t afford it,” Miller notes. “So if I can take that system, reduce the implementation risk by saying ‘Here’s the key metrics in your industry, this is what you get. We’re not going to debate building it out or customizing it more’ and be the 37Signals of business intelligence, then charge them a monthly rate, I just dropped the price floor and opened up a whole new part of the market that’s being unaddressed.”
The beginning of 2011 saw Miller and Bizen ramp up efforts to close on a next-stage round of funding, which has been completed and gives the company solid footing upon which to bring on staff and developers to scale Bizen’s tools. But Miller knows that it’s the opportunity of the seed-stage funding and the mentorship exposure Jumpstart Foundry brought with it that’s allowed his fledgling company to take big strides quickly.
Miller says he’s encouraging the A-list idea community in and around Nashville to apply to this year’s JSF program, and cautions the entrepreneurs and co-founders eventually taking part to not take the mentorship aspect lightly. It’s a learning process for all involved, he says.
“The biggest piece of advice I give for the relationship between founders and mentors is don’t argue and defend,” Miller says. “It’s our jobs as entrepreneurs to be the most optimistic people in the room. It’s the mentors’ jobs to steer us toward success. It’s not that they’re saying we’re wrong, it’s that they’re trying to guide the optimism.
“That doesn’t mean to do everything they say, because leadership is taking advice and making your own decision,” he continues. “But make sure that you’re getting the most out of it, and really understanding what they’re trying to say. Leadership is listening to advice and then making and owning the decision. Just keep in mind that the men and women at the Entrepreneur Center and Jumpstart Foundry are helping you grasp a bigger market opportunity.”
Miller says he’d also encourage entrepreneurs, especially those with tech skills and at varying stages of their careers, to think long and hard about the unique opportunities going through The Jumpstart Foundry program can provide.
“I think it’s easy to look at something like this and say that it’s for college kids to do during the summer,” he says. “But it’s also a unique opportunity to get a lot of support and to fail fast or succeed fast. I think companies would be foolish to pass up this opportunity if you knew you had the skills to pull it off, and you had an idea you really hadn’t fully developed yet but knew it could be interesting.
“Plus, as you get older in your career, it becomes easier to devote three months to something,” Miller continues. “The labor market for programmers is pretty great right now, and if you can’t get them to let you off for three months to go give it a shot, you can find another job when you get done.”
Posted on February 9, 2011