The key to entrepreneurial success is building connections
High-growth founders often focus on the need to raise capital. At Upstate Venture Connect, we believe entrepreneurial currency lies in the power of connections – proven in a success story by Upstate startup, Vara Safety.
So how can founders be more collegial, inclusive and collaborative? Through socialization and the willingness to share power. If we connect through relationships and communicate with each other along the way, everyone wins. These connections translate into some of the most powerful resources a founder needs to thrive, such as transparent conversation with other experienced entrepreneurs, introductions to coveted customers and vendors, and of course, access to the capital our Upstate founders so desperately seek. These elements make up the lifeblood of a business, and the right collaborative relationships can unlock them all.
From a small competition, to securing a COO and lead investor
After winning the New York State Business Plan Competition in 2016, a student from RPI with a big idea was encouraged to turn his project into a startup endeavor. Timmy Oh, Founder and CEO of Vara Safety, did just that. While building prototypes and conducting market research, he quickly secured a Phase 1 grant Smart Tech Challenges Foundation for his innovation in firearm safety. STCF is the leading foundation in advocating for gun safety technology.
“Vara is as fast as a holster and as secure as a safe,” said Oh. “Our mission at Vara is to create ease and simplicity in firearm safety.”
From the beginning of journey as an entrepreneur, Timmy harnessed the resources at RPI to connect with Christine Tate, entrepreneur-in-residence and adjunct lecturer. Given Christine’s experience as an angel investor and finance professional, she recognized Timmy as a next generation leader, and was intrigued by the problem he was trying to solve with Vara.
The company’s first product, Vara Reach, provides customers with immediate access and safe storage of their firearms. Using a fingerprint sensor, customers can unlock their gun in under half a second. “After users unholster the firearm from the safe, they’re in immediate position to protect themselves, even in the dark or under stress,” added Oh. The state-of-the-art fingerprint sensor ensures that only authorized users can unlock the gun. Reach comes with an active mount that locks the safe onto a bedside table, office desk, or vehicle to prevent easy theft.
“As an active startup mentor and investor I have the opportunity to meet with hundreds of promising founders each year. Timmy is one to watch,” said Tate. “He represents the talented Upstate NY college graduates who think big. We need to do whatever we can to make sure they stay local and succeed in building great companies here. I intend to do just that.”
After first meeting Timmy during a small competition for ideas at RPI where she was a judge, Christine is now all in – having accepted a position with Vara Security as COO.
Forget seven degrees to Kevin Bacon, how can startup connections lead to funding?
Timmy Oh rocked the house at the NYS Business Plan Competition, taking first place out of over 2000 student teams from across the state. Christine Tate felt compelled to get involved, knowing her network could assist Timmy in his next steps.
As the Chair of the UNY50 Leadership Network, Christine stepped into action. UNY50 is an exclusive network of serial entrepreneurs, investors and corporate professionals in Upstate NY who are committed to paying it forward. After sounding the alarm about Vara’s promise as an emerging growth company in Upstate NY, Christine says UNY50 members have been involved in the earliest stages of Vara’s development.
To recap, Christine Tate is a UNY50 member and an EIR at RPI (nice acronyms), who guided this small project from its inception. She and several other UNY50 members participated as judges during the NYS Business Plan Competition. Christine championed Vara founder, Timmy Oh, as a leader to watch in Upstate NY, and joined the startup as COO.
“Since putting Vara on UNY50’s radar several members have been advising and mentoring us. Through these conversations, we found our in with the NRA,” said Tate. “And It was also through UNY50 connections that Vara found its lead investor, which is not an easy task when almost no VC funds can invest in the firearm industry.”
Beat this Bacon: Student Entrepreneur -> RPI -> UNY50 -> LEAD INVESTOR!
Christine says that UNY50 members have also provided introductions to the CEOs of the largest retailers for Vara Reach, “Perhaps, maybe even to a potential acquirer. It’s all about helping each other out, and it works when we show up,” added Tate.
With over $1 million secured in funding, Timmy, Christine and the Vara team have begun manufacturing, and are preparing for an early product launch. Vara is also hiring! Check out their website for details careers in Social Media / Marketing and Electrical / Embedded Engineering. https://www.varasafety.com/hiring
Rebuilding Upstate with Entrepreneurship
Through the power of connections, we have seen, and will continue to experience incremental movement and exponential growth in Upstate NY. Success stories like Vara are what results from pure socialization that kindred spirits can bring when together.
Throughout the day, every day of the year, Upstate Venture Connect is having meaningful conversations with CEOs, investors, student entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs leaders across our region. As a member of our ecosystem, you know that we thrive when we work together.
You can help entrepreneurs connect, and grow our economy by sending a contribution to UVC today. Your tax-deductible donation will help our entrepreneurs form powerful connections and alliances with capital providers, top-level advisors, approved business professionals and each other. Our hope is that the founders of our region’s fast-growing companies will unleash the potential for connecting, collaborating and furthering our mission to Rebuild Upstate NY with Entrepreneurship. If we’ve said it once, we’ll say it a thousand more times – Relationship Capital Trumps Investment Capital.