It was a year of refinement, said Chris Goode, as well as a time to rejoice amid highs and lows at Ruby Jean’s Juicery. Startland checked in with the founder, along with his fellow 2018 Startups to Watch companies, to see if the past 12 months unfolded as predicted.
While working to expand Ruby Jean’s reach into new markets across the U.S. and through innovative in-store concepts within the metro, Goode was forced to reconcile his passion to grow with a need to fail fast on projects that weren’t meeting expectations, he said.
Goode closed one Ruby Jean’s concept and nixed plans to revive a store in Westport, but pushed ahead with operations in Atlanta and a game-changing partnership with one of the largest natural grocery chains in the country, he said.
But 2018 wasn’t all business for Goode, he said. The founder’s most profound startup news came in the form of his new son.
“Levin’s arrival has changed me already,” Goode said. “He makes me want to be a better Chris and seeing the untainted love in his eyes brings me to tears at times. His love undoubtedly is now my biggest asset as a man and entrepreneur. He has become a silent nudge throughout the day, another source of purpose.”
Fatherhood has given Goode an unexpected new perspective on how to pursue Ruby Jean’s next steps, he said.
“It’s really challenging — being the person who is solely responsible for the growth of an emerging small business takes much sacrifice, and also being a person who will not allow one of those sacrifices to be the relationship with my family; it requires balance and extreme focus,” he said. “It is honestly forcing me to be more efficient, forcing me to learn to say ‘no’ and more deliberately say ‘yes.’”
“I hold being a father in high esteem and consider it an honor,” Goode continued. “However, it is also my duty to create a level playing field for him to walk on one day. I’m excited and blessed to even have the opportunity.”
Ruby Jean’s was tied for No. 10 on Startland’s 2018 Startups to Watch list. Here are updates on Kansas City’s other most-newsworthy companies.
2018 was an explosive year for the coworking community, said founder Gerald Smith.
Plexpod not only announced its acquisition of the former Think Big space in the Crossroads Arts District, but revealed plans to open a fourth Plexpod location in River Market and potentially a fifth space in the proposed Innovation District near 18th and Vine.
“Opportunities far outpaced our capacity to respond to all the inquiries about Plexpod,” Smith said. “Of course it was exciting to be recognized by other communities, who are wanting to replicate what we’ve accomplished in Kansas City, but also to have the privilege of representing KC to other communities around the world desiring to create the same momentum we are experiencing in Kansas City. It’s cool to Plexpod, but even more cool to be Plexpod from Kansas City.”
The surging coworking business now is expanding its footprint with projects in other cities (locations have yet to be announced, but are in the works, Smith said), while strengthening its team.
“Plexpod has been incredibly fortunate to attract top talent and we are most excited about the team we have,” he said. “They have been critical in ‘writing the playbook’ which will help us replicate our model to other locations.”
High interest in Plexpod has produced its own challenges, Smith added.
“We simply can’t respond adequately to all of the requests that come our way. It is a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless,” he said. “We want Plexpod to be accessible to everyone and not be seen as an elitist members-only club. As we like to say, Plexpod is ‘coworking for the rest of us,’ and we want to be most successful at demonstrating that fact.”
PayIt ultimately is about people — and it’s growth reflects that connection, said founder John Thomson.
Specializing in govtech/fintech applications that better connect government to its constituents, PayIt made news in 2018 thanks to major partnerships with the State of Kansas and the Unified Government of Kansas City, Kansas. But the biggest boast comes in terms of the startup’s headcount, Thomson said.
The company grew to 55 employees in 2018 from just under 30, Thomson detailed.
“We’re planning to double our headcount again in 2019,” he said. “That’s probably our biggest challenge: to find people who believe in the mission of ‘simplifying government’ and have the right PayIt DNA to join our incredible team that is delivering innovative, disruptive digital government solutions. Our culture is special and everyone we add needs to contribute in a meaningful way to making sure it remains that way.”
Growth in 2018 has been multi-faceted for health tech firm Bardavon, said Matt Condon.
“On the provider side, we are now working with over 3,300 providers, up from about 1,800, and the Bardavon team has grown to 110 from 80,” the founder said of Bardavon’s efforts to transform how companies manage worker’s compensation. “We have expanded our service offerings with current national clients and started working with many new clients.”
In addition to forming deeper relationships with Fortune 50 companies, Bardavon supported therapy providers in creating positive outcomes for thousands of injured workers ensuring they were capable of full duty when they returned to work, he said.
“We believe this funding will provide sufficient capital to scale our business to national coverage for our physical and occupational therapy network,” Condon said. “In addition, it supports the growth of our announced partnership with Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina and the new initiatives that are underway with two of the nation’s largest insurers. The funding process was an incredible learning experience.”
