Ron Schmelzer has been living and breathing the startup life since he was a college student at MIT in the mid-1990s — and at his monthly tech breakfasts in Baltimore, he wants others to live it, too.
The entrepreneur started his first company out of a dorm room, which evolved into another company and sold for more than $5 million to ClickCommerce. He's been through two more startups since then, and is now on his fourth, after moving from Boston to Baltimore six years ago.
Many in Baltimore's technology community now know Schmelzer as the guy who organizes the monthly Baltimore TechBreakfast. He started the event more than a year ago as a monthly meet-up that showcases new startup companies in the region. The free event has grown to about 150 people a month — "the largest monthly tech event in Baltimore," Schmelzer likes to say.
Though he's an expert software programmer, Schmelzer tried his hand at making a physical product a few years back. He developed and patented Zoptopz, a hat with a flexible brim that can be crimped by the wearer's hands, targeting teen boys. He generated a lot of buzz for the product, he said, but couldn't get the distribution to get it sold in malls.
(Schmelzer had more success with yet another business, ZapThink, which was a market research firm he sold last year to another firm for an undisclosed amount.)
But it was the Zoptopz venture where Schmelzer learned some lessons about how small businesses need cheap, basic web-based software, for what would turn into his next startup, Bizelo.
Schmelzer launched Bizelo with partner James Hagen two years ago to offer "software as a service" to owners of small and medium-sized businesses, who were looking for affordable ways to manage such basic functions as supply chain and inventory management. Their goal: to offer dozens of applications for industries as diverse as construction, retail, and health and fitness clubs, with each app costing around $30 a month to use.
The Baltimore Sun recently interviewed Schmelzer, who talked about launching Baltimore TechBreakfast, the region's technology community, and his plans for his latest startup venture.
How did you get the idea to launch a monthly breakfast event? What were your motivations?
Me and Jim Hagen thought: How many people are trying to start software companies in Baltimore? We knew people were doing it. But there wasn't really a good forum to hear and exchange what startups were doing. We started it at the [Emerging Technology Center in Canton]. If you're interested to see what's happening in the scene, here's the showcase.
How has it grown in the past year?
The monthly attendance went from 12, to 20, to 40, to 80. This last one we had [on May 30], 150 people registered plus 36 were on the wait list. We had about 140 show up.
The event gives a lot of exposure to new startups — is there any concern that you'll run out of companies looking to pitch themselves? How might the event evolve?
I think about that every single time. One of the presenters [last week] came up from D.C. I said to him you have to go back to D.C. and tell them this is a good way of expanding their network. I know it's tough to be up here from D.C. at 8 in the morning. We've gotten some people from York. I'm hoping to pull from Philadelphia. I think we can keep going for quite a while. It's a good thing Baltimore has all this activity.
For the last few events you've been at Advertising.com's space at Locust Point. But you've outgrown it. Where will the Baltimore Tech Breakfast be held next?
We have the DLA Piper space [in Mt. Washington in North Baltimore]. They can handle around 200 people.
You started your first tech startup out of a dorm room at MIT with some friends in the 1990s. What was that about and how did it work out?
In 1994, we started one of the first online commerce companies, VirtuMall. The pitch was put paper catalogs online. We had this method to automatically fax orders to [retailers'] mail order department, and we grew like crazy. That model struck a nerve. The company grew to 250 employees. Then the company got acquired by ClickCommerce. It was a big success for the venture [capital] folks.
Tell me about Bizelo. It's an audacious idea to build dozens of software applications for uses in different industries. How did you get the idea?
I was basically dealing with a lot of supply chain management stuff [with his previous startup, Zoptopz]. I thought you've got to be kidding me: There's no web-based cheap inventory management software? No. Nothing. The only thing that was there was Quickbooks, and it's not really the most pleasant product to use. There were no automated tools to do inventory management on the web. So I built the software. This launched my idea. There's a whole class of software for small business that's not being met by anybody. We're offering it at a price point of around $30 a month.
Any plans to raise capital from investors?
We're raising $750,000, of which we have $75,000 committed. A Kickstarter campaign is going along with it. The more we raise from Kickstarter, the less we have to raise from individual investors.
You came to Baltimore a few years ago from Boston. How is Baltimore's tech scene different, or similar, to Boston's?
Let's start with the similar: Boston and Baltimore both have a vibrant college educational scene that turns out motivated techies. There's a lot more health and pharma companies and more government down here. Boston has a huge ecosystem, with large companies that have been around for decades, with people who have stayed in that city and reinvested. You have a whole ecosystem of service companies used to supporting startups. In Baltimore, you don't have that. Most service companies are startup averse. You have a very immature investor community. You have some savvy angel investors. But the large investor folks: I never see these guys engaged in Baltimore TechBreakfast. If you're here, you should be engaged.