FIU helps local business level up

When Joel Brown’s father passed away, his grieving family went through an ordeal to find the paperwork necessary to close accounts, notify clients and perform other business tasks.

When his father-in-law passed, the family missed an opportunity to claim life insurance because the policy had not been renewed.

Learning from those experiences, Brown founded and is the CEO of an end-of-life planning software called DocuVital, a one-stop shop for important documents needed in the event of a death. It guides a consumer through easy-to-use steps to acquire, organize, and safely store paperwork and photos, like a virtual safe.

Launching the business was daunting. It was in the concept phase for two years.

Joel Brown, founder and CEO of DocuVital

Then Brown began working with the Florida Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at FIU. It provides no-cost business consulting to entrepreneurs and small-business owners in Miami, one of Florida’s most active regions for entrepreneurship.

Brown relied on the SBDC’s experts to improve his company website, and he is conferring with them on marketing and promotions. Consultants also helped him develop a strategy to target companies that can provide DocuVital as part of an employee benefits package.

As the company takes off, Brown recognizes the value of having access to the local SBDC.

“It has helped me, on the marketing side, really drill down onto who my ideal customer is, especially since my product, as an end-of-life planning product, has not been in the market before,” he said.

The Florida SBDC at FIU, part of a statewide network, was established in 2014 in recognition that launching a new business or driving the growth of an established one isn’t easy- the challenges are many. The biggest include access to capital, financial management, exporting, marketing, and government contracting. Consultants help with market research, developing a business plan, permitting and licensing, and international market opportunities and strategies.

“Sometimes business owners come in and they need money to grow but don’t know how much or the kind of funding that’s best for their business,” said Jaqueline Sousa, regional director of the SBDC at FIU. “Our team of consultants works one-on-one with small businesses that want to grow.”

With the help of Florida SBDC at FIU, Florencia Arditi opened a kiosk in the center court at Dadeland Mall, a strategic location in one of the area’s busiest shopping malls, where she sells clothing for children ranging in age from newborns to 4 years.

In 2014-2015, the statewide Florida SBDC network assisted 1,088 entrepreneurs and business owners and helped launch 55 new businesses. The group helped entrepreneurs access $29.9 million in capital via loans and equity investments, and generate $604.9 million in additional sales.

The SBDC at FIU works with small and medium sized businesses that have revenue of up to $20 million. The economic-development assistance focuses on promoting growth, expansion, competitive advantage, profitability, management improvement, and employment development.

Will the business readily obtain bank loans? Does an equity investment make more sense, who are the potential investors and how to reach them? “It all starts with financial and competitive analysis,” said Sousa.

As companies reach a crossroad and need help to grow, financial guidance is key. The Florida SBDC at FIU asses where the company is and where it wants to be before establishing a path for success. Since its launch, the Florida SBDC at FIU has assisted a broad range of businesses.

Growth and new opportunities led the founders of Revpar Guru, a back-end revenue management engine for hoteliers, to the Florida SBDC at FIU. Launched in January 2008, Revpar’s software analyzes a hotel’s room offerings, its historical rates, the rates of competitors within the same area, pricing trends and environmental factors to identify the best rate for maximizing occupancy at a given time.

Initially, CEO Jean Francois Mourier and business partner Bruno Perez faced resistance from hoteliers who were wary of Revpar’s technology and the results it might yield. Financial institutions too had been reluctant to give the company expansion capital.

“Our original plan was to find capital and we thought they could help. It turned out to be instrumental,” said Mourier. The Florida SBDC at FIU consultant, a financial business analyst shared his business knowledge and contacts, introducing Perez and Mourier to “heavy hitters” in the financial industry. Today, the Miami Beach-based venture is being used by hoteliers in 35 countries.

“The advisor taught us how to prepare a better business plan, prepare balance sheets and how to present the company to banks in a specialty field,” said Mourier. “He takes you by the hand. Without him, it would have taken ten times more effort to knock on the doors we’ve reached out to.”  ♦


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