Hackensack Startup PCI Global Takes Investor Panel Vote at November TechLaunch BullPen

Photo: Winners of November 2017 BullPen with the TechLaunch team. Photo Credit: Courtesy TechLaunch
Winners of November 2017 BullPen with the TechLaunch team. | Courtesy TechLaunch

At the November 29 TechLaunch BullPen event at Monmouth University, PCI Global (Hackensack) –  presented by founder and CEO John Censor– won the investor panel vote as the most "fundable" company.

Centiment, a New York startup pitched by founder and CEO Micah Brown, won the audience vote. The company uses neuroscience to create ad personas that should lead to more relevant ad viewing for users.

TechLaunch BullPens are a series of startup pitch events where early stage tech entrepreneurs present their budding enterprises to a panel of investors, members of the tech ecosystem and the business community.

The other startups presenting were South Orange-based Homeowners Hub and a student team called “retrender” from Monmouth University.

The panel of investors judging the competition included Jeff Weinstein, former president and CEO of RightAnswers; Jay Bhatti, a venture capitalist  who cofounded BrandProject Capital (New York); Katherine O’Neill, executive director and investor with Jumpstart New Jersey Angel Network (New Brunswick); and Hal Ornstein, founder, chairman and CEO of the New Jersey Podiatric Physicians and Surgeons Group.

Photo: The retrender team presents. Photo Credit: Esther Surden
The retrender team presents. | Esther Surden

Retrender was first up to the podium, with a presentation focusing on the company’s peer-to-peer network for renting out trendy clothing to fashion-conscious college students. Presenters Eric Alves and Shravan Parvathaneni called retrender “the Airbnb for clothing.” “Staying fashionable is very expensive,” Parvathaneni told the group, and fashion trends change very often. “Young adults do not like repeating their outfits,” he added.

Alves said that the solution is to create a platform that lets students make money by renting out clothes, and stay fashionable.  They both said that they would make their money through the low transaction fees charged to the students who use the site. Computer science majors, the two said they were working on the main functionalities of their website, and hope to finish it by the end of 2018.

Asked by the audience about pricing, Parvathaneni said that prices would be chosen by the vendors themselves, who will have complete control over what they post. However, the pricing norm for rentals is between 10 and 20 percent of the value of the garment. There were also questions from the audience about insurance and dry cleaning.

O’Neill noted that the students had compared their business to Rent the Runway (New York), but shouldn’t have, because that rental service features very high-end clothing and the product is owned by the company. “I’d look for another platform that might be a better reference,” she advised the retrender team.

Photo: John Censor pitched PCI Global. Photo Credit: Esther Surden
John Censor pitched PCI Global. | Esther Surden

Next to pitch was PCI Global’s Censor, who said, “We do one thing well: We build digital business games to expedite and accelerate the learning of complex skill sets like leadership and management.” The product responds to a critical question for any human resources department, according to Censor: How do we train the next generation of leaders? “What they are doing now … is putting managers to sleep with lectures, e-learning and webinars.”

The company already has customers, and Censor said it was on track this fiscal year to do $1.54 million in revenues. Censor said that the company plans to double every year, but will need to hire three sales people per year. “We have a real business, with real recurring revenues from very big clients,” he told the group.

Asked about analytics to prove that people have learned the skills being taught, Censor noted that, in addition to pretests and posttests, the simulations provide an ongoing measure of what each team has accomplished. And under the learning model, every day one team presents to the other teams, whose members act as customers, senior management or quality assurance personnel; and they get to ask questions. A daily scorecard also helps management find out who understands the concepts or who is sinking, he said.

Weinstein suggested that Censor should structure his company to go for several tranches of funding. He also suggested that, instead of just going after new clients, the company should try to go for more business with the bigger clients it already has. “You should figure out how you can partner better with them, so you can get a bigger part of the business that is available,” he told Censor.

Photo: Micah Brown pitched Centiment to the panel of judges. Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Micah Brown pitched Centiment to the panel of judges. | Esther Surden

Next up was Brown, presenting for Centiment. He started his pitch by bringing up the most hated ad “in human history”: a Pepsi ad that cost $40 million dollars to make. Focus groups don’t work anymore, he said. “Putting five people in a room isn’t going to give you what you need to see if you should spend $40 million dollars or not.” Fifty cents of every ad dollar is wasted, he added.

In addition to AI, Centiment offers the capacity to scan the brains of human beings to see what they respond to, so that ad agencies and others can test to see if a brand or ad is likely to be well-received in the market, he said. Good ads have emotional appeal. At Centiment, “we will stop [ad agencies from] making ads that you don’t care about.” Brown hopes that, in the future, his AI will be incorporated into the programmatic ads, so the “ads will stop spamming you.”

The audience had a number of questions for Brown. One attendee asked if everyone who was targeted needed to get a brain scan. Of course, that turned out not to be the case. The Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) platform lets advertisers find participants who resemble those who will be targeted by the ad, he said.

Bhatti noted that he was very familiar with the major ad agencies, “and if you can help them increase the efficiency of their ads by 1 percent, you’d have a big market on your hands.” He added that, as someone in the audience had mentioned, the big challenge is getting into these agencies and then the agencies “plugging you into their platform.” Bhatti noted that there is a lot of noise out there, and ad agencies are being pitched every day by people trying to sell tools to them.

Photo: Kavell Taylor pitched Homeowners Hub Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Kavell Taylor pitched Homeowners Hub | Esther Surden

The final presentation came from Homeowners Hub’s cofounder and CEO,  Kavell Taylor, who said her platform was revolutionizing homeowners’ services. The Homeowners Hub team includes experts in real estate and home construction. Taylor got her start by buying, renovating and managing properties. “My partners have strong successes owning and operating contracting companies.”

She noted that homeowners have a difficult time finding the right person to get the work done in the home. They spend a lot of time trying to reach contractors, and “you don’t have enough experience” to vet them. The hub solves that problem. For the homeowner, the platform provides concierge services via subscription, with some freebees or discounts, or a la carte services without any freebees.  “We screen contractors, provide scheduling, final payment and a satisfaction guarantee.”

For the contractors, Homeowners Hub helps with estimates, customer service, billing and collections. The process is automated, but it includes a crucial customer-service component to keep both contractors and homeowners happy. “Behind all our fancy numbers is that we got the right contractor to do the right job, at the right price, and satisfied the customer. And we did that very efficiently.”

In response to a question from the audience, Taylor said that, in addition to the users’ subscription income, Homeowners Hub shares revenue with the contractors, taking a percentage of what they earn on a job. Contractors also pay a fee, but not until they reach a certain level of earnings. Other audience questions were about scaling because the company relies so much on the expertise of its founders.

Ornstein asked Taylor about the problems she foresaw in the near term. She noted that it could be difficult to get old-school contractors to adopt the technology. “Some of them like to physically walk their invoices into our offices,” Taylor said. “The other challenge I see is getting homeowners in new markets to trust us. I think we are going to be able to overcome that through partnerships with real estate brokers,” she told the group.

The next TechLaunch BullPen will take place on January 24 at Rutgers University.

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