Building Billionaires, One New Big Idea At A Time

By Emily Morman
The Virginian-Pilot.

At a recent meeting of the Billionaire Book Club, there wasn’t much talk about books. And no one was a billionaire.

Instead, a collection of inventors, entrepreneurs and people who just admire Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk gathered at the Brock Environmental Center in Virginia Beach to briefly consider takeaways from a Musk biography on how he achieved success. Then they moved on to their own ideas and innovations.

Akin Yildiz brought samples of his work to show the group.

The Plant Doctor, a small white box holding a sproutling, can tweet or email its owner when the plant needs light or water. Its data is graphed online so even those without green thumbs can know how their plants are doing.

He envisions it as an educational kit, easy for schoolchildren to assemble and use as a learning tool.

His main focus at the moment, though, is the fridgeAlive, a device that alerts fridge owners when the interiors get too hot or too cold. He and his business partner, Steve Nelson, are marketing them for commercial use — when the power goes out or a refrigerator door is left open overnight, a restaurant owner risks losing hundreds of dollars’ worth of food, as Yildiz, who worked in the food industry, found. With the fridgeAlive, they say, a smartphone app graphs the fridge’s data and sends alarms when the temperature deviates too far.

There are a few services that offer similar alarms, they say, but they can cost thousands. Yildiz and Nelson are marketing their device for around $50.

Yildiz, who lives in the Ghent­ neighborhood of Norfolk and taught himself electronics with the help of the Internet, quit his restaurant job to focus on the fridgeAlive, in which the partners have invested about $3,000, he said. When he first started working on it about five months ago, he said, he expected sales to kick off with a bang.

“Unfortunately, that’s not how it worked,” he said.

They’ve handed out testers to local restaurants and have an eye on international sales but still have some bugs to fix — namely that the devices don’t always work.

In the meantime, he’s considering seeking donations on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter and teaches classes at 757 Makerspace in Ghent on how to put together things such as temperature sensors.
“I wish it took off already, but we’re almost there.”
Meanwhile, Mike Elliott of Virginia Beach is very close to having his dream realized.

He and his business partner have spent three years working on the AquaShell, a mobile, round tube of sorts that goes around structure pylons with a seal at the bottom. Water is pumped out, and engineers can walk down to check out the supports. Such devices, called cofferdams, are nothing new.

“The secret sauce is in that bottom seal,” which is hydraulic and can conform to any size, Elliott said, describing the device to the group. At 9 feet in diameter and 15 feet long, the AquaShell allows workers to be in the tidal zone, where most damage occurs, without getting wet.

Repair work now on bridges such as the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel is done by dive teams in murky water, using methods that Elliott said don’t work as well as they should.

“They have to hold on because the tide runs through there so fast,” Elliott said. “They’re holding on with one hand; they’re trying to work with the other; they can’t see.
“This is going to change the whole industry.”

The company has a yearlong project for Dominion Resources’ Cove Point liquefied natural gas terminal in Maryland in the Chesapeake Bay under its belt, and a $10 million project on the books, he said. Elliott, who comes from the carbon fiber manufacturing industry, wanted to license the AquaShell to a major company that can mass-produce them, or cash out, selling the technology and patent outright.

He had a meeting in Dallas with a prospective buyer lined up.
Bill Sheavly had a different reason for attending: to use his skills as a retired certified financial planner and investment adviser to help budding entrepreneurs.

“I’m looking for the next big idea,” he told the group.

Involved with business incubators Hatch Norfolk and 1 Million Cups in Virginia Beach, Sheavly said he wants to act as a mentor in helping businesses get off the ground, including by brainstorming marketing campaigns and setting up management plans.

“Young people have got the ideas, but they don’t know sometimes how to go about with the implementation,” he said.

Sheavly, who lives in Virginia Beach, was once there himself. He ran his own business, which he eventually sold. Although the Internet has changed some aspects of small-business operations since he started, the basics are the same, he said, and he wants to pass that guidance along.

“I think once you are an entrepreneur, you never really leave it,” he said.
Gina Lynch, the Billionaire Book Club’s founder, wants the group to be a place where people can “openly talk about crazy ideas that they have and futuristic thinking.”

She took a free online class from Stanford University on startups, taught by entrepreneurs who told students how they achieved success. Lynch said she realized that most people know more about celebrities such as the Kardashians than they do about self-made magnates.

“So I said, ‘OK, I’m going to make a challenge for people,’ ” she said — a book list about billionaires so people can educate themselves and get inspired.
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She reads business magazines such as Forbes; makes it a point to meet innovative people by going to places like 757 Makerspace, where she met Yildiz; and she flew out to California to see Google, where a former roommate worked.

Among the principles she advocates: “Competition is for losers.” Rather than waste time and energy fighting off everyone else, she says, create something new and better than what’s out there. Most billionaires made their money by finding inefficiencies in other products and exploiting them.

Lynch, an insurance agent who lives on a flower farm in Pungo, has had her own entrepreneurial experiences. She ran a program called Rent-A-Chick for years, in which people would pay to take home baby chickens and raise them for a couple of weeks before bringing them back.

She’s no longer running the program, she said, but part of her motivation for starting the club was to find ways to help other farms start similar programs that let urban residents take part in a “farm experience.”

She also was inspired by the way Musk would cold-call interesting people he read about in the paper to make contacts. She passed this along, too, to the group.

“Don’t have fear about contacting people. Just go out there and make some phone calls and hang around important people who are doing cool things,” she said. “You’ll get sucked in.”

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