This Technology Might Mean the End of Coins

Whether it has accumulated in the cup holder of your car, in a jar on your nightstand, or somewhere else, we’ve all got a pile of coins taking up unnecessary space somewhere in our lives. And while we might get around to changing them in for bills at some point, the stark reality is that many of them will simply be rendered useless.

Roughly $62 million worth of coins are thrown in landfills every year. In addition to that sobering statistic, the energy and cost required to produce and transport coins far outweighs their actual value. As we move more and more towards a digital economy, can we make a break with clunky coins for good? That’s the end goal for this innovative startup.

Meet Get Started Northwest Arkansas Winners Francis Hwang & Daniel Kam of Bucket

The idea for Bucket was originally born in 2003 when Hwang was working on a research project related to the San Francisco branch of the Federal Reserve. The group’s goal was to “attempt to quantify the amount of energy required to maintain the fiat currency instrument within the United States,” he says. He was surprised to find that despite their inferior value, coins represented the dominant cost in the exchange.

At the time, however, technology simply hadn’t caught up enough to make his idea feasible. “Cash registers were just that; they weren’t connected to the internet. There were just too many limitations on that side,” he says. But by 2016, he felt that consumer behavior and digital POS systems had evolved to the point that his idea could be implemented. He joined forces with Kam–an established entrepreneur he had met through his then girlfriend (now wife)–and in August of 2016, Bucket was born.

Outside the Bubble

Hwang and Kam approached pitching at the Get Started Northwest Arkansas competition as a sort of “gut check” and a way to gauge reaction to their idea outside their own personal bubble. “Regardless if we won or not, we knew it would be nice to get a heartbeat,” Hwang says. The judging panel’s reaction was an enthusiastic “yes,” and the guys walked away with the win.

They plan to utilize the prize package to execute a number of forward-moving steps. “We’re entertaining a couple of office locations in and around the Northwest Arkansas area, and wherever we set up is where we plan to utilize the technology package,” Hwang says. As for the marketing aspect of the package, they’re already in talks with Cox about cosponsoring multiple local events.

The team is excited to get out in the community even more, as they’ve seen great feedback since winning the competition. “I’ve gotten to speak in depth regarding Bucket, the direction of fiat currencies, and the direction of POS systems in the retail space,” Hwang says. “It’s already been showing and bearing some fruit for conversation.”

Mission-Driven Innovation

While the Bucket team has lofty goals about helping to eliminate the need for coin currency, the beauty is that their process and product are efficient and simple. Their app will allow consumers to “bank” coin change resulting from retail cash transactions into a sort of “digital piggybank,” meaning they would only get paper bills back in exchange. Once a consumer has banked $50 in change, they’re sent a message to cash that out.

Their most powerful motivation is the chance to make a holistic impact on society in a measurable way. “By the simple act of bucketing your change or physical coins when you shop with cash, we actually benefit everything above that,” Hwang says. “The environment, societal inaccessibility, and mobility of people’s money…and we saved everybody a ton of money across the board.”

It might seem revolutionary to imagine a coinless society, but Kam says the time is now. “It’s almost irresponsible to be facilitating coins because we have now a mechanism for you to make an impact upstream with very, very, little cost,” he says. “The cash transaction has not been innovated ever. You hand over a bill, you get coins back 99% of the time. There’s definitely that behavior pattern, whether it’s coming from the decision makers in corporate or the consumers. But we have faith in humanity and we are hoping that people embrace the solution.”

Hwang and Kam are actively in pursuit of participating retailers to onboard, starting with the immediate communities in the Northwest Arkansas corridor. “We have a handful of small and medium businesses already signed up since it’s very much DIY and they can go on their tablet-based POS and download the app for free and immediately begin bucketing for free as well,” Hwang says. They also have commitments from all the area Chick-fil-A restaurants to participate.

Because the app will be free to use for both consumers and retailers, the Bucket team is focused first on helping people understand why there is such a pressing need for their product. “Since society only interacts with coins at the retail location, it’s really our job to educate them on their impact to the environment, societally, the user experience for people who shop with cash, etc. and get them onboard,” Hwang says.

Not Their First Rodeo

Hwang and Kam have both launched successful businesses before, so they’re well-versed in the complexities of life as an entrepreneur. “Francis and I, we’re not in our 20s doing a startup,” Kam says. “There’s pros and cons to that, but nevertheless it’s still fun to be in a startup environment because there’s excitement and passion.”

Bucket’s altruistic aims aren’t new to them either. Hwang’s first startup, My Red Rabbit, works to deliver healthy meals and snacks to preschoolers in New York City and now proudly serves 20,000 of those meals a day. Kam reiterates that the strongest startups will always be those that move beyond the desire for quick profit. “Find something like what we’ve found in Bucket that is making a measurable difference to the world, to your community,” he says. “Be mission focused, not just passion focused where it’s self-interest, but something that actually serves others.”

While their passion is abundantly clear, Hwang and Kam are aware of the challenges they face and are prepared to prove why Bucket can and will be a game changer not just in the retail space, but for society as a whole. “At the end of the day, the world is made up of people, and to be able to instill value and bring people together to achieve things is where we’re focused,” Kam says.

