Wellntel powers through startup phase.
It’s not easy getting a business off the ground. You not only need a winning idea and the people and plan to execute it, but also the capital to make it happen. That’s something Marian Singer and Nick Hayes discovered firsthand when launching Wellntel in 2013.
The duo worked together at FiveTwelve Group, a strategy and research consulting firm, for more than a decade when they developed an idea to use newly available technology to create tools and provide previously unavailable information to private domestic and farming well owners about their groundwater supply.
“We were working on a research project for an OEM in an adjacent space and saw this gap in the market,” said Singer, Wellntel’s CEO. “We took a year to talk to potential customers, study current technologies and understand what the market needed.”
Securing financing for their new company was not easy, said Hayes, the company’s chief technology officer. Even though Wellntel was at the heart of Milwaukee’s growing water technology industry, he said securing funds from Wisconsin investors was a challenge. They are not alone — Wisconsin consistently ranks near the bottom in the nation when it comes to startup activity.
“We struggled to raise money from in-state investors. Wisconsin doesn’t have the established angel investing infrastructure that other states do and investors here tend to be focused on familiar markets like medical technology, agriculture or software, but not water technology. There is also a mentality that startups are only revenue generators (for investors), rather than looking at the bigger role a startup can play in growing the community by adding jobs or through attracting and retaining a younger workforce,” Hayes said.
The entrepreneurs refused to give up, relying mostly on out-of-state investors and Park Bank to get Wellntel off the ground.
“We networked a lot. We talked about our idea with family and friends who then shared it with their friends and family,” Singer said. “That networking piece was important. We knew we had a great idea and just kept at it.”
Throughout 2013, Singer and Hayes developed the product, which provides vital data for well owners, including current water level and water levels over time.
“We looked around and didn’t see anyone in that space and it was such a crucial need,” Singer said. “There is more and more attention being paid to groundwater, but trying to find out how much is there was difficult.”
The Wellntel sensor sends a programmable digital signal into the well, which paints a picture of important characteristics inside the well and of groundwater movement. That information is then communicated securely from the sensor via radio and to the cloud via Ethernet. The company piloted its easy-to-use technology in 2014.
Wellntel began selling its products to consumers in July 2015, targeting service providers and drillers serving the residential and agriculture markets. About a month later, the U.S. Geological Survey and other agencies started placing orders. The company started to take off.
“We went from researching to product development to supplier qualification to building cloud infrastructure and now to creating our own fulfillment center and wet lab,” Singer said. “It has been a whirlwind.”
Earlier this year, Wellntel moved into its new Global Groundwater Center on Milwaukee’s lower East side from space it had in the Global Water Center.
“We’re definitely no longer a startup. We’re in a transition stage,” Hayes said. “We’re in 25 states and 18 Wisconsin counties and what we’re doing is a disruption for how people think about groundwater. It’s very exciting.”
Hayes and Singer share their thoughts on surviving a business’ startup phase:
Be flexible: Singer said entrepreneurs cannot take anything for granted and need to be ready to make changes as needed.
“Everything is new and it’s important to learn fast, get smarter and get faster,” she said. “It seems like every day we’re breaking new ground, learning, experimenting and creating new value for our customers.”
Find great partners: Entrepreneurs have a lot on their plate, and Singer said it is essential to find business partners who understand that.
“In a startup, you aren’t operating in a box so you need a bank, suppliers and other partners who understand how it works and can be flexible,” she said. “It helps when your partners understand what you’re going through, are committed and willing and able to match the flexibility and understanding.”
For example, Wellntel relies on Park Bank, who provided a loan to help with the company’s receivables and inventory, and attorneys to help navigate corporate matters and intellectual property protection.
Be ready to listen: Singer and Hayes communicate regularly with the company’s board of directors and board of advisors, a group of professionals from different backgrounds who are excited about Wellntel’s work.
“The speed of change is phenomenal,” she said. “Our advisors bring to the table their own perspectives, concerns and ideas. They really keep our heads out of the minutia and remind us to not lose sight of the longer view.”
Hayes and Singer hope Wellntel’s tremendous growth in its first few years is just the tip of the iceberg. With customers across the country, they’re already looking to take their product worldwide.
“Groundwater data has been difficult and expensive to get, but we’ve been able to provide well owners with better, affordable data that’s right at their fingertips,” Hayes said.
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