Past Winner Highlights: 2016 Florida Companies to Watch
A typical Florida Companies to Watch class is comprised of businesses who collectively gross over $450 million in annual revenue, add more than 350 new jobs per year, average a 30% increase in earnings and experience almost 20% growth in employees annually. They represent great companies from throughout the state of Florida. Meet four of our past winning companies!
Jack Berlin, founder of Accusoft Corporation, has been a serial entrepreneur in the digital imaging vertical for 25 years and his company now holds 30 imaging patents. “Accusoft offers a robust portfolio of document and imaging tools created for developers,” he said. “Our APIs and software development toolkits provide high-performance document viewing, advanced search, image compression, conversion, barcode recognition, and OCR for use in application and web development.”
In addition to the company’s numerous patents, Berlin points to corporate culture as a competitive differentiator. “Our core values and company culture make us stand out,” he said. “Accusoft fosters a competitive and positive work environment, and we are a place where people want to come to work every day. Even as we’ve grown into a large organization, we have a small business mindset where we value and support each individual employee.”
For Berlin, being recognized by GrowFL as a Company To Watch is a humbling honor on multiple levels. “To be named a winner of the GrowFL Watch List is a huge honor for us because it acknowledges our success as a company and our dedication to the Florida community,” he said. “In addition, this year marks Accusoft’s 25th anniversary, and that type of achievement is only possible through our innovative products and loyal team. For us, this award recognizes all of our hard work and commitment to this company. Lastly, bettering the Tampa community is a major focus of the Accusoft mission, and our employees donate their time and talent to helping the community. To be awarded by our own community for our efforts is special.”
Berlin’s advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is to trust your instincts while prioritizing tasks. “Go with your gut,” he said. “If you have a great idea, a go-getter attitude and a solid team, you will go a long way. I’ve had to make tough and risky decisions, but each one has excelled Accusoft as a company, and that comes from trusting my intuition and having a strong team behind me. Also, prioritization is key. As an entrepreneur, getting into the habit of deciding what needs to get done from day-to-day can be difficult, but ultimately, it will free up your time so you can focus on what’s incredibly important.”
Jerry Daniels, founder of Automotive Broadcast Network, formed the original vision for ABN decades before he launched it in 2007 but waited until technology caught up to create the right environment for the concept to thrive. The concept came to him in his 20s after he experienced the powerful video programming that automakers create to share upcoming model year plans with their dealer body. He felt the power of these videos to excite people about the brand.
“After retiring from retail automotive, I learned that retirement wasn’t for me,” Daniels said. “The difference is now you can hang a television on a wall and broadband is widely available which was not the case years ago. All the stars aligned. I did some research and the next thing you know I’m all in going 100 mph with my hair on fire.”
ABN partners with 72 content providers led by CBS to provide family-friendly entertainment for customers to view while in auto dealers’ waiting areas. ABN produces informational and promotional content allowing the dealer to decide how it wants to communicate to the customers while they are in the dealership building. “When I was in automotive retail, I saw my customers in the waiting area watching TV that was broadcasting the commercials of my competitor down the street and I thought ‘this is crazy,’” Daniels said. “In addition, I saw them watching shows like Jerry Springer that I would never allow in my home and I knew there was a better alternative.”
Daniels’ advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is that they have been told a lie that cash is king for startups. “Cash is king, queen, jack and all the way down,” he said. “Whatever amount of cash you think you need, you can double triple quadruple it. Every company requires cash, but be very careful about who you get your cash from. Not all cash is the same. When people invest in your company, you get their cash plus all their opinions so make sure your vision is consistent with those of your investors.”
Walker Peek’s wife was unhappy, so he got to work on a solution that quickly became a successful business. Peek founded Commercial Acoustics in 2013 and grew it to 12 employees in three years. “My wife was unhappy about the noise coming from downstairs while I was watching a basketball game with friends, and I decided to fix the problem,” Peek said. “I did some research, conducted some prototyping and developed something that worked but didn’t look good. I dressed it up to be aesthetically pleasing and began selling it online.”
That was the beginning of Peek’s acoustic mitigation career as he quickly added commercial services to his initially exclusive residential line of acoustic abatement curtains. Now Commercial Acoustic focuses on its ABCCs: Absorption, Blocking, Cover (Sound Masking), and Consulting in the commercial market. “One of the things we’re doing is we have partnered with a manufacturer that makes a brand new polymer blend after 10 years of research that is inserted in walls and floors that blocks sound. So we consult with builders to implement that solution at the building phase.”
Peek says there is no better time to be in the market for acoustic abatement solutions. “This new materials technology makes it affordable for the first time ever,” he said. “For example, if you want a sound-proof home theater, it used to cost $15,000 just for the sound isolation material to treat the walls. Now it only costs $2,000.”
Peek advises aspiring entrepreneurs to take massive action on an idea and not let it sit. “Do not just talk about your great idea with one or two people and forget about it,” he said. “The one thing that helped make me committed to executing on my idea was telling more people about it and giving myself hard timelines to get things done.”
Suneera Madhani and Sal Rehmetullah, sibling co-founders of Fattmerchant, came to entrepreneurship via very different paths. “We grew up in a very entrepreneurial family,” Madhani said. “I never wanted to be an entrepreneur like our father because I saw the struggles involved and the stresses of bringing work home with you. But Sal, my brother, always wanted to be an entrepreneur and launched his own restaurant franchise concept at the age of 19.”
Now, brother and sister have teamed up to take on the payment processing sector. Fattmerchant’s business model has saved Central Florida small and medium sized businesses more than $2 million in 2015 alone and an average of 40% on their payment processing fees by implementing a subscription based model instead of a variable percent of transaction model as is traditional in the sector.
“I worked in the industry for eight years,” said Madhani. “I saw the lack of transparency and I took this idea for subscription based, direct cost processing to my bosses, but they said no. They did not want to lower their margins. So I quit and decided to either launch Fattmerchant or find another industry to work in.” Luckily for small businesses, she did launch Fattmerchant with her brother, who moved back to Orlando from San Francisco and his own startup job there.
“Payment processing has always been a necessary evil and not much fun at all,” Rehmetullah said. “We are trying to turn that on its head utilizing social media and other measures. For example, we don’t have an automated 1-800 number. Our clients can call us and actually speak to someone live.”
Rehmetullah’s advice to aspiring entrepreneurs centers on discipline. “It’s about being disciplined with your money, and your time,” he said. “You have to set deadlines against goals because you’re so excited about changing something that often you are not disciplined enough to execute around it.”
Madhani values market validation. “There are lots of great ideas,” she said. “but you need to gather quick market validation because it is better to fail fast than lose all your resources chasing an idea. Too many companies are focused on building a product rather than selling and validating. One of my favorite quotes is ‘There’s no such thing as a billion dollar idea, just a billion dollar execution.’”
CLICK HERE to view the full list of 2016 Florida Companies to Watch Winners