Entrepreneurship runs in Brendon Dever’s family. His father owned his own graphic design firm for 25 years, and Dever, himself, worked as a self-employed barber and operated other businesses during his college years. So, after several years working for other companies, including Delaware North and New Era, he decided it was time to move in a new direction.
Dever and his colleagues had the concept for Heads Up Safe, but no prototypes. So they attended Startup Weekend, an event that connects local entrepreneurs, developers, designers, marketers, and others to share ideas, form teams, and build a business. There, they developed a business case for their idea, which was a wearable sensor that used mobile apps and cloud-based analytics to provide real-time notifications to the individuals wearing them.
“We started looking at different applications for our sensor system, our Heads Up indicator, how much these things would cost, how much we needed to charge for them, and all the business applications around it,” Dever said. “By the end of Startup Weekend, we had fleshed out the product architecture at its most fundamental level.”
Dever says that Startup Weekend was very helpful in developing his idea into a business product that he could then pitch to interested investors. He strongly recommends that entrepreneurs with a basic concept in mind consider Startup Weekend as an opportunity to help launch their company. “The most basic and fundamental assumptions of your business are validated at Startup Weekend,” he said.
Heads Up Safe finished in third place at the event, which enabled the new business to get grant funding from the University at Buffalo. UB also helped Dever with his first hire and first scaled prototype. Initially, the Heads Up team market-tested their prototype as an assisted-living device, a medical device, and a fitness-tracking device. But then some UB advisors suggested the device could be used to warn people when they got too close to a dangerous piece of equipment, and Dever started researching the industrial safety market. He found that the industry lacked technology.
“Unlike what I'd seen in any other industry, the industrial safety equipment market is filled with nothing but plastic, steel-toed boots, hardhats, gloves, and that's it,” he said. “I saw a lot of opportunity for us to come in and revolutionize where industrial safety equipment was, and how it could be expanded upon through the use of technology.”
Like many startups, Heads Up Safe faced challenges as the business unfolded. For example, Dever underestimated how long it would take to get his product ready for market. The industrial workforce was older than the average consumer market for technology, and the sales cycle was significantly longer. To learn more about the market he was trying to serve, Dever became a construction industry consultant for three years, gaining insight that made it easier to successfully market the product to construction industry customers.
Buffalo native Dever said the “Buffalo discount,” or lower cost of living in the Western New York region, made it easier and cheaper to start a business and hire employees than it would be in more expensive locales such as Silicon Valley, Boston, or New York City. He noted that this lower cost, combined with Buffalo’s industrious workforce, are why new tech companies such as his locate in Western New York.
“People have the ability to live on lower salaries, work nights and weekends, and still be able to afford the time to invest in and work for a startup,” he said. “That's really been a testament to the work ethic of people from Buffalo, who are a hardworking group of folks. It’s the reason that we still maintain the majority of our operations here.”
Heads Up Safe has received awards from the federal governments in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom for the work they’ve done in industrial hygiene monitoring. Dever and his team have used that recognition to gain more credibility in the industrial safety field and sell more devices. They’ve been helped along the way by the University at Buffalo, which awarded the company four different grants, and the Z80 Lab incubator, where Heads Up Safe has operated for the past three years. Dever said that this support has been the key to their success, and that without it, the company would likely not have been able to survive.
UB is also a source for talent, because learning opportunities at Heads Up Safe attract engineering graduates who want to work with a company that makes apps and web-based software. These employees learn about all aspects of the business, “from sand to cloud,” as Dever says, which helps the company retain them once they’ve come on board.
Heads Up Safe is planning to release a new product in the third quarter of 2018, and Dever is thrilled about it. “We’re smarter than ever, we’re more prepared than ever and…we’re really excited to test what we’ve learned and get that out into the world,” he said.