Silicon Valley in California and Silicon Alley in New York are not the only tech ecosystems in America where an Italian entrepreneur can find exciting opportunities to grow. It depends on the kind of business you are into. That’s the lesson learned by Davide Rossi, a 38-years-old Italian mechanical engineer from Badia Polesine, a small town close to Rovigo. Last March Rossi moved his startup FitBark from New York to Kansas City, Missouri, where he feels “at home”. FitBark was recently mentioned by the WSJ as one of the emerging startups in the new business of fitness tracking for dogs. This is his story.
After working in the family business (model racing cars) and in the oil industry in Qatar and India, Rossi earned an MBA at MIT in 2010 and decided to remain in the United States. “In Italy it’s so difficult to start a new business – says Rossi -. A friend of mine invested 40,000 Euros in a bar in my home town and after nine months he had not got a license to operate yet. So he poured gasoline on himself and threatened to set himself on fire outside the town hall. In this way he got the license in 14 days”.
In 2012 Rossi settled down in New York City, working with Deutsche Bank in the fin-tech division and also consulting for a California-based software company. Initially Rossi wanted to stay in NYC because he found it easier to build a network of contacts in Silicon Alley. Passionate about the Internet of things, he was studying a product in this field and he ended up with the idea of a health and activity tracker for dogs. “I thought that if a technology is useful to humans to get healthier, it’s even more useful to creatures that don’t speak and stay alone for long stretches of time, our dogs”, explains Rossi, who owns a furry Yorkshire, Freud.
That’s how FitBark was born: it’s “the world’s tiniest wireless activity tracker” for dogs of any size, made in the shape of a tiny dog-bone, reads its website. It collects physical activity and rest levels 24/7”, sending all data to the dogs’ owners on their iPhones or Android smartphones and also to their vets, in order to monitor dogs’ long-term health trends.
The failure before the success
In April 2013 Rossi launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for FitBark, but the first attempt failed. What did he learn from that? “The campaign was poorly organized, we didn’t understand that on a platform like Kickstarter, where you have max 60 days to reach your goal, the very first days are crucial to get support and attract the attention of backers – says Rossi -. Above all, the pricing was wrong. We asked for a monthly fee to use FitBark, and that’s not the right choice for a new device”.
If at first you don’t succeed, try try try again. So Rossi re-launched the FitBark campaign a few months later, in July, and this time he succeeded: he raised over $80,000 or 231% of his goal. “We orchestrated all our efforts to get as many backers as possible the first day: that’s the way to be profiled as a popular project by Kickstarter and get more visibility – explains Rossi -. We also changed the pricing: now Fitbark costs $99 upfront with no other fees”.
Notwithstanding that success, Rossi wasn’t able to build a strong network of contacts with investors in New York. Luckily, the NYC branch of TechStars told him that he could apply to the TechStars program in Kansas City, which was a better fit for his business. “It was not easy to get into TechStars, they are more selective than an Ivy League school,” says Rossi.
Kansas City, the Silicon Valley for animal health
TechStars is an accelerator and incubator that provides seed money and three months of intense mentorship: at the end, startups present their business to potential investors. The program has multiple locations: in Kansas City it’s sponsored by the mobile operator Sprint and focuses on “mobile health”. “We moved there in March 2014 and discovered that Kansas City is a sort of Silicon Valley for animal health – explains Rossi -. Here there are more than 300 companies in the food and pharmaceutical industry for animals, representing 56% of global revenues in this business. We sell our product to consumers, but it’s those companies that are interested in the data we collect about dogs’ health”.
In Kansas City Rossi has been able to refine his strategy towards consumers, find investors (one round of seed money raised among angels but not disclosed) and sign partnerships with corporations. “TechStarts has been very important for introducing us to investors – points out Rossi -, but the whole city played a big role too, rooting for us to succeed”.
“Our potential customers are people who spend $20-80 a day in daycare and dog walkers for their pets, or spend thousands of dollars for their dogs’ health problems, or use fitness trackers for themselves – goes on Rossi -. On the other hand we can give the data we collect about dogs’ health to companies that do research to develop new drugs and food for dogs: they can monitor the effects of their products on dogs wearing FitBark”.
FitBark is still in private beta but Rossi expects to ship the first batch of devices soon, starting in the US and Canada. “We have already orders from 45 countries including Italy – says Rossi -. The device is made in USA, by a manufacturer in the Nord East. It’s important for us being close to the factory in this initial phase.”
Together with Rossi in Kansas City there is his sister Sara, in charge of marketing. In all it’s a team of eight people, half based out of the US. “Of course I miss New York – admits Rossi -. But also Kansas City has a vibrant and growing startup ecosystem. AOL founder Steve Case has spent a few days here, recently, to talk with the community. The Kaufmann Foundation, focused on entrepreneurship, is based here. Google Fiber started here connecting houses to high-speed Internet. And we were very happy that the Italian Ambassador to the U.S., Claudio Bisogniero, was in town on November 17 meeting the Italian-American community, including businessmen like us”.
Note: this story appeared first on StartupItalia!