9 startups and the lowdown on how their ambitious business plans are faring

Change, setback, success all part of the sampling

I started writing about the startup scene for WCPO.com in January 2016, and since then I’ve written features on more than 75 startups in the Tri-State region.

It seemed like a good time to take a look back at some of those startups. Did all those great ideas go anywhere?

I’m happy to report that of the nine startups I touched base with, all but one are still in business, and some of them, like LISNR, are doing quite well.

LISNR: I wrote about LISNR in January 2016 when they were recognized for getting $10 million in venture capital funding. The company used that money to boost its staff from 15 employees to 35.

And the company is still hiring. Over the next 12 months, it could easily increase its staff to 70 employees, said CEO and co-founder Rodney Williams.

“We’re getting into the position where we’re signing multi-year, seven-figure commercial agreements with some of the world’s top companies,” Williams said.

LISNR created SmartTones, a new way to connect devices using sounds that people can’t hear. Its competitors would include technologies such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Over the past 12 months, the company made major improvements to that core technology that included tripling the amount of data per second it can transmit, Williams said. And in three months, he expects the data transmission rate to be 10 times what is now.

The company also refined the technology so that it can “live and breathe” in almost any industry, Williams said. It has found customers among owners of sports arenas and retail stores, which might want to broadcast information to customers’ smartphones and automakers who want to use LISNR technology to open car doors.

But the fastest-growing and most lucrative market has been in payment authentication and transactions, Williams said. LISNR is on a pace to power more than 60 million transactions and be on more than 40 million devices this year, he added.

In July, the company adopted a new tagline: “The world’s most advanced ultrasonic technology.”

Complete Set: The place to go for pop culture collectibles, Complete Set spent the past year putting itself in a position to make money.

In March 2016, the company raised more than $500,000 in investments, which brought its total to $1.25 million, said founder Gary Darna. Soon after that, Brian Powell joined the team as chief technology officer. He led a complete rebuild of the website that made it scalable and able to support millions of users.

Complete Set’s staff spent the summer in Chicago in the Techstars Chicago accelerator, which Darna said is one of the world’s best. On Techstars demo day in September, the company launched its peer-to-peer marketplace, in which collectors can use the website to make purchases.

The business plan has always been for Complete Set to make its money by charging a fee for those transactions, Darna said, and it’s still the case. When it launched the marketplace, it had zero revenue, he said, but revenue has doubled every month since then.

Complete Set is now working on another round of investment, hoping to raise $800,000 by April. Covington-based Connetic Ventures is leading that round, Darna said, and Complete Set now works out of Connetic Ventures’ offices on Madison Avenue.

The company expects to boost its staff from seven to 10 employees over the next couple of months, Darna said, and plans to focus on revenue growth this year. “Our No. 1 priority will be to get to cash-flow positive,” he said, and he expects that to happen later this year.

Atumsoft: It’s been a year of ups and downs for Atumate (formerly Atumsoft, which enables people who work in labs to check their instruments remotely, using any smartphone, tablet or laptop.

In September, the company graduated from The Brandery, the Cincinnati accelerator that helps startups with branding and marketing. That involved four months of intense classes and meeting “some of the most successful and smartest people we have ever met,” Atumate co-founder Olivier Lemaitre said.

After The Brandery, Lemaitre and his co-founders traveled the country looking for potential markets, but also for potential investors. They didn’t find any of the latter, Lemaitre said, because the investors they spoke had tightened their purses -- they wanted to invest in companies with more validation that Atumate could offer.

The lack of funding has been the biggest bump in the road for Atumate, he said, as it “makes it harder to grow as fast as we’d like."

Toward the end of 2016, the company began pilot programs with some local labs, he said, and it expects to soon begin pilots with some local Fortune 50 and Fortune 500 companies he hopes will lead to sales contracts.

“It’s always incredible to see how our technology will be used,” Lemaitre said.

Skube.me: Unlike many startups, Skube.me has a tangible product you can hold in your hand -- and in this case, wear around your waist. It’s the skube, a tube-like skirt made from a stretchable, knit fabric that’s machine washable and can be slipped on over yoga pants after a workout.

Skube inventor and Westwood resident Monica Kohler began working on the business full time in January 2015. In October, she graduated from the First Batch accelerator for manufacturing companies and launched a website, www.skube.me, where she’s making online sales.

Her focus has shifted from selling skubes at consignment shops and flea markets to finding wholesale partners to sell them for her. They’re now being sold in 20 retail stores in three states, she said, including retail boutiques, athletic stores and boat marinas.

She found a market for them in marinas after a customer told her they were ideal for wearing while boating. It’s one of many tips she’s received for new skube uses, she said, another being as garments for women who’ve just delivered a baby.

Hearing about new uses for skubes is one of the things she loves about the business, she said.

Losant: The company formerly known as Structure became Losant in April 2016 because “Structure” wasn’t a distinct enough name from a branding perspective, said co-founder Charlie Key. Management settled on Losant as a tribute to Cincinnati, which began its life as Losantiville.

In September, Losant was selected for the first class of the Techstars IoT accelerator in New York City. The company’s software makes it easier to use the Internet of Things to gather data from connected devices.

In the same month, the company moved from 1417 Main St. to a larger workspace at 1100 Sycamore St. to make room for its expanded staff of nine full-time employees.

