Many entrepreneurs speak of the “a-ha” moment, where they have a sudden insight into how they will develop their business idea or company.
Gino Mazzarella had his while he was still an undergraduate student at Stevens.
Faculty and staff encouraged Mazzarella, who graduated with a degree in Business and Technology in the spring, to attend the New Jersey Spark Summit, a convention that links entrepreneurs with ideas to the venture capitalists who can fund them. At the time, Mazzarella was the co-founder of an iPhone power cable retail operation running out of his Hoboken apartment.
Listening to a presentation from Stantt — a custom clothing manufacturer that raised $120,000 on the popular crowdfunding platform Kickstarter — “really motivated me to get out there and do a Kickstarter campaign,” said Mazzarella, who started his company, Awesome Cables, in late 2012. “It opened my eyes to the wonder of crowdfunding, and being able to get capital without taking on any debt, without forfeiting any equity. That event was one of the best things I’d ever done at Stevens. I’m so happy (Professor) CV (Harquail) and Sandra (Furnbach, in Stevens’ Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship) pushed me to go.”
So far, his Howe School of Technology Management training is coming in handy. After less than a week into the campaign, Awesome Cables had raised nearly 80 percent of its $10,000 goal to distribute its most exciting product — a 10-foot-long, braided, tangle-free Mamba cable.
The need for a degree that’s equal parts business and technology became painfully apparent when, after spending the summer relocating to Austin, Texas, and doing exhaustive background work on the Mamba cable ahead of the campaign, a rival company, BelayCords, went live on Kickstarter and quickly raised more than $100,000.
That swift kick in the gut pushed Awesome Cables to launch a week sooner than schedule, and iron out kinks — like contact and press info, copy, and photos and video — on the way.
“They took away the bulk of the people who we feel would have backed our project,” Mazzarella said. But he didn’t attend all those classes on social media and strategy and not learn a thing or two about how to compete. He and his co-founder, Michael Littman, are focusing on the coveted Made for iPhone, or MFI, designation, which their braided cables, including Mamba, have. BelayCords products are available in more colors, but are not certified just yet.
“That’s really strong for us. We don’t have to worry about broken cords — and if one does break, we have a reputable manufacturer who will handle replacements,” Mazzarella said. The 10-foot Mamba cable will be the longest cable to have MFI certification.
And getting that seal of approval is a lengthy process, Littman said.
“They keep saying they’re going to be MFI certified, they’re going to be certified, but we’ve already put our cables through Apple. It’s not a simple process,” he said. And the reversible USB standard their competitor is pursuing “is not accepted in the current USB standard,” he added. “This is a technology that no one else is using that may not be compatible with what’s out there.”
The Stevens advantage
Mazzarella said Howe School professors helped him think about how marketing and social media could be used to grow his company’s brand. In particular, he credited professors Jeffrey Nickerson and Gaurav Sabnis. Dr. Nickerson is an expert in social media and crowdsourcing who runs the Howe School of Technology Management’s Center for Decision Technologies, while Dr. Sabnis is an accomplished researcher who focuses on marketing and social media.
Mazzarella spent the summer building a list of influencers in the tech community, such as bloggers and other media professionals, to network with them. “Our next step is to reach out to those people, share our Kickstarter with them and see if they’ll promote it to their networks,” he said. “It’s a simple way for us to reach influential networks without spending a single dollar.”
A lot of that came from Nickerson’s social media class, which Mazzarella took as a senior.
“In that class, we dealt with topics like return on investment for social media for the bigger brands,” Mazzarella said. And while bigger companies have avoided committing much money in this area, “so far, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have been so powerful for us,” he said. “People sharing what we’re up to. It’s hard to measure the direct return on investment, but just the fact that many different eyeballs are looking at it is so valuable. I credit Professor Nickerson with getting me thinking about the importance of how to use social media to build the company.”
Part of that is whom he reached out to, also. In class, Mazzarella said, he learned the value of targeting smaller networks. Brands with huge followings are busy with their own messaging, whereas “people with smaller followings — like 100 to 500 — will share your stuff more and have more meaningful things to say, so we really targeted them” he said. “It’s a lot about thinking which people you can jump from to reach a bigger target audience.”
Both Mazzarella and Littman are running Awesome Cables as a full-time endeavor until they fulfill their Kickstarter goals and have the product out to consumers, at which point they’ll pursue other employment. But both are eager to start another crowdfunding campaign, and soon, especially with some key lessons under their belts.
“You have to be 100 percent prepared — and be fast,” Mazzarella said. “Belay beat us to market on Kickstarter, there’s no arguing that fact. So going forward, it would be, you have an idea, you don’t stop working on it until it’s done and you’re ready to launch.”
He also expects his Stevens education will play a role in the next Kickstarter campaign, whether in support of Awesome Cables or something else. That’s something he said current students should think about.
“People don’t always look at Stevens as a very entrepreneurial college, but I disagree,” Mazzarella said. “If you’re willing to get out there, there’s a community you can easily jump into and become a part of.”