BUSINESS OWNER: Bill & Sue Brown
BUSINESS NAME: Insulights.com and TreePans.com
MAIN PRODUCTS/SERVICES: Insulights and TreePans
LOCATION: Akron, Iowa
WEBSITE: Insulights.com and TreePans.com
Short description of your business:
Insulights.com are an affordable, agricultural, electric fence insulator that helps livestock and orchard managers protect and manage their electric fences. Insulights are the only blue insulator equipped with a flashing LED light that warns farmers and ranchers of damage to their electric fence and assists them in finding the break in their circuit.
TreePans are an innovative and comprehensive solution to young tree care. TreePans eliminate mulch, plastic sheeting, and reduce the need for chemical inputs to manage weeds. TreePans’ patented design includes sliding doors that expand to fit trees up to 12” in diameter.
What drives you each day?
I wake up every day motivated to keep up with my wife, Sue Brown. We are constantly striving to keep the ball moving but seriously I’m just trying to keep up with Sue. None of this happens without her.
What’s unique about your business?
The electric fence was invented 85 years ago and there really hasn’t been any big innovations to the electric fence insulator since the electric fence insulator went from glass/ceramic to plastic insulators. So, an insulator that works on all the posts and lets you know that the fence is working is pretty innovative. In addition, our TreePans also is a disruptor to the tree care industry. Arborists are steeped into mulch and more mulch. So again, when our TreePans eliminate mower and weed eater damage, retain moisture, suppress weeds and improve the growth and survivability of young trees it’s pretty unique and innovative.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome as you’ve grown your business?
With both Insulights and TreePans our biggest challenge was the production delays associated with the tooling for our plastic components. We ran a year behind schedule for both Insulights and TreePans from the time of scheduled delivery to the actual dates we received our tooling. That’s a tough challenge when you have invested all the startup costs and research it takes to start a project and then have to wait for months and months before you can see any revenue from that project.
What has been your greatest reward?
There are many rewards to starting and owning your own business. Our is a family business and it is very rewarding and challenging to work with your family. Sue, my wife, is our President and works in our business not because she is related to me but because she really is the best person for the job. I could not do this without her and that’s why Sue is the President of TreePans.com. And finally, it is pretty rewarding to have farmers and ranchers sending notes thanking you for inventing the Insulight and saving them hours of checking the fence every week.
How have you benefited from the startup community in Sioux City and the region? What resources did you use?
The startup community in Sioux City and at the University of Iowa have been vitally important for us. It really started with Todd Rausch with SBDC who helped us with our first set of financials that we needed for our funding with the Iowa Economic Development Corp. Todd then recommended we attend Venture School through the University of Iowa. Through Venture School we met Renae Billings with the City of Sioux City. Renae has always been a big supporter and made sure we got involved with the organizations like Swimming with the Sharks and Innovation Market and all the startup pitches and events. Through Venture School with John Paul Engel we have won numerous pitches but most of all have made connections at the University of Iowa. Those connections have led to more pitches which have led to business contacts that stretch from coast to coast and now to South Africa and the United Kingdom.
Are there any experiences that were particularly influential in that regard?
Here is a list of some of the startup pitch contests and awards which we have won money by competing and that is great. But like I have mentioned before the money is great and we needed it but what’s been more valuable is that we always meet somebody that moves us to the next level. A great Example is: a now business partner was in the audience in Cedar Rapids at Entrefest 2018 saw my pitch and we will soon be exporting to South Africa.
· Venture School Pitch- Pivot award
· Venturenet - Iowa Economic Development – Demonstration Fund
· Venturenet - Proof of Concept
· National Lawn and Garden Show (nominee innovative product of the year)
· Dream Big Grow Here
· Venture School Alumni Pitch
· Farm Bureau Pitch 2018 - Top 50
· Sioux City - “Swimming with the Sharks 2018” 1st Place
· Sioux City - 2018 Innovation Market 2nd Place
· Des Moines Venture School 1st place TreePan.com
· Des Moines Venture School 2nd Place Insulights.com
· Cedar Rapids - Entrefest - 2018 1st Place
· Iowa City- Hawkeye Innovation Surge Summit - 2018 1st Place
· Des Moines- “Invest in She” 1st Place TreePans.com
· University of Iowa John Pappajohn Innovate Her - 2018 2nd Place
· Recognition in Tree Care Industry Magazine (cutting edge product 2017)
Why is it important for the community to support startups and small businesses? What more can be done to help them?
Small businesses are the backbone of our community. Its great to have the large employers in our communities and they are so important but the small business communities have to thrive in order to the community be whole. Businesses with twenty or less employees make up almost 90% of all U.S. businesses. In addition, more than 50% of the U.S. working people are employed by small businesses. Finally, what’s dear to my heart is that small business truly drive innovation.
What is one thing you know now that you wish you knew when starting your business?
Wow I am learning every day but I wish I knew how expensive it is to bring a product to market. I wish I knew that the manufacturing industry really does not care about your timeline. I think I wish I knew how much work and how challenging this was going to be. But and a BIG but, if I would have known these things we probably would not have started and would have still been thinking “what if”. I really think we are so lucky to have pulled the trigger on our dream.
What advice would you give to someone looking to start a business?
I really highly encourage to go through Venture School or something like it. Before you drop your savings in product development find out if it’s a business. The customer discovery process is truly priceless. I have gone through Venture school 2 times for both our products not because I flunked but because I believe so much in the venture school process.
How can the community continue to help your business?
Probably the best way for the Siouxland community to support us is to continue to invite us to all the entrepreneur/ business events. We have been is a number of startup pitches and whether its pitching or mentoring with Venture school we always continue to meet people that help us advance our business. An example is that we live in Akron Iowa and Renae Billings with the City of Sioux City and Iowa's West Coast Infinitive has always made sure I am aware of events even though we live in Akron.
What are some future goals for your company?
It is still so early in our journey to think about an exit strategy. We are so focused on growth and making these companies sustainable our goals are typically short term. Now that being said we do have long term goals but with two companies that are so fluid our long-term goals change almost monthly.