What’s the inspiration behind Tapa?
The idea for Tapa, not as a company but as a concept, was born more than 10 years ago as a result of two friends and self-proclaimed techies discussing how automation and the cloud might upend building management across the commercial real estate (CRE) sector.
That friend was Paul Meng, co-founder of Smart Building Technologies (SmartBT). Paul recognized that all commercial building types could benefit from a cloud-based Building Automation System (BAS) to provide better energy efficiencies and a better more informed experience for owners, operators and occupants. The challenge was that a BAS was very expensive and only affordable to a limited number of Class A buildings supporting high-end business tenants.
In addition, Paul’s BAS service business was very competitive with the limited number of commercial properties that could afford automation technology. As a service business, SmartBT made their money through installation and repair contracts, always having to fight for the next project to keep money flowing into the business. The only way to grow this serviced based business was with more staff and more projects to keep them busy.
In our talks, I explained to Paul that in the enterprise software space everyone was moving to Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) with a recurring revenue model. If done right, each client adds to your long-term revenue stream and each client builds revenue upon the other. Meanwhile, costs stay relatively constant with a development and support team that can support a multi-tenant SaaS platform that will scale to thousands of customers. This model became even more attractive with Amazon Web Services (AWS) lowering the cost of IT infrastructure needed to support the growing customer base.
The market recognized the value of a monthly recurring revenue model with companies being acquired at multiples of ten to twenty times over what service-based model companies were getting for their business. This seemed pretty attractive to Paul and building out a cloud-based BAS that could support all types of commercial buildings at an affordable price led to the idea for Tapa. Ten years ago, the CRE market was not ready to accept this new technology or pricing structure.
In the last several years, hundreds of new Internet of Things (IoT) devices and sensors have been introduced into the commercial building space adding to the complexity of managing building systems. Include a global pandemic – where being able to monitor, manage and optimize a building’s control systems and sensors in real-time to ensure occupants a clean, safe and healthy physical space – and we knew the time for Tapa was now.
You’ve had extensive experience across multiple sectors. What did you take away from your past work experience?
My experience building large scale SaaS-based platforms to support businesses built on a monthly recurring revenue model was a significant factor. Business timing was another. I had been involved in multiple start-ups prior to Tapa and batting about 500 between success and failure. You learn from your failures and build on your successes and much of that experience influenced the decision to found Tapa.
The key learnings beyond the MRR business model are market timing and are you building something that solves a real-world business problem. Market timing is critical, in two other startups I have been involved with we were just too early and we ran out of working capital. It’s frustrating to see a company take your idea two years after you’ve closed your doors and succeed because the market is finally ready to embrace the solution.
I have learned that educating a market is hard and being first can be very expensive. Being second or third is not a bad thing; you get to take advantage of the millions of dollars your competitor has spent educating the market and you get to learn from their mistakes. There is definitely a sweet spot in terms of timing and the timing for Tapa seems right.
Another key lesson is to ask yourself: are you solving a problem? One mistake I have made in the past is getting excited about a technology and the prospect of building something no one has ever built before. So, we built it and then realized that we needed to go in search of a problem to solve with the technology. We did eventually find a customer problem to solve but we again ran out of working capital and had to shut the doors before we gained traction.
Tapa is definitely solving a problem; with the introduction of hundreds of new IoT devices, building owners see the need to adopt the technology. They are, however, overwhelmed with point solutions that do only one thing and have separate interfaces to control all these sensors, controls and equipment. Tapa allows building owners to consolidate and harmonize all of these technologies into holistic solutions for their properties and their tenants.
Have you faced any unprecedented challenges due to COVID-19?
COVID-19 took us by surprise, just as it did for most of the world and we had many unprecedented challenges and resulting pivots. Early in the year, the initial request from our commercial office building clients was to deliver a building monitoring solution. As we started to deliver on that, it was becoming more apparent that the majority of people would be working from home a lot longer than anyone anticipated and, as a result, the commercial office building market slowed even more causing us major concern.
Meanwhile, the demand for an Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) monitoring solution for schools, places of worship, restaurants and public spaces increased ten-fold and became our priority. Given the flexible nature of the Tapa platform, we were able to pivot to meet that need and we are now delivering our IAQ solution across the country.
Just this month, together with our channel partner SmartBT, we were able to help a small church in rural Virginia reopen to their community because the Tapa IAQ solution gave them the ability to monitor, measure, and report the quality of the indoor air in real-time, helping to assure perishers that the air is clean and safe. We see Tapa as an instrumental solution provider to navigate the new normal.
How did you meet the co-founders of Tapa?
I met Paul at a charity golf tournament that our wives help organize. How our wives met is a more interesting story.
There is a small island off the coast of Britain called the Isle of Mann. It is about 30 miles long by 10 miles wide and has a population of just over 80,000. My wife Terri has family there. One time, when we visited the Isle of Mann, I remember one of the cousins losing their Ray-Ban sunglasses. It was tourist season and she was convinced someone took them. She called the police, who to my surprise, were immediately on the case saying that, “given the uniqueness of the Ray-Ban sunglasses, we should be able to locate them in the next couple days.” I live in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area with a population of over six million people; the police won’t even open an investigation if the item stolen is less than $10,000.
One day Terri met a woman in the carpool line at our local Catholic school who had the same beautiful accent as her cousins. When Terri asked her where she was from, Paul’s wife, Wendy, told her she was from a small island not many people have heard of called the Isle of Mann – the same small island where Terri’s family lives! Wendy was surprised to find out that her new friend not only knew about the Isle of Mann, but also had been there and had family there, proving what a small world we live in. She quickly became great friends with Wendy. From there, I got to know Paul and then Mike and his wife Erin as well. Prior to the pandemic, we vacationed together at Disney and had a wonderful time. One day, we hope to travel to the Isle of Mann together. It is a beautiful place!
