To say these are challenging economic times is an understatement. As Covid-19 vaccines are being distributed, the promise of a revived economy seems closer than ever. Not so fast, though, as experts warn that life in the United States will probably not fully return to normal until the fall.
And yet in spite of all of the uncertainty, entrepreneurs are still founding new companies. The Fordham Foundry, a business incubator based at the Gabelli School of Business, has continued to stage contests for burgeoning ideas. Its most recent one, the Ram’s Den, took place on February 6, and a second one, a pitch challenge geared toward less developed business plans, will take place March 27.
So what is life like for a small business owner these days? We sat down with Brandon Adamson, a Gabelli MBA graduate whose company BeautiMaps won the 2019 pitch challenge, and Ozzy Usman, a current EMBA student who won second place in this year’s Ram’s Den with his small business lending company Equeduct.
Ozzie Usman: A lot of startup building company building is a social thing and what I mean by that is you have to be able to plug into all these different things that you need to do, but you need to find the best people you can in those areas to really help you because there’s no one person sitting in some basement or even in a garage coding the future.
Patrick Verel: To say these are challenging economic times is an understatement. As COVID-19 vaccines are rapidly being distributed, the promise of a revived economy seems closer than ever. Not so fast though. As experts warn that life in the United States will probably not fully return to normal until the fall and yet, in spite of all the uncertainty, entrepreneurs are still founding new companies. The Fordham Foundry, a business incubator based at the Gabelli School of Business has continued to stage contests for burgeoning ideas. Its most recent one, the Ram’s Den took place on February 6th and a second one, a pitch challenge geared towards less developed business plans will take place March 27th.
So what is life like for a small business owner these days? We sat down with Brandon Adamson, a Gabelli MBA graduate whose company BeautiMaps won the 2019 pitch challenge, and Ozzie Usman, a current EMBA student who won second place in this year’s Ram’s Den with his small business lending company, Equeduct. I’m Patrick Verel and this is Fordham news.
Hi, guys. Welcome to the first-ever Zoom-enabled Fordham news conversation. So this is about business. So I’d love to hear the elevator pitches for your companies. Brandon, you’re up first. Ready? Go.
Brandon Adamson: Sure. Thank you. So my name is Brandon Adamson, as you mentioned. A recent Fordham MBA grad from the Gabelli School of Business and I am the founder and CEO of BeautiMaps Technologies LLC. So BeautiMaps is the prime and global freelancing platform specifically tailored to the beauty and makeup industry. We empower independent professionals and clients to receive and provide beauty and wellness services. Essentially my goal is to connect makeup artists who are certified or not certified with new clients and right now that’s scattered use between YouTube, Style Seat, Instagram. We’re looking to have that on one platform.
PV: Okay. Ozzie, go.
OU: Patrick thanks for having us on. So Equeduct is a company that we started about two years ago. It was started by myself and three other founders. We specialize in providing small business loans specifically to high-risk and startup businesses. What we did was we took a look at that specific segment and determined what are some of their key pain points and build a solution around how do we get funds directly to them as quickly as possible by using automation for risk management, as well as making sure that we can also ACH and wire funds to them immediately versus them being in a holding pattern for an extended period of times. So overall, what we’re trying to do is essentially provide funding for businesses that are struggling.
PV: So now, Brandon, you won the pitch challenge in 2019 for your idea and obviously, so you’ve been working with BeautiMaps since then. How has that been going?
BA: So I would say it’s been going great by way of how much I’m able to learn throughout this process. Obviously the pandemic has put a strain on the industry I’m targeting by way of makeup. Right now, people are not outside as much. Events, such as weddings and these huge events that require people to get dressed up or dolled up aren’t really happening. So there has been a slow down per se. However, what that has allowed is me somewhat extra time to be able to build the infrastructure for our company a little bit better. So what that looks like for me is making sure my MVP or my minimum viable product for an app is as sound as possible, even as a version zero iteration. That means making sure that marketing and advertisement I’m building up that anticipation to the idea that once people are able to go outside, there is this platform that can rely on it to connect them with makeup artists or institutions to provide those services.
PV: So did you make major adjustments about a year ago when all this started to fall apart?
BA: Absolutely. So BeautiMaps’s main target or main goal is to provide a mobile platform to connect makeup artists with their current clients and new clients. So it’s a way of discovery as well as continuing your book of business.
