Mark Powell is the founder of Hwind, one of Tallahassee, Florida’s most successful tech startups, but his entrepreneurial journey is a unique one. Instead of as a sleep-deprived 20-something wearing flannels and flip-flops, Powell started Hwind after a long career in research and academia.
With help from the local startup community and several different support organizations, Powell was able to turn his research at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) into a profitable startup that was eventually acquired by RMS (Risk Management Solutions).
How did he do it? Well, it took passion, patience and perspiration. Keep reading to get a sense of how Powell took his passion for meteorology and turned it into a sustainable business.
Powell developed Hwind’s core technology himself. But since he was a NOAA employee, his brainchild was the property of Uncle Sam. When he saw support at NOAA dwindling, he decided to take the project private. The process of gaining control over the Hwind patent took almost a year.
He could have easily given up during that time, but he stuck it out. For entrepreneurs looking to put research into action and make their dreams a reality, persistence and patience are key, he says.
“It took about a year to get the clearance from NOAA,” he says. “They basically had to ask ‘Is there any need for the government to hold on to this?’”
Don’t get discouraged
At one point, Powell was pitching his company to mentors at the Tallahassee Entrepreneurial Excellence Program (EEP). Being new to the entrepreneurship world, Mark was practicing his pitch. After the presentation, one of the judges reportedly told him ‘“you shouldn’t be doing this.”
But Powell didn’t let the negative feedback turn him away. As they say in sports, he “fed off the boos” and pushed forward. If everyone you talk to thinks your idea isn’t a hit, it may be time to reconsider. But the lesson here is that you should never let a single critic kill your drive.
“If you’re passionate about something, there’s no one else who can substitute for you,” he says.
Focus on products
As Powell and Hwind transitioned from government research project to enterprise startup, the most challenging thing for him to do was to figure out how to take his research and present it as a marketable product. Mark could see the value of his data and predictive models, and so could numerous other organizations that used his research.
According to Powell, pricing the value of the data he collected and the service he provided was one of the most difficult parts of creating his business. In the end, he got creative and used previous research funding from private companies as a point of reference.
“I thought, if it’s that important to this entity, that’s probably a reasonable price for someone else to expect to pay,” he says.
Practice makes pitching perfect
As a research scientist at NOAA, Powell undoubtedly had to “pitch” his idea to various organizations to elicit grants and funding. But pitching to a group of scientists is much different than selling your idea to investors. Through EEP and Florida A&M University’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC), Powell was able to develop his skills and build a better pitch.
It didn’t happen right away, however. Powell talked about how he needed to practice pitching—sometimes on stage, sometimes to mentors, and sometimes to nosy coworkers—before he was able to to effectively sell his idea. Even if your pitch doesn’t result in a win, every bit of practice helps. You’ll get ‘em next time.
“That was a great experience,” he says. “I didn’t get funding but I wasn’t looking for funding. I was looking for practice.”
Build a network and leverage your connections
Powell’s path to success was paved with help from a variety of support organizations within the community in Tallahassee. Powell participated in EEP and SBDC to make sure that he was prepared for the challenges of building a business from the ground up.
In addition, Powell made sure he was plugged into the burgeoning Tally startup scene, and was a frequent face at Domi Station, Tallahassee’s first ever coworking space and startup incubator. It was there that he learned to develop his pitching skills and create a network of connections that he could use to help grow his business.
“Even if you didn’t have a relationship with a particular business, you still had a relationship in common. No matter what the business, you could talk to people and share ideas.”
Want more startup advice? Read the full interview and other startup profiles at Cuttlesoft.com.