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Nurturing high-tech hopes

  • COURTESY PHOTO
    Kimberly Hunt of Flikdate says despite the loss of tax credits from Act 221, local startups can still benefit from business incubators and other infrastructure previously created by government investment. "Anything helps when you get started," she says.
  • DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM
    Box Jelly co-founders, Rechung Fujihira, left, and Anthony Stanford stand in the small office in which they launched their company, which has now expanded to triple the size.
  • DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM
    20120629-5008 FTR BOX JELLY The Box Jelly is a flexible shared work-space that started inside the art galley / furniture store Fishcake. The concept became successful so the co-founders, Rechang Fujihira and Anthony Stanford decided to increase the space by almost 3 times. The space can also be used for workshops and a meeting space. Individuals can rent workspaces at variable rates from an hour to a monthly rate. This is Fujihira (front) and Stanford (back right) sitting at a table. Travis Ryan sits on the backside of the table. PHOTO BY DENNIS ODA. JUNE 29, 2012.
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As the co-founders of Maui-based Flikdate tell it, the most buzzed-about new dating app in Techville was born of one brilliant idea and a bunch of stick figures on a whiteboard.

"It truly was just a conversation in front of the board," Lauren Lin said. "We brainstormed ideas and concepts. We drew stick figures and asked questions like, ‘How will we know if it will work?’ After that it was a lot of nights and weekends over pizza and wine fleshing it out, just building the brand and the application."

Flikdate, a soon-to-be-launched mobile application that promises anywhere-any-time "dating" via real-time video, was first conceived by Arben Kryeziu and Nick Bicanic, Lin’s co-workers at Bump Networks.

"They brought this idea to us, and we just loved it," said Kimberly Hunt, another Flikdate principal. "It’s developed into a really nice app."

Industry observers have touted Flikdate’s efforts to keep sexual predators from using the technology to make contact with potential victims, a hazard that has forced similar applications like the teen networking app Skout to suspend operation. But tech trackers in Hawaii are keeping tabs on Flikdate for an entirely different reason.

Should the app fulfill its creators’ lofty expectations, it will serve notice to entrepreneurs and investors that the high-tech industry in Hawaii is still viable more than a year and a half after the expiration of Act 221.

"The industry is kapa­kahi right now," said Robert Kay, founder of Pac-Tech Communications and longtime chronicler of the local tech industry. "Things have really gone down because there is not the investment there once was. But what is different is that despite the pathetic state of the industry, a lot of startups are coming up and they’re being driven by young entrepreneurs, some of them right out of college."

While securing funding beyond the seed and startup stages remains a significant challenge, Kay said it’s a cause for great optimism that a new generation of entrepreneurs is rising to the challenge of an uncertain business landscape.

"What’s cool is that these are normal everyday kids, from families just like yours and mine, who are going out and getting it done," Kay said. "This is not Silicon Valley — there are not the same resources here — but these young entrepreneurs are sticking their necks out, getting loans and other funding, and succeeding as pure startups."

Neither Lin nor Hunt comes from a tech background. Lin was a business major who got her feet wet as a webmaster as a way to earn money for college. She worked in the visitor industry for a time before joining Bump Networks as a project manager. Hunt holds a fine-arts degree in design but now devotes her time to developing mobile applications.

Like most startups, Flikdate was initially funded through the traditional three F’s: friends, family and fools. In their case the "fool," an affectionate term for an angel investor, was an international sponsor secured through Flikdate’s broad network of connections. Beyond the all-important proof-of-concept stage, the company will need to seek deeper funding, likely from a mix of local and international investors.

"I think what we are showing is that a good idea can be born anywhere and funded from anywhere," Lin said. "Operating out of Maui can be difficult at times because we still lack a community of peers. In that sense we’re still maybe a half-step behind. But you can be very successful from Maui if you have the connections to take you to the next step."

Hunt said despite the loss of tax credits made possible by Act 221, local startups can still benefit from business incubators and other infrastructure created during previous governmental investments in the industry, and from new investments, such as the $2 million venture accelerator funding program recently approved by Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

"Anything helps when you’re getting started," Hunt said.

One offshoot of the new age of networking and collaboration has been a shift in focus from pure commerce to business with a social conscience, according to Kay.

"The main difference I see between the new breed of entrepreneurs versus the people I saw in the ’90s is that the newer entrepreneurs share more of an interest in community service," said Kay, who also serves as an adviser in Cha­mi­nade University’s Hogan Entrepreneurial Program."Thus, the theme of social entrepreneurship is more of a factor. Community service is a bigger part of the equation than it was 10 or 15 years ago. … I think this is a wonderful development."

In the past year, young entrepreneurs have been aided in their networking efforts by the establishment of several so-called co-working spaces, in which a variety of individual professionals and small businesses share office space but work independently.

The first and most prominent on Oahu was started by Tony Stanford and Rechung Fujihira, both graduates of the Hogan program.

The Box Jelly, on Kamani Street in Kakaako, is home to a diverse mix of young professionals, including wedding planners, photographers, a nonprofit company, designers, programmers and hardware engineers.

"It was an idea I picked up during my travels, but it was solidified and executed while I was at Hogan," Stanford said. "We didn’t want to just talk about doing something; we wanted to go out and do it."

Stanford said he drew inspiration from Eric Ries’ book "The Lean Startup," the new bible for energetic young entrepreneurs willing to sacrifice to bring their ideas to fruition.

"It would have been hard to do the traditional route of securing a five-year lease with money upfront and all of that," Stanford said. "What we were looking for was a viable, bootstrap way to launch. It’s all about providing core features to those who you think will be your customers. We looked at it from a number of leap-of-faith assumptions and worked to develop what we considered a minimum viable product."

The Box Jelly is celebrating its first birthday this month, a significant milestone for securing future funding, Stanford said.

"This last year was about showing stability to banks so we can then pursue loans," he said. "Some of what we’ve done grew out of economic necessity, but it’s also about showing what we can do before moving on to accelerators and (higher-level) funding. You need that proof of concept first."

To Stanford the Box Jelly is part of a rapidly developing infrastructure of co-working spaces, workshops, schools, meet-ups and modes of developing ideas.

Stanford said sharing space with professionals from other areas has a positive impact on the work that young high-tech entrepreneurs put forth.

"We’re bringing together a community from different disciplines and networking with people who are outside our normal circles," Stanford says. "When we talk and brainstorm with each other, we all get exposed to perspectives from different disciplines. Before, the tech industry in Hawaii relied on two or three golden eggs. Did that model fail? It’s hard to say, but now we’re trying something different."

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