When Joshua Weiss first started his software company, his office situation was a bit unusual.
Nearly every day between 2012 and 2014, he walked through two double doors, up to the front counter and placed his usual order: a small coffee, a black bean soup and Mediterranean veggie sandwich with pickle chips instead of cheese.
That is, until Panera Bread stopped carrying those particular pickles.
Since those early days, Weiss’ tech startup — TeliApp — has grown to 10 employees and its own office space in Linden. But Weiss still talks about the time he spent building his company from a Panera in Edison the way a man in love recalls the location of a fateful first date.
“I had a favorite spot: Go in, make a right, go through the double glass doors, the rectangular table all the way in the back in front of the small booth, (which) had one of the only outlets in that Panera right by it,” he said. “(And) around 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., that Panera limits their Wi-Fi usage to one 30-minute session, so my team and I would switch to my Xfinity Wi-Fi account.
“That corner of the store has the strongest reception for Xfinity.”
But it was all meaningful for Weiss: Roughing it for almost two years helped to inform TeliApp’s flagship product, FollowUs. The software is designed to help small businesses in establishing a social media presence, despite the characteristically shoestring budget of both time and money.
“Most young consumers have never opened up the Yellow Pages, they don’t know what Valpak coupons are, and these are still the primary ways that mom and pop are advertising,” he said. “So, how is a small business supposed to educate the young generation to shop on Main Street?
Biz in brief
FOUNDER: Joshua Weiss
One more thing: Weiss founded 1-800-TOW-TRUCK in 1997 and raised $3 million in institutional capital for the national roadside assistance firm.
“Social media represents the obvious way to market to the young generation, but most small business owners are not tech-savvy enough to do that themselves or they simply don’t have the time (or) can’t afford to hire somebody full-time to do it for them.”
More than connecting with users on social media, FollowUs is designed to convert those online engagements into actual foot traffic in the store by pulling data from social media platforms to see a person’s location based on their posts.
“If I’m a guy like Totoni’s Pizza in Linden, I don’t need a guy in California to know I exist, but anyone in Linden is a potential customer,” Weiss said. “Our software generates foot traffic by pulling in people who are local to our paid subscribers.”
But location is just one piece of the puzzle: Content from Joe’s Meat Market doesn’t do much for a local vegan, even if they are in the same town.
“We establish a personality matrix based on your content, who follows you and who you follow so we can figure out who you are,” Weiss said.
“And, if you become a customer, we’ll try to find other people like you and pull them through the door as well.”
But the company being right there in the trenches with the same small businesses it is serving is what makes it unique.
“I’ve walked into small businesses and asked them how much they’d be willing to pay for something that will generate more foot traffic,” he said.
Generally, Weiss found the answer to be between $30 and $50 a month, several hundred shy of Yelp’s asking price.
“We don’t impose any type of signup fee or cancellation fee, no minimum term or annual contract,” he said. “You pay as you go, and if you don’t like it, cancel — no problem.”
Outside of FollowUs, TeliApp develops custom, white-label software for companies, mostly tech startups. Originally, that service started as a way to fund the development of FollowUs.
“We decided to divide our time, build software for other companies and use that money to underwrite our own project,” Weiss said.
“We’ve always been lean, mean and severely under budget.”
Diversifying the business is what allowed the company to move from Panera into an office space.
But there was a tradeoff.
“After we started to develop software for other companies, we thought we’d be dividing our time in a 50-50 way,” he said, “But 95 percent is client software and 5 percent is our stuff.
“That’s really nights and weekends.”
Ultimately, it was the solution to a problem Weiss had been facing: raising money in New Jersey.
“I’ve been networking with angel investors and early-stage venture capitalists for several years now, and I can’t speak to what the climate is in other regions for the perspective of raising capital for an early-stage firm, but — in the tri-state area — if you’re not post-revenue and post-launch, investors just aren’t going to take the chance unless there’s a really compelling reason.”
Weiss said investors he’s met through networks have told him the benchmark for investments is 1,000 customers paying $25 a month.
“They say, ‘If you don’t have that in your arsenal, why should we take a risk? There are many, many other entrepreneurs that are post-launch, post-revenue (who) meet those metrics, so why should we take that level of risk on you?’” he said.
“I didn’t want to go ahead and try to raise capital until we (met those metrics), and now we do, so we’re in the middle of the seed round right now.”
And though the company has moved on, the original location still holds a special significance for its employees, who still visit the location for a meal or meeting.
“We have throwback days all the time,” Weiss said.
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On Twitter: @sheldonandrewj