One of the long-term visions or long-term goals for the company was to also have a multi-vendor marketplace. Think of Etsy, but for makeup. So instead of doing that three to five years down the line, we somewhat fast track that and now on the Beauty Maps website, we actually do have a multi-vendor marketplace where I’ve partnered with a lot of other small businesses that sell cosmetic products, such as makeup or eyelashes or eyeliner that are now currently being featured on my website. So the app itself isn’t there yet. I’m not actually connecting to makeup artist just yet, but we’re still able to generate some revenue and at least some traction around the word or the name BeautiMapsv so that once we’re able to roll it out, people have somewhat of a familiarity with it.
PV: Ozzie, you were further along obviously with your business when you entered the Ram’s Den this year, because that’s just the nature of the Ram’s Den competition. Talk to me a little bit about what you’ve been doing.
OU: I think I’ll echo what Brandon said. It’s been very challenging. We started the business, we built out our MVP, we secured funding. So we did some basic blocking and tackling things. By the time we had entered into the new year 2019, there was word on the street for lack of a better phrase of COVID starting and then obviously it hit. The second it hit, things just slowed down initially. We ourselves were trying to figure out what our next position will be, things of that nature but very soon after we started getting in a ton of requests. As far as the way that we’ve structured it, we were actually doing Google advertising, Facebook advertising, things like that, predating COVID. Now what ended up happening with just spending just a few dollars, we’d get like hundreds, and in certain cases, thousands of users requesting loans.
So we had an overwhelming demand that started and what that meant was there was a lot of technology that was underlying our MVP that we didn’t build. So for instance, our automated risk management wasn’t built out. So we had to manually go in and do all the background checks, do all of the looking at their cash flow, things of that nature.
So what I’ll say is I think it made it very clear to us very quickly when the pandemic started and as it followed that we’re going to be critical in helping people survive. So we weren’t just a business that was helping them stay afloat. It turned into if we’re not providing loans and we can’t act fast enough, people will lose jobs. People will have to have hard conversations with their families. So then it went from being just a startup to being almost a bit of a calling for us.
So we’ve been focused heavily on being able to just get the requests, do the analysis of if it’s a risk we’re willing to take and getting them the funds as quickly as possible. So, that’s been sort of our key focus and the challenge now is its sort of flipped over where we’ve gone through the funding that we had originally acquired and as founders we’ve started putting our own funding in and so we have essentially self-funding so we can still continue providing these loans. Obviously we have a lot more skin in the game. At the same time, we’re actually going out, working with other institutions, showing them where we are, our progress so we can get additional funding for more institutional investors.
PV: Is there anything else that the pandemic has made you re-evaluate things?
BA: The pandemic has positioned to me to try to make this company as recession proof as possible. So in my position, fast tracking the timeline on that marketplace where even if people aren’t putting on makeup or women or whoever may not be putting on makeup, they still might put on lashes. They’re still doing their makeup, maybe not professionally, but just to go to dinner or brunch with their mask, if they still want to look somewhat presentable or cute.
OU: I’m sure Brandon’s going through it. We’re going through it as well. It’s how do we stay resilient in a time where we have to work a lot more than we’d anticipated. We all have our day jobs, but we’re now trying to build this company. So it’s been challenging but I think overall I say to all my partners, it’s kind of like our first fight as a couple and we just have to get through it and how we get through it will speak more to us than when we’re just being a happy go lucky couples.
PV: One of the things that you guys have in common is you both worked with the Fordham Foundry. Are there any lessons that you learned from working there that you’re able to use now?
BA: One thing specifically I learned that was important was in this realm, especially as it relates to me building out an app, certain developers have told me the app, for the features I’m looking for, it’s going to run me at least 170K and I’m not sure about you guys, but I don’t have 170K laying around and a lot of people don’t have 170K laying around, but how do I get my vision out without the capital? I can always raise the capital. We can do some rounds with some funding, etc. However, in this realm in today’s day and age, you can fake it until you make it, like literally. So take advantage of prototypes, pay for what it would actually look like and how it would actually operate so that when you show it to investors and show it to even possible clients, they can see it, also get excited about it and realize this is something they want to be a part of.