Growing at such a phenomenal rate in 2018 has been both exhilarating and exhausting, he added.
“Bardavon is excited about the impact it is making in both the Workers’ Compensation and the musculoskeletal field,” Condon said. “Our service line offering is expanding from just gathering data during physical therapy after a worker is injured, to documenting the physical job requirements before a worker is hired, ensuring each new hire is capable of the job demands, and learning how to prevent future workplace injuries. We believe our service offerings can impact the entire continuum of care – regardless of where the injury occurs.”
4) Rx Savings Solutions
New clients meant a bigger impact in Rx Savings Solutions’ mission to connect consumers with lower drug prices, said CEO Michael Rea.
“From employees hired to clients signed, it was a year of significant growth for the company,” he said. “Most importantly, because of the new clients signed, we were able to help even more members navigate their pharmacy benefit and save them money.”
Rea listed top accomplishments for 2018 as: being honored by the Kansas City Business Journal as one of the best places to work in Kansas City, making an inaugural appearance on the Inc. 5000 list, and being selected as the preferred vendor in a partnership with the Health Transformation Alliance to help their co-op of leading employers lower their pharmacy spend.
As with Plexpod, Rx Savings’ growth has presented opportunities and changes with the startup’s team, Rea said.
“We have a fantastic culture, and one we’re very proud of and want to maintain,” he said. “Keeping that culture intact is something we always want to keep as a top priority as we continue to grow and hire more talented team members.”
5) Swell Spark
Momentum is swelling for Kansas City-based Swell Spark, said co-founder Matt Baysinger.
“We grew to nearly 180 employees at 10 locations across four states,” he said. “In addition to tremendous growth at Blade & Timber and Breakout KC, we launched two new concepts: Choir Bar in the Kansas City metro and Epic Aloha in Waikiki, Honolulu Hawaii.”
Among the most meaningful milestones of Swell Spark’s 2018, according to Baysinger:
- Blade & Timber created Axe of Love, and has since planted more than 1,000 new trees through its giving to One Tree Planted;
- Swell Spark, collectively, donated or helped raise tens of thousands of dollars through such organizations as Big Brothers Big Sisters, Kansas City Young Life, Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, Zoe’s House, and a few dozen local area schools;
- Swell Spark opened six new locations in 2018, nearly doubling in size; and
- Baysinger was named one of Kansas City’s NextGen Leaders through the Kansas City Business Journal, as well as to the Business Journals’ Influencers: Rising Stars, which spotlights 100 people in business nationwide who are having an impact relatively early in their careers on their companies and their communities.
“Growth is hard,” Baysinger said. “While we essentially doubled our locations, we only increased our headquarters staff by 30 percent. We have the best team on earth, but we’ve been stretched thin at times. 2019 should be a tremendous year for growth as we open new locations, as well as here at our corporate headquarters in KCK.”
The logistics of expansion have tested Swell Spark, which has been known for its fast-paced rollouts, he continued.
“We are moving into markets where there is an absurd amount of development. Because of that, building permits are delayed nearly everywhere we look,” Baysinger said. “We are a company built on moving fast, but we’ve had to cool our jets just a bit to make sure things are being done the correct way.”
“Because of timing of some projects being ahead of schedules, and others being behind schedule, we opened three new locations in September alone,” he added. “We never would have compressed so many projects into a single month, but our team rallied and made it happen.”
A banner year for fundraising and product development set the stage for global expansion, said Mycroft co-founder Joshua Montgomery.
Considered a leader in artificial intelligence-infused tech, Mycroft reached 1,000 percent of the Kickstarter goal for its latest device, Montgomery said, also noting successful seed and Series A funding rounds.
Mycroft builds open-source hardware and software that’s similar to Amazon Echo or Google’s smart speaker. Mycroft’s tech uses natural language processing technology to enable its everyday use in a consumer’s home. With an open-source, open-hardware approach, Mycroft allows users across the globe to develop software and hardware add-ons that can be used in a variety of industries.
In 2018, the company deployed new machine learning tools for wakeword spotting, speech-to-text and speech synthesis, as well as beginning global expansion into new languages, Montgomery said.
The startup also teamed with Kansas City firm Sickweather on cough detection sensors that are expected to arrive in public places across Kansas City in 2019.
7) Super Dispatch
A company culture of resiliency, honesty and feedback is helping Super Dispatch overcome the change and challenges associated with a wildly successful 2018, said CEO and founder Bek Abdullayev.
“The other half of amazing growth is growing pains,” he said. “Growing pains have been our biggest challenge in 2018 — which is a great problem to have. As we have hired, expanded and created a better product, the core of Super Dispatch has changed immensely. Old processes, goals and jobs have been left behind.”
