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Business Observer Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021 1 month ago

Problem solver: Tech entrepreneur excels through adaptation

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For The Mad Botter, a company that relies heavily on in-person trade shows to sell its unique products and services, 2020-21 could have been disastrous. But true to form, it evolved on the fly.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

Michael Dominick, founder and CEO of The Mad Botter, a Plant City technology startup, had high hopes for 2020. In 2018, the company — which specializes in adapting run-of-the-mill consumer electronics, such as iPads and Microsoft Surface tablets, for use in advanced aerospace and military applications — topped $500,000 in revenue. Crossing the $1 million threshold seemed well within reach. Dominick, 33, also sought to grow his staff from five to seven full-time employees.

Then the pandemic put an abrupt halt to in-person trade shows, which The Mad Botter relies on to demonstrate its engineering wizardry. That's because its products and services — for example, an iPhone 6 that Dominick and his team turned into a radar system for a decommissioned fighter jet — don’t easily translate into succinct, snappy Instagram posts or Google ads.

“For us, it’s really all about going out and finding the customers,” he says. “I know that's a little old school, but that's just the way I'm going to sell it. I'm not really into the social media stuff too much. We rely heavily on selling at trade shows, which didn’t happen [in 2020].”

Revenue-wise, 2020 turned out to be a flat year, and 2021, thus far, has followed a similar pattern: Dominick projects The Mad Botter will finish the year at around $500,000 in sales. “The big thing for us is, are the trade shows coming back in 2022?” he says. “Assuming that they are, I think we could probably hit 20% growth.”

‘If technology is not your business, you tend not to want to invest in it until you absolutely have to.’ Michael Dominick, founder and CEO of The Mad Botter

Basing decisions on assumptions isn’t a sound business strategy, so The Mad Botter, a company whose very identity is built on adaptation, detoured away from hardware and toward software. It developed a computer program, Alice, that Dominick describes as a Rosetta Stone for computer file formats that don’t “talk” to each other.

Alice, he says, “came from a real-world problem.”

He explains: “During COVID, we [were approached by] family-owned, multi-generational businesses, mostly in agriculture, who hadn’t invested in technology in 20 years. All of a sudden they need to integrate with things like Microsoft Teams. But they have some on-site data management system that's proprietary. And I had one case where the vendor went out of business 10 years ago, so they couldn't get any support.”

Alice (the name comes from Dominick’s fondness for the works of Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland) serves as a workaround for companies whose old data would otherwise have to be stored on some sort of permanent backup system, where it would be of little use with modern computer and mobile device applications.

File. Mad Botter founder and CEO Michael Dominick embraced a shift to software during the pandemic, when he was unable to demonstrate his wares at in-person trade shows.

With Alice, Mad Botter staff can “scan the data, compare it to common data types that are open-source, figure out what that data structure is and then convert that structure into a different structure,” Dominick says. “By understanding the structure of that data, we can convert it so they can post their data on the cloud instead of on a server in a closet that requires onsite maintenance and is prone to breaking down.”

Notably, Alice has opened a new revenue stream for The Mad Botter at a time when the company sorely needed it. Dominick charges an average of $5,000 for each consultation, depending on the size and complexity of the job. The product has a Software-as-a-Service component as well, as the client pays a fee for an annual license of the Alice program itself.

Dominick says his firm’s new venture has also helped multi-generational companies quickly close technology gaps that might have otherwise seemed insurmountable. He’s currently in talks with a family-owned firm, for example, that specializes in a niche, low-tech field: fire engine repair.

“It’s been passed down from generation to generation,” Dominick says. “The first generation bought whatever technology solutions they needed. But generally, if technology is not your business, you tend not to want to invest in it until you absolutely have to.”

A challenge to further Alice-driven growth is lack of availability of servers. Dominick says he used to be able to obtain new servers within 72 hours of ordering them, but pandemic-driven supply-chain issues have led to delays of six to eight weeks and higher prices.

The ever-resourceful Dominick, though, has found a solution, taking old desktop computers formerly used by office staff and “cannibalizing” them into servers. “We’re upgrading parts, as we can, to get them to run faster,” he says. “We have a bunch of souped-up Mac Minis and a couple of Dell towers. It’s kind of a hodgepodge.”

And totally on brand for The Mad Botter.

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