OU: I’ve been a serial entrepreneur for about eight years now and one of the things that you learn really quickly that they don’t show you in the movies is a lot of startup building, company building is a social thing and what I mean by that is you have to be able to plug into all these different things that you need to do, but you need to find the best people you can in those areas to really help you because there’s no one person sitting in some basement or even in a garage coding the future that person may have built something that can sort of give them direction but ultimately what it boils down to is being able to plug into the right people and that is the key between succeeding or not. It’s one of the main keys I believe. So the Foundry from that perspective has been phenomenal.
You, one, get to touch base with a lot of people who are subject matter experts in that particular field. In addition, if they’re not, they know where to send you or they know who to talk to. So the Foundry, I think in that respect has been instrumental, especially for first time startups. I mean, Brandan, I’m not sure how many companies you’ve built out, but my first one, I flushed $500,000 of my own money down the toilet and I had nothing to show for except a really great app. It could probably land a Rover on Mars, but what it couldn’t do was get the client in there to buy the product.
PV: What’s the biggest challenge you face right now. Brandon, you want to go for that first again? I feel like we have a thing here where it’s a counter-clockwise thing in live view here.
BA: Sure, sure. No problem. So the biggest challenge I face right now, I would say is building out a solid team. You can always find someone who loves it just as much as you and maybe they’ll get some equity in the company and they’ll do the coding or there’ll be your CTO, things of that nature. However, just so I’m clear. I’m not someone who thinks one person should be doing all the work. There’s some CEOs out here and founders, they want to be in the books. Good to great. They want to be known as the guy who took the company from zero to 100. I’m perfectly fine with delegating but part of that is either you need to find somebody who, or people who are just as interested and invested or you need to pay them.
So I think when you don’t have the funds or the capital to necessarily hire people, you’re really focusing on trying to build out a team of people who can see the vision and agree with the vision and will grind through it with you. So I think right now my biggest challenge and I actually just reached out to Al and notated from the Foundry about an intern because the Foundry also provides interns. So I’m definitely going take advantage of that for the next round. Just because having someone who can perhaps maybe strictly focused on business development or strictly focused on marketing versus me trying to have eight legs doing it or eight different arms doing it is just a better approach.
PV: And what about on a personal level? You have a day job too, and you have a life outside of work, I assume.
BA: I do have a day job as well that’s fairly demanding. I work in finance and I also have a two year old as of last Sunday. His name is Bryson. So yeah, full on employee, full on daddy mode, full on entrepreneur. But it’s one of those things where it’s the making of a good story regardless of how it turns out. So my son can also see that I can go to work and still chase my own vision and my own dreams, et cetera. So challenges, yes, but also learning moments by way of a lot of characters being built at this time, which I can imagine Ozzie, in your past entrepreneurship ventures, whether they worked or didn’t work, I’m sure a lot has molded you or changed you to a point where you’re able to attack things differently now. So that’s the one thing I’ve also learned. If this were to never work out, I know how to start a company lightning speed now. I know how to get things going super fast. I know how to do these particular things that for a lot of people is the biggest obstacle.
PV: What about you, Ozzie? Obviously we’ve heard about some of the challenges on the business front. What would you say is the biggest that you face both there and also on a personal front?
OU: I would say on a personal front, an ongoing challenge of mine has been time management, priority management and what I mean by that is I currently run about five different companies that are spread across providing microloans like Equeduct to others that do credit card processing and so on and so forth. So the challenge that I have is where am I going to spend my time is probably the hardest thing and every morning I have a little ritual I go through to determine what’s the highest priority thing that I need to solve for the day. What’s the most pernicious problem that we’re having, that I need to put my brainpower into as a founder and as a CEO of a company. If my attention goes into something that is not relevant and that does not push the company vision forward, then we’re just spinning wheels and dirt.
Beyond that, I think at a company level, our biggest challenge right now is we just need to go faster. I don’t know how else to say it, but I’ve partnered with folks who come from corporate America and there is a bit of a shackle that you wear when you come from corporate America, which is fast is not necessarily good and what I mean by that is they’re used to being very risk averse and taking very measured steps in determining what the return is and a startup is very much not like that. It’s not about taking measures step. This is about running as quickly as you can before either your juice, which is your funds run out, or you find something that works.
