Today’s interview is with the co-founder of Rifiniti, Irina Mladenova. Rifiniti provides real-time workplace optimization and business intelligence for large enterprises.
Tell me about your professional background as it relates to Rifiniti.
Rifiniti handles workplace optimization and helps answer both macro and micro planning questions. I have a dual degree in urban planning with a focus on sustainable development and real estate. My co-founder, Michael Gresty, and I both have startup and relevant industry experience, so founding Rifiniti was a natural progression for us.
How did the idea for Rifiniti originate?
It really came from listening to the customer. We were having conversations with companies who were expressing a concern for their energy use, hoping they could achieve significant savings. But through these conversations we learned about a bigger issue – their use, or lack of effective use, of their office space. Most offices worldwide have 50% vacancy at all times due to changing work styles, mobile technologies, and changing business needs. Once we realized how big of a problem this really is and how big of an opportunity there is to achieve savings (real estate is the second biggest cost in most companies; energy cost constitutes only a small part of the cost of occupying a space), we decided to invest in developing a software platform that helps companies optimize their space, streamline costs, and in turn maximize employee productivity, innovation, and even satisfaction.
Who is your target audience and how do you typically work with them?
Rifiniti helps Fortune 1000 companies optimize their workplaces by making use of their office space as efficiently as possible. In the process, we try to help these companies reduce their real estate costs by up to 50% while increasing employee productivity. Our typical customer occupies anywhere from 30 to 900 buildings around the world, so it’s imperative that their space be well managed. The industries that we’ve identified as having the greatest need include information and communication technologies, finance, and pharmaceuticals.
What was your process for identifying the right audience to target?
We started by listening to the customer and learning from the companies that were approaching us with this workspace problem. In the beginning, it was mainly the IT sector. It quickly became apparent to us, though, that banks and other financial services companies had similar problems. We realized that the similarities between these industries stemmed from having a mobile workforce that does not spend most of their days at a desk. In addition, we also found that companies that are moving locations because they’re breaking into new markets or dynamically changing due to frequent mergers and acquisitions are also a great fit for our solution.
What is the current stage of the company and do you have any major milestones approaching?
We currently have a number of leading Fortune 1000 companies as customers, including some of the top IT companies with operations around the globe. We’re currently working on the third version of our product, and we recently closed a $1.9M round of funding led by Nauta Capital. Our most important upcoming milestone is to build our current platform to scale to more locations outside of the US, as we have clients who operate in Europe and Asia.
Were there any big challenges that you had to overcome as a startup?
We’ve had two major challenges so far. This was resistance on the part of prospects for our advanced analytics solution. Some of the more progressive companies we spoke with were satisfied with their own internal solutions to gather and manage space use data even if this was done on ad-hoc basis, at great opportunity cost, and did not provide the granular results our advanced solution did. As a result, we developed a second tier product – Basic Analytics – which is not as sophisticated but does allow executives to focus on strategic decision making rather than data management and analysis.
Our second challenge was in building a team. In some cases, it can be more difficult to build a team than a product. Finding talented software engineers willing to take the risk and work for an early stage company was a difficult process.
How did you overcome the challenge of finding the right team members?
We worked within our professional networks—Harvard and MIT—to find the right people. Because of the tightknit network, finding one engineer would help lead to a referral for another. We also created a learning environment for our younger hires, giving them training and opportunities to explore various aspects of the development process, which builds their skillsets and help them develop professionally.
Do you have any advice to share with other first time founders?
I would advise any first time entrepreneur to focus on customers first. Many entrepreneurs, especially those from more technical backgrounds, tend to focus too much on product development prior to validating the exact need of their solution by the market. Getting early customers before having a polished product out there is better than having spent a lot of time and effort commercializing a full solution that no one or few companies want to buy. At Rifiniti we stay close to our target audience by constantly having calls and meetings with them as well as through our industry council – the Smart Workplace Council–which meets quarterly to validate the company’s product roadmap.
For those founders looking for funding, I would encourage them to start building relationships with all sorts of investors—angels, VCs, individuals—as early as possible. Once you have funding, it’s very important to update investors on your progress and milestones as often as possible, especially when it comes to customer traction. For instance, we update our investors monthly. Lastly, look for investors who will also make great strategic partners. These individuals can be valuable to all facets of your startup. They can help introduce you to customers, find employees, provide ideas for your product, help you expand into new markets, and even work with you on your sales strategy. Choosing the right investors is crucial to your business’s development.
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