Russ Finney‘s wife thought he was crazy. The father of child only a few months old, Finney wanted to leave his steady job as an IT manager for Clay County Schools and start his own business.
What eventually got his wife on board, Finney said, was his ability to solve a problem.
“We knew right out of the gate that this was a problem that had to be solved and that we could provide a lot of value to local businesses,” said Finney.
After getting his wife’s reluctant blessing to become a full-time entrepreneur, Finney and co-founder Brian Magazu launched SuperFi, which now operates in more than 50 locations in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina and is building on $100,000 of revenue last year.
The company came from Finney’s time in Clay County. In his eight years with the school system, Finney, 33, managed its growing Wi-Fi needs. He increased the network’s reach, reliability and security.
Those eight years changed how he viewed Wi-Fi. Every time he walked into a business, he instinctually noticed everything wrong with its network. Customers could access the back office, other customers’ devices and every explicit site known to man.
Finney knew his expertise could help those businesses, so in July 2015, he launched SuperFi.
“I’m a native of Jacksonville, and the idea of helping Jacksonville companies was really appealing to me,” he said.
An evolving product
At first the company focused only on reliability and security. He installed Cisco Meraki routers, enterprise-grade hardware used by hospitals and even Disney World, so businesses could support a large number of devices. He implemented best practices to secure information and block explicit content.
The services were most attractive to two types of customers: restaurants and cafes. Bold Bean Coffee Roasters and Bono’s Pit Bar-B-Q were among SuperFi’s first subscribers, paying a monthly fee for the service and maintenance.
Security was the biggest selling point at first, as Finney would arrive at a restaurant and show the owner what havoc he could wreak on its network.
“It’s pretty easy to show a business what any teenager could do in less than a minute,” he said.
Months into his new venture, Finney realized he was missing an opportunity: marketing. SuperFi, he realized, could provide businesses with a mountain of customer insights and give businesses a way to connect with their customers.
“We’ve learned from (the businesses) that it’s a challenge to organically build loyalty with your customer,” he said.
The marketing component saw almost instant results. Bold Bean, which had begun collecting customer email addresses via paper surveys, saw a nine-fold increase in the number of addresses it collected by simply asking for an email address on its Wi-Fi portal.
SuperFi now offers analytics ranging from tracking repeat customers to recording foot traffic outside store locations (the system pings devices as they pass, even when they don’t connect). But despite this offering, Finney realized that many businesses weren’t doing anything with the data. Thus began SuperFi’s marketing arm.
“We’ve had a couple customers say, ‘Ok, you can build me a customer-list, but then what do I do with it?’” Finney said. “We can do everything from kicking it off with some initial ideas and automation to doing a deeper dive.”
Finney said his company shifted from being a Wi-Fi security company to a customer engagement company that uses Wi-Fi.
In April, SuperFi was bolstered by $135,000 in funding, which allowed it to hire three full-time employees. Craig Mandeville, founder and CEO of Forcura, and Chris Haley, partner at Harbor View Advisors, invested in the company, which until then had been supported solely by Finney, his family and his friends.
Though he became an investor and board member in April, Mandeville had been involved with SuperFi for more than a year. Finney, a Jacksonville-native, approached Mandeville after he spoke at a Jacksonville Community of Entrepreneurs meeting.
“I ended my message saying the best thing you can do as an entrepreneur is surround yourself with people more experienced than you that can give you feedback and maybe mentor you,” said Mandeville. “Russ came up to me right after, and the first question he asked was, ‘Will you be my mentor?’”
Mandeville mentored Finney for more than a year and was impressed by how much Finney had accomplished before seeking funding.
“He went out and identified a potential solution and just started showcasing it to customers,” said Mandeville. “He modified the product to customer feedback. He got people to pay for it. He did a lot of the upfront leg work.”
But what got his attention as an investor was SuperFi’s success. The company did more sales in its first year than Forcura, one of Jacksonville’s ten fastest growing companies for the last two years. Mandeville also saw similarities between Forcura and SuperFi.
“There are not a lot of competitors,” he said, noting the same was true of Forcura. “It’s competing with the traditional way of doing things.”
The road ahead
Finney hopes to expand SuperFi’s presence in the three states its entered so far and finish the year with $500,000 of revenue, five-times last year’s sum.
SuperFi will also be unveiling an advanced monitoring service for tablet-based delivery options like Grubhub, UberEATS and Doorstep Delivery. The service will be available in September and will notify business owners whenever a device loses connection.
Mandeville believes SuperFi is just hitting its stride.
“I think the window of opportunity is sliding open as we speak,” he said.