The startup, which was initially built on streamlining paperwork for the trucking, hauling and shipping industries, has nearly doubled its team with 25 new hires in 2018, Abdullayev said.
“We created an entirely new technology platform for a new set of customers, all while expanding our old platform to better suit our existing customer base,” he said of Super Dispatch’s big accomplishments. “And in less concrete terms, the industry started to take us much more seriously. Companies that wouldn’t give us the time of day in 2017 are now scheduling meetings with us. Overall, we have moved from a startup to a serious company with serious revenue.”
8) Made in KC
Made in KC used 2018 to double its footprint and impact, said co-founder Tyler Enders.
“We worked with more artists and makers than ever before, collaborated with more companies big and small, and reached more customers than ever before,” he said. “We worked with over 300 locally owned and operated businesses, including multi-generational businesses and brand new ones. We continued to expand our product offering, this year stepping into the alcohol business both for retail purchase and onsite consumption.”
In addition to realizing the co-founders’ dream to open a bar in the back of the downtown Made in KC Cafe, the startup also unveiled a new flagship store beneath its headquarters in the Crossroads, a 9,000-square-foot maker studio, and a 112-foot-long mural visible from I-35. Enders and fellow co-owners Keith Bradley and Thomas McIntyre also collaborated with Sporting KC, and teamed Made in KC with Visit KC as its exclusive online shop.
Perhaps Made in KC’s biggest news came with the opening of the Made in KC Marketplace on the Country Club Plaza, Enders said.
“The Marketplace has been our most visible project and our best opportunity to put the KC artist and maker scene forefront for visitors to the city,” he said. “With two print catalogs and a robust online platform in Made in KC Explore, we continued to reach new customers while keeping our existing customers and supporters informed of developments both with Made in KC and our greater Kansas City creative community.”
It’s a new name, but the same old grind for RFP360, formerly RFP365, said Barri Horn, the startup’s marketing director.
“2018 has been an awesome ride for us,” Horn said. “We’ve continued to enhance our solutions, more than doubled our team, grabbed hold of the name we’d wanted from our inception (RFP360), and more and more we’ve seen evidence that our industry-leading solutions are poised to disrupt a market that’s traditionally relied on outdated processes.”
The Kansas City-based company, which streamlines the repetitive and arduous request for proposal (RFP) process with a software-as-a-service platform, announced in July its Client Discovery platform and a more deeply entrenched partnership with Lockton Companies, an international insurance brokerage firm headquartered on the Country Club Plaza.
RFP360 also introduced artificial intelligence to its search functionality.
“With the addition of AI, our bulk auto-answer tool, KnowlEdge, now provides more relevant responses to previously answered questions — resulting in improved accuracy, increased time savings, and ultimately, more effective RFPs and proposals,” Horn said.
Fresh off a grand prize win at the 2017 LaunchKC competition, 2018 proved a rollercoaster for Cambrian co-founders Heather Spalding and Joel Teply.
“This is the year we really started to scale for the first time since 2016, when Joel and I started running Cambrian full-time,” said Spalding. “The team we have at the moment is incredible. Every person we add elevates us to the next level. When you bring someone in and they know more than you and can do their job better than you could, it’s a wonderful feeling.”
Frustration, however, has been building as Cambrian attempts to find the right funding fit, she said.
“We have money waiting for a match from MTC (the Missouri Technology Corporation) and time is running out. It’s a struggle to grow a company while having to bootstrap and I’m afraid we’re going to miss opportunities because of this,” Spalding continued. “On the other hand, the feedback and even rejection has helped us focus on who we are and what we need to concentrate on as a company moving forward which is good.”
Trying to shuffle responsibilities at the startup while fundraising has been a heartbreaking process at times, she said.
“This year, my roles have been CEO, COO, CFO, project manager, head of business development, salesperson, etc, etc. so when my time, energy and attention goes to pitching and meetings it slows everything down,” Spalding said. “It’s a gamble for us. It is something I feel like I have to do, but it just hasn’t paid off for us yet.”
“We were told, ‘Get a million dollar deal signed,’” she continued. “When we did and it closed, they said, “Get two more, then we’ll be interested.’ We are positioned in every possible way to be the leaders in this field, but our attention needs to be on growing the tech and scaling, and instead I’m having to cut people’s hours until we get paid again.”
Cambrian expects a long-awaited deal to come to fruition in January, she said.
“We also developed some incredible new technology that is letting us hit our tech goals much faster than anticipated, so I’d like to get some of those patented, because they’re groundbreaking,” Spalding added.