By Marco Santana
It did not matter to then-13-year-old Suneera Madhani that her middle-school classes left little time for entrepreneurship. She had goods to sell and had found a market.
In a Dallas suburb, Madhani sold eyeliner pencils known as kajal to fellow students. She had brought them to the U.S. from trips to Pakistan, her native country, and sold them for $20 each, turning a nice profit on the $2 pencils.
But this early success did not exactly convert Madhani into a lifelong business leader. She had watched the ups and downs her father faced during his career as a serial entrepreneur.
“I never wanted to be an entrepreneur,” Madhani, now 27, told the Sentinel. “I said I would not do what my dad did.”
But in late 2013, Madhani saw an opportunity in an industry many interact with daily but don’t know much about.
Madhani’s Orlando company FattMerchant offers physical and virtual terminals businesses use to accept credit-card payments. Its product tracks certain statistics and provides useful data such as overall sales to business owners for a flat monthly fee.
Although shoppers rarely notice which company provides a business’s card reader, the merchant services industry has become a $48 billion industry.
Setting itself apart within that crowded industry will be FattMerchant’s biggest challenge, industry analysts say.
“The competitive landscape here is very fierce,” said Jack Plunkett of Houston-based Plunkett Research. “It’s not rocket science to start one of these processing companies.”
But Plunkett said two factors could help Madhani’s firm stand out.
“The holy grail would be to not only lower costs but provide outstanding service,” Plunkett said. “One common complaint is, ‘You have lowered my cost, but nobody answers the phone if I have a complaint.'”
So far, FattMerchant has done that for at least one business.
At Party Flavors Custom Cakes in Ocoee, Priscilla Lucas has seen fees related to her payment terminal slashed by about half during the eight months she has used the Orlando-based company.
She says FattMerchant is the fourth company she has tried since she took over Party Flavors seven years ago.
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “I can take that money and buy a new something for my girls or a piece of equipment for the shop.”
But what sets FattMerchant apart is the company’s willingness to work with her.
“She has been ‘Johnny on the spot’ whenever we have had issues,” Lucas said of Madhani. “It feels like you are not alone. It feels like I can pick up the phone and will hear right back.”
FattMerchant offers three flat monthly rates for businesses who use the service. On top of that rate are transaction fees that fluctuate based upon the tier a company chooses. These fees are general fees banks charge for using a credit-card processor.
But where FattMerchant customers save the most money is in its “no hidden fees” policy.
Madhani grew up in the suburbs of Dallas and switched schools 10 times in 12 years. She studied finance at University of Florida and worked as regional manager for the Orlando area with a Houston-based credit-card merchant company.
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It was there she first came up with FattMerchant, which employs five people full time and two part time. Madhani did not say how many customers the company has but shared that it has seen an average of 25 percent growth in customers month-to-month since its debut in August.
Early in a three-month stint at Starter Studio in downtown Orlando, Madhani said the startup accelerator program has helped considerably.
“I am 100 times more productive being in that environment, working with people going through the same problems,” she said. “The work ethic and drive is on a whole different level when working alongside other entrepreneurs. If you are having trouble with something, you can look over and get help.”
Starter Studio leaders say Madhani and her team have quickly become vocal members of the community.
“They have an amazingly energetic founding team,” said Kirstie Chadwick, the program’s executive director. “I see all kinds of potential there.”
With eight companies in its latest session, Starter Studio provides education and mentorship to startups.
“They have been very active and asking great questions,” Chadwick said of FattMerchant. “She has been using the mentors here. The energy of her and her team when they are here, it spills over and gets everybody talking.”
FattMerchant’s next step will be to raise a private seed-capital round of $750,000. The near future will also see Madhani’s brother take a greater role in the company as co-founder.
Growing up in a “crazy and rowdy family,” she keeps her company’s path in perspective, having watched her father start multiple companies.
And any accolades or attention she has received so far pale in comparison to where she wants to take FattMerchant, which she hopes becomes a tech leader in Florida while focusing on responding to customers.
“I have not done anything yet, and I’m learning as I go,” she said. “I’m now learning the culture of a real tech startup.”