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Business Observer Friday, Oct. 29, 2004 16 years ago

Finding Your Niche

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Three Bay area entrepreneurs share the secrets of their success.

Finding Your Niche

Three Bay area entrepreneurs share the secrets of their success.

By Francis X. Gilpin

Associate Editor

Janet Kumpuis fledgling company leaned on Uncle Sam. Peter Andersonis startup earned a certification to stand out from a crowd of competitors. Brian Roulstone helped reinvent a 33-year-old company stunted in a mature industry.

In different ways, the trio of companies they represent eventually found market niches where there was potential for growth. Their success stories were front and center at an Oct. 21 panel discussion hosted by the Tampa Bay Technology Forum, a support group for regional tech entrepreneurs.

Kumpu is president and chief operating officer of Fortress Technologies Inc., an Oldsmar company that is a leading security provider for wireless networks.

Fortress had the seeming misfortune of launching an important product, AirFortress, just a few months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. iIntroducing a brand-new technology with a small startup company in that timeframe was a significant challenge for us,i says Kumpu.

But Kumpu is no neophyte. She spent 10 years at mainframe pioneer Digital Equipment Corp., building a nascent personal-computing division from scratch to more than $1 billion in annual sales.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, with the Pentagon lumbering into high gear, Fortress Technologies decided its wireless security system was a natural for the American military. iThe bread and butter of Fortress to date has been the federal government,i says Kumpu.

Liberty Capital Partners Inc., a New York private-equity fund, along with other investors sunk $13 million into Fortress Technologies for product and sales development. Fortress Technologies became the first to receive approval to sell wireless security technology to the Department of Defense, says Kumpu.

iThat gave us a real market advantage,i she says. iFundamentally, with our business model, we close and capture the very strategic, large Army contracts. And that gave us a market validation and the momentum to extend and embrace the technology that leads the industry.i

Bayshore Technologies

Anderson is president of Bayshore Technologies Inc., a value-added computer reseller in north Tampa. An Englishman by birth, Anderson delayed an accounting career to play soccer. He founded Bayshore Technologies in 1997 with Winston DuBose, a former teammate with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, one of the areais defunct professional soccer clubs.

The retired soccer players and another partner started Bayshore Technologies with $30,000 in working capital. Lacking a financial track record, the threesome had to put up personal guarantees in order to get product. In the first year, however, Bayshore Technologies resold $5 million worth of computers.

With customers such as Jabil Circuit and Home Shopping Network, Bayshore Technologiesi yearly sales have since more than trebled to $16 million.

Early on, Anderson says Bayshore Technologies partnered with Citrix Systems Inc., a publicly traded software company in Fort Lauderdale with $650 million in annual revenue.

Bayshore Technologies went to considerable time and expense to be certified as a iplatinum reselleri of Citrixis data-access software. By doing so, Andersonis company separated itself from a pack of 3,500 companies that distribute Citrix applications. There are just 30 platinum resellers and Bayshore Technologies is the only one in Florida, says Anderson.

Know the rules

But that didnit help when Bayshore Technologies, like Fortress, tried at first to get in on federal procurement.

Several years ago, Andersonis company assisted one of its other big partners, Cisco Systems Inc., on a U.S. Marine Corps project in San Diego. Bayshore Technologies impressed Cisco and Marine brass with its initial work. Then, as the project moved along to the purchasing phase, somebody asked for a U.S. General Services Administration number.

iWe didnit know the playing field,i says Anderson. iWe lost the contract. They gave it to another company that had no skin in the game.i

Bayshore Technologies has since gotten into the government contracting competition. iSometimes, you learn from your defeats,i says Anderson.

Bisk Education

Roulstone is chief information and training officer at Tampa-based Bisk Education Inc., which used to specialize in continuing professional education before expanding into online distance-learning in the 1990s.

Founded in 1971 by Florida attorney and CPA Nathan M. Bisk, the company appeared by 1997 to have exhausted the potential to grow the market for helping accountants, lawyers, physicians and nurses keep their professional credentials up to date.

iOver the years, you had more and more people entering that space, just kind of slicing up the pie,i says Roulstone, who has a management information systems degree from Florida State University and a masteris in business administration from the University of Florida. iThere was really no way to expand that pie.i

Thatis when Bisk shifted into post-secondary distance-learning. Roulstone has since assisted Bisk in increasing sales in that segment from $8 million to more than $100 million.

iIn i97, i98, when we really refocused our business toward the e-learning space, you really didnit have to know what you were doing,i says Roulstone. iOver the past six-and-a-half or seven years, the competitive landscape has changed dramatically.i

Bisk Education initially mass-mailed to virtually every college and university in the country. iFortunately for us, Regis University in Denver, Colo., raised their hand and said: eWe might be interested in doing something with you,i i recalls Roulstone. iThat was really the birth of the online learning business for us.i

Today, Regis has over 5,000 MBA students on distance learning programs, says Roulstone. Villanova and Tulane universities joined up, too. Bisk is securing more institutions of higher learning, including local ones such as University of South Florida and St. Leo University.

iWe were fortunate enough to be on the nose cone of a rocket ship,i says Roulstone. Industry analysts estimate the post-secondary education market to be anywhere from $300 billion to $500 billion a year.

iYou donit have to really be a rock star in that market to have a great business,i he says.

To preserve a fair chunk of the market, Bisk must do battle with the University of Phoenix, a unit of Apollo Group Inc., and other publicly traded, Internet-based degree purveyors that spend tens of millions of dollars a year on marketing.

iWe work really hard to differentiate ourselves by partnering with regionally accredited institutions, brands that really stand on their own, because, unfortunately, we donit have $300 million a year to spend to push the company forward,i says Roulstone.

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