And in the latter part of 2016, the company began really selling its software platform, Key said, and secured more than a dozen enterprise customers, including several Fortune 500 companies such as Verizon and Bosch.

Customers use the platform to do a variety of things, he said, such as tracking industrial equipment in the field and remotely controlling it.

The company’s now raising funds to help it bring on additional sales people and to round out its engineering team. Key said the goal is to raise a couple of million by the second quarter of 2017.

This year, the company also plans to launch a program to recruit partners, Key said, who will help resell and manage its product.

Sewendipity: Karen M. Williams, a former extension home economist with Ohio State University, opened Sewendipity Lounge at 722 Main St. downtown in March 2016 as “a whimsical place to create garments with a dip of chic.”

Her initial plan was to make money through paid memberships that would entitle members to book a workplace in the lounge, as well as get discounts on the cost of classes, another source of revenue. Although she does offer those things, what’s paid the bills is alterations work, such as replacing a zipper or hemming pants. It started the first day the store was open, Williams said.

“I didn’t expect that,” Williams said. 

Her big challenge now is keeping the store open while the nearby Dennison Hotel is torn down, a project that began earlier this month and is expected to last for at least two months, she said.

The city has closed part of Main in front of her store, she said, and scaffolding for the demolition covers half of her store windows.

“My windows are my marketing tool,” she said. “A lot of people come in because they see me when they drive by. To have them covered up is not a happy thing.”

Someone compared it to having a root canal, she said, that one just has to grin and bear through.

She’s excited that the store has almost made it past the crucial one-year mark and plans a celebration on March 4.

“People will come in and literally say, ‘I prayed to find a place like this,’” she said. “There’s nothing out there that meets that need.”

Feasty: The app that helps you decide where to eat by enabling restaurateurs to post coupons in real time launched in March 2016. Less than 12 months later, it has hit all its 24-month goals, founder and CEO Anthony Breen said.

The app now has more than 10,000 weekly, active users, he said, with more than 200 local restaurants signed up for the service, including Montgomery Inn and Taste of Belgium. The company received further validation at the end of 2016 when David Karam, past president of The Wendy’s Co., became a strategic adviser.

Since I last wrote about them, Feasty’s also jazzed up its app with GIFs of food being cooked, plated or eaten. It’s also added The Feed, behind-the-scenes stories about restaurants and restaurateurs.

“We’ve seen customers really engage with that,” Breen said of The Feed. “Customers really want to engage with restaurants. … But (restaurants’) stories don’t get told because they don’t have the time or the resources.”

In July 2016, Feasty competed in the PYMNTS/Amazon Alexa Challenge and won an award for most creative product. And in August, Feasty left its office in Over-the-Rhine to become part of the entrepreneur-in-residence program at the 84.51 Building downtown.

“That’s been a great experience for us,” Breen said of working out at 84.51, which does data and promotion programs for Kroger Co. “They understand the food space pretty well.”

Cladwell: This company aims to help people dress themselves well, or be well clad, hence the name. It began its life with an app that helps men create a wardrobe of fewer than 30 interchangeable garments, suitable for one season, that are fashionable but affordable.

But in October 2015, the company launched a beta version of the same product for women called Capsules. That product took off -- now, the vast majority of the company’s 15,000 subscribers, who pay $5 a month for the service, are women, said CEO and co-founder Blake Smith.

The company now has five times the revenue it did a year ago, he said, and it’s making a profit.

In 2016, the staff packed up and spent six months in San Francisco as part of the 500 Startups business accelerator. That helped the company raise more than $1 million in new investment, Smith said.

When the staff returned from San Francisco in October, it moved from Longworth Hall to the Deskey building at 120 E. 8th St. downtown. The business has five employees now, but plans to hire four or five more by the end of the first quarter of 2017.

Cladwell’s latest app, Outfits by Cladwell, gives customers daily recommendations on what to wear based on what’s in their wardrobe, what they’ve worn recently and the day’s weather forecast. It’s expected to be available in the Apple store in a few weeks and later in Android format. About 80 percent of Cladwell’s customers use an Apple device, Smith said.

“It’s been a long journey,” he said of the company’s history. “It’s nice to feel that we have momentum outside right now. It’s really exciting.”

Gamejoule: It seemed like a great idea -- Gamejoule customers would receive a box of board games every month that they could return or buy if they really liked them. Gamejoule was Netflix for board games.

Customers paid a monthly fee of $25, $30 or $35, depending on how big a box they wanted shipped.

Gamejoule was part of the spring 2016 class of startups at Covington business accelerator UpTech. When I asked others involved in that class which company they liked the best, I always heard Gamejoule’s name.

I liked the idea so much that I became a subscriber. My wife and I really enjoyed some of the games we received, especially The Duke, which she liked because she always beat me.

That’s why I was sad when in October, founder Amanda Gonzalez Grossmann sent me an email saying she had decided to shut down the business. There just weren’t enough users to keep it going, financially speaking.

Working on Gamejoule was an awesome and challenging experience, she said. She started a new job this month at a web analytics and digital marketing firm.

Gamejoule’s far from the only startup to fail. Many of them do -- the actual percentage seems to be in dispute. Perhaps the lesson is that a startup only has a limited time to get enough revenue to remain in business, no matter how good the idea is.

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