By GREGORY ZELLER //
A software startup determined to help you find a parking space is hitting the gas.
Fresh off a three-month stint at StartFast, the mentorship-driven “venture accelerator” in Syracuse, ParqMi – brainchild of Hofstra University graduates Stanley Schvartsberg, Jacqueline Hsu and Thomas Georgiades – is back on Long Island and shifting into gear.
While perfecting its camera-and-app technology for finding open spaces in crowded public lots and parking garages, the new resident of the Digital Ballpark – the Long Island Software & Technology Network’s Plainview-based co-working space – is busily exploring potential partnerships with hardware providers, according to Chief Marketing Officer Hsu, who in May graduated from Hofstra with bachelor’s degrees in computer science and psychology.
ParqMi’s principals are also perfecting their investor pitches – skills acquired during their three months at StartFast, where the primary focus is on “helping you get ready to get funded,” Hsu told Innovate LI.
For a fresh team with a strong lineup but obvious pitching problems, these were “crucial” lessons, Hsu noted, especially after the trio whiffed at this year’s Hofstra University CPXi Venture Challenge and the 2016 New York State Business Plan Competition, where ParqMi presented but did not advance past the Long Island regional round.
Winning such competitions has eluded them, but the team has been consistently reinforced by promising connections.
LISTnet Chairman Peter Goldsmith, a judge for the state business plan competition’s regional round, is a longtime supporter, Hsu noted, who eventually invited them to play in the Digital Ballpark. And while finalist ParqMi – then known as Park-Mi – didn’t walk away with a CPXi prize, the parking pitch did catch the eye of Venture Challenge judge Nasir Ali, a StartFast managing director who invited the team to apply for a three-month program in the Syracuse accelerator.
The team applied and was accepted, earning a $25,000 StartFast investment, to date the only outside funding of the company. Their three months began in May, the same month the trio officially incorporated Stoja Corp. (dba ParqMi), with Shvartsberg as chief executive and Georgiades as CTO.
They went with “ParqMi,” Hsu noted, “simply because the ‘Park-Mi’ website was taken.”
“We tried contacting them about the possibility of purchasing the domain, but the price tag was way out of budget,” she said, citing a $15,000 asking price.
But the team is actually happier with the hipper, less-hyphenated ParqMi tag – “When you look at it,” Hsu noted, “you still pronounce it ‘park me’” – and thrilled with the investment-focused training it received in Syracuse, where dozens of mentors from across the tech-startup and VC realms regularly offer insights.
Among the primary lessons: Entrepreneurs can’t always be perfectionists.
“You always want to make your product better,” Hsu said. “But what a lot of startups don’t know is that there’s a lot of trial and error – you fail early, you fail often and you try again.
“The sooner you push out, the sooner you get feedback and the sooner you can actually make it better.”
The ParqMi people were also exposed to StartFast’s impressive network – not only the program’s mentors but the other startups assisted by the venture accelerator, as well as their professional partners.
“They made really good introductions, including contacts at the Smart City Networks,” Hsu said. “It really helped us solidify as a company and get focused on what we need to get done.”
While Ali – who is also CEO of entrepreneur-energizer Upstate Venture Connect and executive director of Seed Capital Fund of CNY, a private LLC focused on early-stage tech companies – has not invested in ParqMi, he has personally coached the team on pitching venture capitalists, and may eventually grease the skids with potential investors.
The more, the merrier, Hsu said, noting she and her partners are “ready to get involved in that scene.”
“We’re definitely planning to reach out to the (Long Island) Angel Network and other investors here,” she said. “We’ve spent time building our go-to-market strategy and figuring out what targets to focus on.”
So far, the founders have kept their overhead low, investing “under $800” to test camera equipment and develop software, Hsu said. ParqMi apps are available for download on Apple and Android devices, but to date offer information only on small test lots in Lynbrook and Brooklyn.
ParqMi has also been promoting heavily on social media, building followings on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. A traditional marketing push will likely come after capital investments are secured.
For the first-time entrepreneurs, it’s been a whirlwind since May, when Shvartsberg completed his master’s degree in computer science and Georgiades earned his computer-science bachelor’s. For now, they’re truly bootstrapping, according to Hsu, who noted a “classic startup scenario where we’re living on the generosity of our family and friends.”
But for the first time, ParqMi has a plan, based on its StartFast education and bolstered by that mid-August move into the Digital Ballpark.
“It’s a good environment because you’re surrounded by other startups and serial entrepreneurs,” Hsu said. “It’s sort of like recreating that accelerator environment.
“And we like the location.”
ParqMi is also focusing on building those partnerships with hardware providers – “One of the things we learned (at StartFast) was to avoid the hardware components,” Hsu noted – with various discussions underway, including direct talks with Annese & Associates, a Buffalo-based provider of integrated technology solutions.
One of Annese & Associates’ focuses is on “smart campuses,” Hsu said, and discussions involve potential pairings of ParqMi software with the certified reseller’s third-party hardware.
Of course, ParqMi is also prepared to park itself in front of potential investors, perhaps the most important of all the lessons learned upstate.
“The accelerator program definitely prepared us to become investor-ready,” Hsu said. “Now we have a minimum viable product working and we can continue to build it out and create a better experience for our users.”
What’s It? A parking-made-simple camera-and-app system for public lots and garages
Brought To You By: Hofstra graduates Stanley Shvartsberg, Jacqueline Hsu and Thomas Georgiades
All In: $800 (or less), to test cameras and internally develop software
Status: Apps are up; actual parking lots and garages coming soon