Unfortunately, this is something that Bolis Ibrahim has learned the hard way. But after some false starts, tumbles, and a near death experience, the founder of Argentum Electronics has a key partner and investment to support their work to become the backbone of smart buildings through power over Ethernet (PoE).
The first thing we tell new entrepreneurs is that they need to talk to their customers early and talk them often. Customers are their best source of ideas and their biggest influence of their product development. But sometimes, an entrepreneur’s gung ho spirit makes them get ahead of themselves.
Bolis’ first foray into entrepreneurship began while an electrical engineering student at Ryerson University. He was interested in business and had done some work for the university’s Digital Media Zone when he launched a small film and photography studio. This was right when podcasts started becoming popular, and so he decided to invest in high-quality audio equipment in the hopes that people could come in and rent the studio to record their shows.
“We didn’t do enough market research, which was totally our fault,” Bolis explained. “People were buying gear, recording at home and were getting really high-quality audio. With current software and hardware, the only reason you would use a studio would be if you had money to burn.”
That was the beginning of the end for the studio business. But it was around this time that he founded Argentum Electronics.
“Argentum started with a hot dog cart. They use gasoline generators to power a single light bulb, which I thought it was so silly and really bugged against my passion for clean air. But again, I got ahead of myself.”
He mapped out all the hot dog carts in the city, where they were and who held the licenses for them. He designed a simple lighting system using LEDs and batteries that could be supplemented by solar panels, thermal energy from the grill and small wind turbines. He submitted a patent application for the device that he had designed. He made a business plan that involved selling the systems and then charging them a service fee for switching out the batteries. He even assembled a team for the company.
“And then I went out to talk to the hot dog cart owners. What I learned is that the majority of cart owners only have one cart, and they have just enough money to buy more hot dogs. No one was interested in our product.”
Then came solar.
“We ended up adapting the same technology that combined power from different inputs to combining solar energy from different panels. Again, I got ahead of myself and spent too much time reworking our initial technology into a new product before reaching out to customers and manufacturing partners.”
While everyone liked their product—it improved the efficiency of combining power output of multiple solar panels—it increased the installation costs in a very price-sensitive market.
“This was a near death experience for us.”
This is when Bolis found the Impact Centre and the Techno2018 summer entrepreneurship program.
“I learned a lot about customer interaction at Techno, met some customers and pivoted from there into power over Ethernet devices for smart buildings. Techno also made me an expert pitcher.”
As a testament to Bolis’ pitching, technology, and painters, the company just won a $250,000 investment from the Northumberland Community Futures Development Corporation’s N100 Evolution startup competition to support continued development of their prototypes.
Traditional building systems such as lighting and heating are being transformed through new smart and connected control technologies. Argentum’s products provide both power and data to these devices through a single connection while enabling building managers to understand what is happening across their buildings in real-time through cloud-based analytics and control systems.
“This investment will support our product development and allow us to iterate on our demo units to make them ready for commercialization. This will put us in an investable position and propel us to a place where we can do a seed round or a series A.”
From hot dog carts to smart buildings, Bolis has taken a long way round to discover his product-market fit. But this is still only the beginning of the story. We are looking forward to supporting Argentum through more fundraising, product launches, marketing, and sales on the to way to building a sustainable business.
His story can also act as an example for the next round of Techno startups – to talk to their customers early and often.