Tech 101 for startups

How a new breed of entrepreneur is tapping technology to succeed in nontech sectors

“It’s not the old guard in manufacturing anymore. Now there is a new guard” that understands technology and can digest the information and knowledge that advanced business applications offer to young, growing companies.

So says Tod Replogle, COO of Business Computer Technologies (BCT), a channel partner to a new generation of manufacturing entrepreneurs such as Boon and World Pet, both of which started up in the past five years.

Ryan Fernandez, cofounder, president, and CEO of Boon, represents this new breed. Fernandez’s company makes children’s bath toys, which it sells directly to retailers in the United States and through distribution to the rest of the world. But does Fernandez have any experience in toy manufacturing? No. Retailing? No. Well then, what does he know, you ask?

Technology. Fernandez spent the 10 years prior to starting Boon at Intel. Before that he was in college. Fernandez is 32 years old. His business partner Rebecca Finell is 30. Finell designed the company’s first product, Frog Pod, a bathtub scoop, rinse, and toy storage unit.

In less than three years, Boon has expanded to offer nearly 10 products in 35 countries at 500 retailers, including Target, Toys “R” Us, Burlington Coat Factory, Costco, and BJ's Warehouse.

When you are a startup manufacturer, it’s all about streamlining, Fernandez says. It’s about taking human error out of processes, shrinking the number of processes in place, and making them invisible. And keeping head count to the bare minimum.

With technology in his blood, Fernandez intuitively understood that the company could not manage a global supply chain using phones and faxes.

“Old school is OK if you have one or two products. But if you want to grow, it is impossible for a few people to manage everything,” Fernandez says.

Fernandez decided on a solution from Exact Software, which makes a suite of front- and back-end apps, including Macola ERP, Exact Event Manager, and e-Synergy. The heart of the suite is e-Synergy, a portal product that allows Boon to create dedicated, virtual portals with different levels of access for distributors and suppliers, as well as for internal use.

A distributor in Germany, for example, can access print ads, images, PDFs, and any documentation the distributor might need. A retailer can place an order through the portal; the order is then sent to accounts receivable, where a pick ticket is generated. For e-commerce, Boon has a button on the Web site that links the local retailer with the buyer so that the storefront gets the benefit of the online purchase.

Sitting on top of it all is a BI component that acts as the eyes and ears for a young company, the principals of which may be so buried in the day-to-day grind of running a new business that they don’t have time to evaluate how the company is actually doing.

Fernandez offers some advice to other would-be startups.

“IT is my background,” Fernandez says, but he warns, “if you lack that expertise, don’t hire an IT company that may just want to sell you equipment.”

Rather, a new company should find an IT consultant who has “skin in the game,” as Fernandez puts it, and who understands how technology fits in.

In working with many new startups, BCT’s Replogle says there are a lot more companies out there that are successful because they recognize technology enhances the delivery of their products and improves overall company performance. Boon is a great example.