Welcome to Trep Talk! Trep Talk features some of our city’s compelling entrepreneurs who are boldly building what is uniquely Memphis. The spotlight series is curated by Elizabeth Lemmonds, Director of Talent Programs for the EPIcenter.
Welcome back to Trep Talk and our Q&A series with some of Memphis’ boldest entrepreneurs and hottest business concepts. This week I’d like to introduce you to Peter Bassa, Sasha Kucharczyk and Ken Sills of Preteckt. Their sensor uses machine learning to predict maintenance needs in fleets of semi trucks, to avoid not only costly repairs but also similarly costly downtime (and truck drivers don’t get to ignore those warning lights the way some of us are known to do).
There are a number of things I love about Preteckt and this group of co-founders. Their leading edge sensor is so well suited for a logistics hub like Memphis, that they moved from Toronto to participate in a 2015 Start Co. accelerator and decided to keep their HQ here. Plus they consistently pay it forward with their time and support of new Memphis startups. I know they were fantastic with last fall’s EPIcenter Logistics Innovation Accelerator teams!
They’re also an ideal example of the power of customer discovery, the business validation process through which you prove – or revise – your product, primary market, revenue model, pricing… pretty much everything that makes your proposed business a solid and sustainable one. In Preteckt’s case they thought they were going after a consumer market until they discovered that the potential customers that most acutely feel the pain of repairs and downtime are commercial fleets. Big plans and existing prototype or no, you listen to the market.
Preteckt’s success is certainly due to team effort, so I put it to Peter to share the Q&A with Sasha and Ken. While I originally expected to choose one or perhaps two responses for a given question, I decided that their answers were too strong together. Hopefully – especially if considering launching a business with partners – you’ll agree that the similarities, complements and even contrasts below are pretty fascinating. And, well… a couple of them are just hilarious. #gowhiskey
Give us your elevator pitch!
Preteckt keeps semi-trucks on the road by predicting breakdowns ahead of time. The goal is to eliminate downtime.
What was your inspiration?
Peter: The very cool automotive shows I always attended, seeing new technology and having a great imagination.
Sasha: Having your person car breakdown is a bad experience – bad enough that I was willing to drop my ‘day job’ to commit myself as a co-founder of a startup trying to change that experience. A truck breaking down just happens to be a lot more painful and makes a lot more business sense to tackle first. Oh- and data and machine learning projects are cool and exciting.
Did you always know you were destined for entrepreneurship? If not, what lured you in? What are your backgrounds?
Ken: I was a physics professor that work both in industry and in academia. I was not destined to be an entrepreneur, and it scares me senseless every day.
Peter: I knew one thing. I didn’t like routine. It bored me. The adventure of everyday being different is what attracted me to entrepreneurship.
Sasha: I always toyed around with innovation, but I would not call it entrepreneurship in the sense of a startup / growth focus company. Post engineering undergrad I was in the mentality that I wanted to make cool things. That morphed into making cool things that people want after I finished my engineering masters. Post-MBA, that further changed into make cool things that you can build a business around… and then I took the startup dive.
What are the most rewarding parts of owning this business? Any unexpected benefits?
Peter: The greatest part was taking an idea years ago and seeing it go through the stages of becoming what it is today.
Sasha: I have had so many people offer me resources, open doors for me, or just provide help or resources just because I am doing something that could have an impact. The network I have been able to build because of this has been amazing but was completely unexpected beforehand.
Ken: The best part has been hiring great people and watching the grow in knowledge and ability.
What are the biggest hurdles you face as a startup founder?
Ken: The biggest challenge is the lack of financial stability.
Sasha: The biggest hurdle is the lack of stability. In early stage startup land, a year in the future is ages in the future. It makes it very difficult to plan your life, as you have no idea what you will be doing or where you will be.
Peter: The biggest hurdle was deciding to jump in feet first into entrepreneurship. Facing the many unknowns and taking that risk. Challenges are still real. But whatever you put your mind to you can overcome.
What is your best piece of advice to those considering their own startup dreams?
Peter: Join a local start-up meet up group. Talk to others. Do a “Start-up weekend.” Get involved. Have no regrets. Look for the best in every situation and accept it. Get better.
Sasha: Talk to entrepreneurs who have been following the path that you want to follow for 3 to 5 years. Learn the ups and downs, the good and the bad, etc. Then use the knowledge to determine if it is for you.
Ken: Don’t assume that “experts” know more than you do. Be skeptical of all advice, equally.
Which local resources helped you the most when converting your bold idea into a solid business model?
Peter, Sasha, and Ken all agree: Local? Start Co. without a question.
What additional resources would you like to see developed in Memphis, to help smooth the path for future entrepreneurs?
Ken: Having a maker space in the downtown that provides both engineering expertise as well as access to tools (oscilloscope, 3d printer, etc. ).
Sasha: Memphis needs either a significantly larger amount of angel investors who have startup experience or be able to reliable tap into another city’s. Sadly developing one is a chicken-or-egg problem. The best investors who have been through an early stage startup themselves which in turn requires startups to have first been successful in the city.
Peter: Memphis has a pretty smooth system already I feel. I often look out my window and see the rest of Memphis in the distance and wonder if more people know what great system they have here.
How do you maintain a semblance of balance? What are your favorite ways to unwind?
Peter: I’m a homebody. I enjoy time to myself but also exploring the city, even going antique shopping, every piece has a history. It’s very cool. I like going to Memphis Grizzlies games, concerts, the Wolfchase Mall.
Ken: Climbing at Bridges. Weekends at Shelby Forest.
Sasha: I think work/life balance is a misnomer. As an entrepreneur, work and non-work merges. If you need an escape from that, I believe that you may need to re-evaluate what you are doing.
What should be on every entrepreneur’s bookshelf?
Sasha: Good to Great (Jim Collins), Minto Pyramind Principle (Barbara Minto), Crossing the Chasm (Geoffrey Moore)
Peter: Business Model Generation (explaining the Business Model Canvas, by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur)
Who’s on your playlist right now?
Sasha: Arkells, Avcii, Calvin Harris
Peter: Big Ali, EDX, The 1975, The Kungs, Timati, Jean-Roch, Sigala and Justin Timberlake to name a few. (Scrolling thru my iPhone) There’s a lot here.
Ken: Avett Brothers, Bahamas, The Head and the Heart, The Strumbellas, Said The Whale, Tokyo Police Club, Trampled By Turtles
Got any guilty pleasures you’re willing to share?
Peter: HA! yes. . . Pop music.
Sasha: Whiskey – it is a team bonding experience.
Ken: Playing acoustic guitar and singing out on the patio at Start Co.
Especially as relatively new Memphians, what are some of your favorite local businesses or highlights?
Ken: Bridges, Alchemy, Muddy’s, Automatic Slims, Erling Jensen.
Peter: Tamp and Tap, The Peabody, watching Memphis Grizz play. I like the riverfront area and BassPro Shop.
Sasha: Memphis has a great craft beer scene. The beer is great and the breweries make good venues to hang out at in the afternoons or evenings.