For more information on Bucket, visit www.buckettechnologies.com

Why I Needed to Change the “Perfect” Business Model

As a chef at a seafood restaurant in Boston, Matt Tortora knew the difficulty that restaurateurs had sourcing the fresh ingredients customers demand. He launched WhatsGood, a Providence-based online market that connected chefs and wholesale buyers with farmers, fishermen, and artisans.

The business model that seemed “perfect” when Tortora considered it from the chef’s point of view quickly ran into problems. “With a two-sided, b-to-b marketplace, we ran into an internal conflict about who our customer was,” he says. “We had to look at who we really represented.”

Ultimately, Tortora did a 180, focusing the system on the needs of the producers rather than the chefs or wholesale buyers. That eliminated the conflicts, but added plenty of challenges. Farmers told him the virtual farmer’s market was helpful in connecting them with wholesale buyers, automating many irksome tasks they had long done manually. But they also wanted to reach consumers who bought their goods at actual farmer’s markets – something Tortora hadn’t factored into his original business model.

Going to market

The change in direction required Tortora to rethink his entire approach to online commerce. A farmer might have one price point for a wholesale buyer who purchased 50 pounds of grass-fed beef or 25 pounds of broccoli, but charge a different amount for smaller retail purchases. An even bigger problem was how to make the economics work. Consumers wanted to use credit cards online, but those charges all but erased the tight margins of the food producers.

Tortora came up with a unique twist. He developed a Starbucks-like app that allowed farmers to upload information about the goods they were offering at an upcoming farmer’s market. Consumers could order the goods online and pick them up, often in one convenient package that had been collected from many stands.

The margin issue was addressed by explaining the tight margins and adding a tiny amount to the purchase price to cover the credit card fees. Because the costs were so transparent, consumers were happy to pay, as it seemed less like a fee than a contribution to a worthy cause.

With the newfound focus on the growers, farmer’s markets themselves, seeing that consumers wanted a more convenient way to shop for food, began to reach out to Tortora about the technology. The Farmer’s Market Federation of New York, a grassroots organization of farmers, had been trying to develop similar technology for a year, but still lacked the capabilities that Tortora developed. In November, they licensed the technology to brand their own app, called FreshFoodNY, and other grower organizations have followed suit.

“That was a game-changer for us,” Tortora says. “We realized we had been approaching our business model all right. We had never considered white-labeling our technology, but it made sense to partner with someone who already had an identity in their community, so we could wrap the technology around a brand the local consumer already understood.”

Adopting the new business model was a matter of not letting his ego get in the way of changing the concept that had seemed “perfect” and having investors who saw the potential of the change. “Most people who start a business have identified a problem to solve,” Tortora says. “As a chef, I saw a problem that was big enough to roll the dice on. But I was looking through a peephole, and I didn’t realize there was a bigger problem until the door opened and I walked in.”

WhatsGood won first place at Get Started Providence 2016, a fast-paced business pitch competition developed by Cox Communications.

How I Lost and Re-found the Vision for My Company

Jonathan Santos may not have been born an entrepreneur, but he came pretty close. At age 8, he realized that almost everyone he saw in his native Mexico ran their own business, from fruit stands to little shops. He began collecting ideas for businesses in a notebook and in 2011, he hit upon a simple concept with profound implications: backpacks.

“For me, a backpack was a tool you carried to school on your journey to a better life,” says the 27-year-old entrepreneur. He grew up in a rough part of Las Vegas, and many of his friends had ended up in jail or worse. “A backpack was a symbol of progress.”

He and two friends launched a company called Revive, which meant to be born again-;something that Santos felt happened to him when he entered a magnet high school and then business school at the College of Southern Nevada. The trio of friends had no idea how profound the company name was; their story is really about how the entrepreneurs needed to revive themselves and their business.

Jumping at every opportunity

Ironically, a company founded on the principle of “a journey to a better life” lost its way. Every time the three friends encountered a potential opportunity – one contact promised to hook them up with athletes to endorse their products; another said he would distribute their products if they targeted a higher end of the market – they jumped at it.

Revive stumbled with different brand messaging. They pushed out everything from flashy bags with gold zippers to athletic bags that had a “high-energy Red Bull” feel. They dabbled in baseball caps and duffel bags – anything they thought had a chance to sell. All the big promises quickly disappeared. They knew they wanted to succeed; they just weren’t sure what precisely they were trying to succeed at. “We just created products wherever we thought there might be a demand for those products,” Santos says. “We had no identity.”

That identity emerged through tragic circumstances. Medin Gebrezgier, Santos’ partner, had an eye-opening experience working at his day job at a local Starbucks, when a man was shot in front of him. Gebrezgier administered CPR, but the man died. To pull himself out of the resulting depression, he began doing community service and helping others.

Looking to yourself

That incident was a wake-up call for the three partners, who realized they’d lost sight of their original mission. “We got knocked down so many times, we had to look in the mirror,” Santos says. “We kept looking for other people to make us a success, but the only person who can do this for you is you. It was on us to tell our story and inspire our customer.”