Brandon, I’d be curious. Obviously, I’m guessing this is your first company that you’re building up. So if you could change one thing about yourself, forget about the company. It is what it is. One weakness that you think is slowing you down, stopping you from actually building this thing out. What do you think it would be?
BA: Oh, easy answer. It would be my inclination or lack thereof to attack the social media route. So in the beauty industry, seeing is a big part of it. Being active on social media, et cetera. So for my Beauty Maps page, I have a marketing company that’s ran by a friend who’s handling the posting, et cetera, but a lot of that and a lot of things around businesses today, they want to see you, the personal person behind the business. In this case, it’s a little bit different because I’m a 6’2 African-American man and I don’t know much about makeup but knowing that’s a key, especially in this day and age to be noticed is you have to push out content, right? You have to be seen, you have to be known and I particularly don’t enjoy that. I live a private lifestyle. I enjoy that. So if there’s one thing I could change, it would be my ability to be okay with that.
OU: I shy away from publicity also as much as I possibly can, but you’re the main cheerleader for your company. Like now, I was on a flight down to Miami. I talk about my companies to anyone and everyone that’s willing to listen. I was literally trying to sell loans to people on the flight who were sitting next to me. They’re like, just put your mask on and shut up. I’m like, are you sure your business doesn’t need to tell, let’s talk about how your cash flow is and so on support. The trick really becomes is your weaknesses are your company’s weaknesses, quite frankly and it’s true when they say from being in a business perspective, as an MBA student, they always say, find people that offset your weaknesses. It is especially true in a startup because nothing happens in that area unless you have that weakness accounted for.
PV: Brandon, did you want to ask Ozzie anything?
BA: Sure, absolutely. So you mentioned that you ran through half a ticket on your first business. You can feel free to divulge the details if you want but I was just curious, what did you approach differently? I know you mentioned the prototyping, but in this case, you can’t really prototype. You’re either servicing alone or you’re not. So I’m just curious in this case, how did you approach this business idea differently than you did your first one to try to avoid those pitfalls?
OU: So I’ll give you a great example. I think prototyping is shorthand for get it out there as quickly as possible, right? And we can call it whatever we want to, but prototyping really means get it out as quickly as possible, start getting feedback. So with respect to my first business, it was in exotic car peer-to-peer car rental company. So essentially if you owned a Ferrari or Lamborghini, you can put it on a platform and someone will rent it from you and you monetize it. It’s a depreciating asset and we take a certain percentage of the profit, right? We built out the entire, we built out all the partnerships. We built out everything supply side. We had like over a hundred cars on our platform in five different states and we did all these things. What we didn’t do was we didn’t bring customers to the platform. So we spent all this money building up this supply base and this ability to connect the demand side with the supply side but we never focused in on the demand side. Ultimately, what ended up happening was when it was time to shift gears and start focusing on the demand side, which we thought was going to be not the hardest part, turned out to be very hard and on top of that, we ran out of money.
PV: Imagine in your mind now that we can kind of see our way out of this pandemic and we’re going to enter into back to normal, whatever that new normal is. But if you go to a bar and somebody you talk to asks you, why do you like starting companies? What do you tell them?
BA: I would have to say the freedom of knowing that this idea or this business is a representation of my perseverance and execution. At work, you work 40 hours a week. Maybe you’re actually productive for 25 of those 40 hours, but you’ll still get paid for the 40. At a startup, you’ll get paid for what you do. So if you’re only productive 25, you’re only getting paid for 25.
OU: I’m a child of a small business owner and my dad is great at so many things, but I witnessed firsthand discussions at the dinner table about tightening our belt or not having enough money for vacation, or at times, if I only had some more money, I could have grown the business differently or things of that nature. So for me, building Equeduct was in direct response to those conversations that I had with my dad and my family had. It’s to say to people that, listen, it is tough being a business owner and for me specifically, it’s a number of people. So for every one business that goes under, 10 people directly are impacted and by the transitive property, it’s a total of about 40 to 50 people are impacted by one business going down. So that’s a lot of people that are hurt. That’s a lot of people that don’t have money. That’s a lot of people that may not even have the ability to send their kids to school and so on and so forth. So, for me, it’s really straightforward. It’s how do I build something that can provide or contribute to their lives at that level?