By GREGORY ZELLER //
A visa snafu might have slowed the works a bit, but Israeli import Zuznow has taken it all in stride.
The Tel Aviv-based startup is finally settling into its offices at Stony Brook University’s Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology, nearly a year after it originally intended. It took “a really, really long time” for cofounder and president Ken Levkovich and his wife, cofounder Rachel Levkovich, to get their immigration visas, but with the international red tape cleared, the president noted, the transplant is ready to roll.
In fact, it’s already rolling. Zuznow, a software-maker that helps users turn existing online applications into mobile apps, has notched its first U.S. customer – Manhattan-based IDB Bank – and is deep in negotiations with several others.
Although delayed by several months, it’s a fast New World start for the import, which still employs 10 people and maintains R&D operations back in Israel. It also continues to service roughly 100 overseas clients, its revenue backbone as it stretches its U.S. legs.
The circa-2011 startup produces software that, among other things, lets clients create a mobile version of a corporate website, as opposed to creating apps from scratch. As the mobilization of everyday humanity continues, Zuznow’s tech – available to go or on the cloud – is smoking hot, and it’s “very exciting” to finally be navigating American waters, Levkovich noted.
Also exciting: beginning to fulfill the commitments Zuznow made when it was accepted in 2015 into Empire State Development’s Start-Up NY program, which creates commercial tax-free zones for early-stage companies around research centers like SBU.
With their immigration requirements complete, the Levkovichs now work full-time at CEWIT. Along with a salesperson who was already manning the office while the couple smoothed out its immigration wrinkles, that’s three full-timers in Stony Brook – with two more on the way, according to Levkovich, who said he’s on the hunt for a new programmer and another sales rep.
While they do have commitments to fulfill, the rapid expansion is more a business decision than a scramble to satisfy Start-Up NY requirements. In fact, in light of the immigrants’ visa holdup, ESD administrators cut Zuznow a break: While the company was officially welcomed into Start-Up NY last year, it’s been given extra time to fulfill its job-creation and regional-investment commitments.
“Everything was moved up one year, basically,” Levkovich told Innovate LI.
While overseeing the international move, expanding their staff, securing IDB Bank – an international personal and commercial banking services provider – and meeting with other potential clients, the Levkovichs are also drawing up plans for a new funding round. Now approaching its fifth anniversary, Zuznow has already collected roughly $1.1 million in outside investments, and is now looking to raise an additional $5 million.
Levkovich expressed confidence in Zuznow’s ability to generate investor interest, even though “the atmosphere around investments is not the best today.”
“The value and need for the product is clear to both customers and investors,” he said. “The only problem now is [investors] seem to be hesitating … they tend to wait.”
It can be a long wait, but the cofounder envisions a snowball effect that starts with IDB bank, adds new customers and eventually attracts new VC interest. He pointed to multiple proof-of-concept tests already underway at “top-tier banks” throughout the Greater New York area, as well as “mature negotiations” with “a huge software integrator that also invests in software companies.”
“We’ve made some real progress with them,” Levkovich noted. “And of course, we’re also pitching directly to VCs.”
They’re also expanding their marketing efforts – not only to banks, according to the president, but to high-tech firms and other enterprise-level businesses.
There are several factors working in Zuznow’s favor, including the prolific spread of mobile technologies, the different ways clients can access Zuznow’s app-creation tools – by purchasing the software outright, as IDB Bank did, or subscribing to it via the cloud – and a go-to-market deal Zuznow announced last year with global kingpin IBM, which added Zuznow’s mobilization solutions to IBM’s MobileFirst package.
Also emboldening the startup is a forthcoming upgrade of its basic product. Levkovich wouldn’t reveal too much about the new version, noting only that it dives deeper into omnichannel protocols, an evolution of multi-channel retailing systems that uses experienced-based data to give users a more intuitive digital experience.
The early score with IDB Bank, the promising negotiations with other potential customers, the IBM partnership, the long-awaited move to the CEWIT and the coming-soon upgrades have the entrepreneurs feeling confident – at least, “as much confidence as you can have when you’re running a startup,” Levkovich noted.
“The big question now is the investor environment,” he said. “But for where we are and what we hope to do, we are feeling as confident as we can.”