They focused on one product-;”the Game Bag Quickstrike”- a backpack designed to carry a basketball. They rebranded the company around the motto: “Wake up and win.” Their vision is to create a better world by inspiring more to serve, one person and community at a time.

The motto crystallized what their company was about. They make significant use of blogs and YouTube videos to trumpet the message to focus on positive things like family, friends, and community service. The notion of getting outside of yourself and finding greatness through others, struck a chord with Revive’s core buyers, since basketball is a team-oriented activity.

Most of all the message resonated because it represented what the founders embodied- it brought them back to the mission that motivated their business in the first place.

Connectivity: The Force that Drives Business

Today, businesses of every size have workforces that span the globe and customers who expect superb service 24-7. Connectivity is no longer just a communications matter; it’s the essential fabric that enables worker productivity and drives customer satisfaction. Done right, connectivity can propel a company to new heights; done poorly, it can lose your competitive advantage.

“Connectivity is absolutely key for any small business,” says Diane Eschenbach, a consultant and the author of How to Quickly Start a Business Online. “Small businesses really have to start thinking outside the box now when it comes to being connected with their customers.” 

Small businesses are often composed of teams of mobile workers for whom the desk phone is passé. They work across multiple devices, and they need to be able to access data and documents and collaborate from anywhere. Hosted phone systems/unified communications, which tie together all the communication devices, are a key to that flexibility, as Matt Tortora well knows.

Tortora operates What’s Good, a virtual farmer’s market that connects food growers with buyers. “I constantly travel, and Saturday and Sunday are work days,” he says. Even if he’s out in a field meeting with a grower, he needs to be immediately accessible to customers, his U.S. employees, and his 20-person development team in Brazil. “No matter where I am, I always have to maintain a presence for my team as if I am in the office,” he says.

Mobile and bursting

Systems that support itinerant and disperse workforces are becoming business imperatives. The recent Alternative Board’s Small Business Pulse found that 88 percent of business owners rate their satisfaction with cloud technology above average. Entrepreneurs cite the primary benefits as mobility and productivity (22 percent) and quicker/easier access to data (21 percent).

For example, Mike Wolfe, director of operations for Delgado Stone Distributors in Brookfield, CT, used cloud-based technology with Wi-Fi and cellular data capabilities to create real-time manufacturing and inventory processes. He also implemented a CRM system his company’s salespeople use in the field on their mobile devices, tablets, and computers. “This has improved internal communication between customer support and sales, which in turn has improved customer satisfaction,” he says. “Everyone is on the same page; it’s easy for the customer to buy or obtain information.”

Connectivity affects companies in surprising ways. Anita Williams Woolley, associate professor from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, found remote teams that communicate in bursts – exchanging messages quickly during periods of high activity – perform much better than those whose conversations involve long lag time between responses.

But it’s important to appreciate that effective connectivity must be flexible. “Creativity can be sparked through togetherness as well as alone time,” says consultant Kathryn Trauth Taylor. “It sometimes requires connection, and at other times, independence. I see every day how important it is to provide my team with flexibility, mobility, and virtual collaboration opportunities. Writing, especially, can demand privacy and independent reflection, followed by collaborative feedback sessions, and preceded by ideation and research.”

Reinforcing brand identity

The amount of data that small businesses consume today has also upped the ante for connectivity. Businesses are constantly downloading and uploading data, especially when working with remote teams, processing financial transactions, or connecting to customers.

Jonathan Santos, who runs Revive, a Las Vegas company that produces backpacks designed to carry a basketball, makes liberal use of social media to post videos communicating the brand message “wake up and win. “Working virtually, it’s important to have a good connection at all times to help us upload videos to our social channels,” he says. Videos are a key method of reinforcing his brand identity, and without good connectivity that identity can sputter.

Connecting to customers – and providing them with good connectivity – is evolving new business opportunities as well. A study by technology by research and consulting firm Yankee Group found that 96 percent of customers prefer companies that offer free Wi-Fi; 64 percent of people have chosen a restaurant based on free Wi-Fi availability.

“It’s clear that a retail or customer-facing establishment that didn’t provide Wi-Fi, was like an establishment that didn’t provide a bathroom,” says Robb Hecht, adjunct marketing professor at New York’s Baruch College. “And that irks customers.”

Connectivity has moved beyond a nicety that coffee shops, hair salons, doctors’ offices, and laundromats offer. It can mean entry into a deeper relationship with customers. DY Martin, a high-end liquor retailer and distributor in Louisiana, uses connectivity to drive more personalized and efficient customer interactions-;right in the aisles of their stores. Every customer-facing employee uses mobile to connect with their warehouse inventory and provide personalized service. 

And that’s what connectivity can mean to a small business-;more personal relationships, happier workers, and higher productivity. Small business owners should consider the words of best-selling author Parag Khanna: “Mankind has a new maxim – connectivity is destiny – and the most connected powers, and people, will win.”