- March 20, 2015
You think starting a business is scary?
Here's what's really frightening: Fleeing Cuba via dangerous smuggling routes in Central America and Mexico.
Four young technology wiz kids from Cuba with dreams of becoming American entrepreneurs did just that a few years ago, and they all ended up in Naples, where they're collaborating on an education-software company they launched called Softwarenology.
Of the four, Chief Product Officer Jasan Alvarez perhaps had the scariest story. After flying to Mexico, burly armed Mexican border guards forced him to strip naked, threatened to kill him and robbed him of $1,000 before they let him cross the border.
Alvarez knew his escape from Cuba would be dangerous. “If people say you're crazy, it means you're doing the right thing,” says Alvarez, who's heard the same warnings about starting a business.
“We sleep like babies,” quips Marcos Quiros, the CEO of Softwarenology, who detoured from Spain where he bought a visa to travel to Guatemala and Mexico, traveling a grueling 15 days to get to the U.S. “When you've gone through so much, nothing scares you anymore,” he says. “Each person has their own story.”
It's that kind of pluck escaping a communist country that has served them well in business. “The biggest thing about this country is how it does business,” marvels Quiros.
“We bootstrapped it,” he says proudly. “We created the whole thing without investors.”
Besides Quiros and Alvarez, Emilio Baez is president and Brian Pazos is chief technology officer.
Not satisfied working in the technology department for Collier County schools, Quiros and Baez quit their jobs in January and started Softwarenology, an online communication tool that helps teachers, parents and businesses connect via computer, cell phone or tablet. Alvarez and Pazos joined them later. All of them had been working on the education-software project before dedicating themselves to it full time starting in January, living off their savings and working around the clock from home.
Because of their unique perspective in building technology systems for Collier's schools, Quiros and Baez say they understand what schools need to communicate more effectively with parents and others.
Their software is loaded with gee-whiz technology. For example, a teacher can send a text message in English to a Spanish-speaking parent about a child's grade and the software will automatically translate the message. When the parent replies in Spanish, the software translates the message back into English for the teacher, solving one of the thorniest communication problems in education today.
The foursome envision creating an online hub where business owners can scout for talented students to employ, teachers can be coached and parents can track their children's sports statistics and health records.
The first customer is Charlotte County Public Schools, which is paying Softwarenology $35,000 to deploy its school-parent communication tool. “They're hungry, energetic and they have the school-based knowledge,” says John Weant, director of information and communication services for Charlotte County Public Schools. “They understand the latest programming technique and terms; they're a perfect storm.”
Quiros hopes to make the Charlotte system a model that the company can deploy elsewhere, especially in places such as Lee and Collier counties. He says the company's three-year plan is to grow annual revenues to $4 million by charging an annual fee of $5 per student.
Escape from Cuba
Quiros escaped from Cuba in 2007 after his parents used their meager savings to finance his get-away through Spain. He had graduated from one of the top technology schools in Cuba and was eager to leave the country.
He and Alvarez were schoolmates at the same technology institute, and they used to pass each other computer thumb drives with photos of the latest Mercedes and other luxury cars they dreamed of owning one day. “We wanted to maximize what we could do in life,” Quiros says. “I told Jasan that's going to be my car,” Quiros remembers after ogling the new Mercedes SLK.
Facing down adversity early in life, first growing up in Cuba and then escaping the repressive regime there, made it easier for the team to take the risk of starting the business. “It gave us the tools to survive,” Quiros says.
But Quiros is quick to say that the rewards will be more than monetary. He hopes one day to fund an entrepreneur university in Cuba modeled after Hodges University in Naples, a college that caters to professionals and older adults. “That is my personal goal as a human being,” he says.
Once he reached Naples and joined with Alvarez, Quiros sold cars and worked for another software company in town for a few months before working for Collier County's schools. There, he met Baez, who won political asylum in the U.S. in 2002 after his mother was jailed for anti-communist activity in Cuba.
At the time, the recession was taking hold as real estate crashed. Baez says he was unfazed and set himself a deadline for becoming an entrepreneur, rising before dawn to create the software with Quiros. He and Quiros quit their plush school technology jobs in January to work on the project full time.
“What are you guys working on at 5 in the morning?” Alvarez remembers asking the Quiros and Baez. Impressed by their initiative, Alvarez quit his job at another tech firm too and joined the team earlier this year along with Pazos.
The men joke that they're going to enshrine the first server they used to build the system in a glass case when they're successful. They even have a nickname for the hardware: Frankie. “The whole company is built on Frankie,” Quiros chuckles.
Quiros and Baez understood that many school districts are woefully behind in keeping up with new technology, especially when it comes to communicating with parents and others.
“There were so many things we identified that they didn't do well,” Quiros says.
Unlike most systems, Softwarenology executives say they can provide teachers with coaching when the program identifies a problem.
For instance, when a teacher logs in and enters a failing grade in math for a student, a message from a virtual coach appears on the screen. The coach may ask whether a child may be scoring low because of poor vision.
Quiros says in the future that Softwarenology might combine things such as health records so teachers can identify obstacles to learning. Softwarenology has partnered with education experts to provide that service, promising them a percentage of sales as an incentive.
As for employers, Quiros says the software his team is developing could help companies identify students for internships that could lead to employment. For example, students who excel in math or computers could connect with technology companies scouting for talent.
For now, Softwarenology's most impressive tool is the parent-teacher communication portal that can be displayed on any computer, smart phone or tablet. The system allows a teacher to write a message in English that can be automatically translated into 60 different languages so that parents whose primary language is not English can be more involved.
What's more, the parents can respond in their native tongue and the program will automatically translate it into English for the teacher. In fact, the Web-based desktop can be viewed in other languages too, so parents can check on assignments, grades and other important information in their native tongue. “We're giving a voice to people who don't speak English,” says Quiros.
The language-translation tool was one of the most impressive parts of the company's presentation, says Weant. Charlotte County Public Schools has more than 16,000 students, 12% of whom are Hispanic and another 8% from other backgrounds.
“There will be no language barrier; we really feel that's going to be a plus for parent-school communication,” says Weant. “The technology's been out there for some time, but it's never been handled this way so seamlessly.”
Weant says he's always cautious with startup companies that peddle what he calls “vaporware,” or software that doesn't yet exist. But he believes the Naples entrepreneurs with Softwarenology will break new ground in communication software. “If we're going to pioneer something, this is the team we're going with,” he says.
Although the founders of Softwarenology started the company without financing, except for about $80,000 of their own savings, Quiros says an undisclosed investor plans to buy a stake for $500,000 so the company can start marketing to other school districts. “Our dream is to have Lee and Collier,” says Alvarez.
Softwarenology is targeting schools in states such as Massachusetts and Maryland. These are two states that have made some of the biggest gains in education and are trendsetters. Earning business from schools in those states would help establish the company's reputation.