Paul, Mike and I have built a relationship of trust and respect, with each of us bringing valuable skills and experience to the table. As board members, I look forward to their continued support and guidance.
By the way, I was even more surprised when the police returned Terri’s cousin’s Ray-Ban sunglasses two days after reporting them missing!
How do you handle risk and competition?
We begin by first realizing that we don’t know everything, and we can’t foresee every risk. We need to stay on top of the market and competition with a culture that is constantly researching, learning, sharing information and willing to quickly course correct or pivot.
The culture we have developed is now paying dividends as 2020 has brought enormous risk with the COVID-19 pandemic and many new players into the BAS market. We have used our highly experienced and diverse backgrounds to identify, analyze, and address issues quickly and efficiently.
In lieu of the pandemic, we have shifted our view on many companies that would normally be treated as competition. We have an approach right now that views every competitor as a potential partner. The Unified Buildings marketplace is being developed by Tapa and a few other companies, we look at each other as problem-solvers for different aspects of what we are all trying to achieve – the safe return of everyone to offices, theaters, restaurants, stadiums and some semblance of the freedom and normalcy we used to enjoy.
What’s been the #1 (or two) top challenges you’ve faced while launching your company?
Obviously, our biggest challenges are tied directly to the unique nature of 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic. On the one hand, our clients’ needs and the marketplace have changed drastically. Fortunately for Tapa, our inherent design is flexible by nature and therefore allows us to pivot as needed to meet their changing requirements and our opportunities have increased as a result.
On the other hand, many commercial property decision makers have had to delay purchasing decisions until there is better insight as to the return to buildings. Investors have also shown more caution and delay as the pandemic, economy and election continue to raise concerns.
Have you learned anything new or surprising about yourself through this process?
Interestingly, the extreme challenges we have faced since COVID-19 hit in March have taught me to take a deep breath, slow down a little and stay calm. This is no time to panic and overreact; there is opportunity to be found by pivoting the company in a way that can help others through these difficult times. By staying positive and focused we have made progress every day, and sometimes it feels like you are crawling and then there is the leap forward that re-energizes everyone and confirms we are heading in the right direction.
I have always been passionate about absorbing new ideas and concepts but know it’s not about learning one new thing a day; it’s about learning 10 new things and putting those new ideas into practice.
Overall, I am grateful for the situation I find myself in with starting Tapa; it has me excited, focused and passionate about building a platform that will be vital to our country’s long-term economic recovery and help people feel safe returning to school, places of worship, shops and restaurants and the workplace.
You’ve served as the Chief Information Officer for the Council of Better Business Bureau for 6 years. What did you gain from that experience?
The world is changing quickly and you have to constantly adapt and reinvent yourself if you are going to stay relevant. One hard lesson is that getting an institutional culture to change is very difficult. Most people don’t realize that the Better Business Bureau (BBB) is not a government agency, but a nonprofit organization that is made up of 106 independently owned and operated businesses. The BBB was and is still facing fierce competition from Angie’s List, HomeAdvisor, Thumbtack, Porch, and Yelp, with Google and Amazon also getting into the game. We have all seen what disruptive startups can do to a business; look at what Netflix did to Blockbuster or what Amazon has done to so many retailers.
I guess a lesson I’ve learned is that very few organizations are able to adapt and reinvent themselves in the face of disruptive competition, as it is incredibly hard. As the CIO, I tried many approaches and had some success, but I was not able to effect the change the BBB needed so we agreed to part ways so someone else could try. Today, I still strongly believe in their mission and having made many good friends, I hope they are able to find the leadership they need to remain relevant.
What’s your team culture like?
Recently someone jokingly asked if we call our employee base TAPOIDS? After giving some thought to that silly question, it caused us to evaluate our culture. Since we have a whatever you need mentality – the word tenacity seemed to fit. The team expresses an eager zealousness in support of our customers – in other words, they are ardent. We are passionate in everything we do, always aiming to deliver outstanding results. The team can be very intense yet remain driven. And given that we are highly experienced – say, a seasoned team – we must therefore be TAPOIDS!
What is your superpower?
I have learned that even if you have a lot on your plate and a long to-do list, multitasking is not real. The ability to focus on a single task and stay in the moment until that task is complete is where the power lies. So, I practice making my superpower: focus.
What’s your kryptonite?
I would say my kryptonite is a beautiful spring or fall day, where the air is crisp and everything is just turning green or the trees are just starting to turn colors. I have a very hard time focusing on work and feel a real pull to get outside and just enjoy the day.
Do you have any unusual routines or habits?
Years ago, my daughter Lindsay looked at me as the clock hit 11:11 a.m. and said, “Hey daddy, it’s 11:11 – make a wish!”. So, every day when the clock hits 11:11, I think of my daughter making a wish and how grateful I am that she is out chasing her dreams. It also reminds me to take a deep breath and then get back to work chasing my own dreams!
Do you have any other hobbies/things you like to do in your spare time?
I have lots of hobbies, but the one that I have devoted the most time to lately is biking. We lost a very good friend and amazing woman to cancer several years back and her husband put together a team that now rides every year to raise money for cancer research.
She was from Boston, so we have settled on a tremendous event called the Pan-Mass Challenge (PMC). The PMC was started in 1980 and has raised almost a billion dollars to date. The route we take is a two-day 192-mile ride starting in western Massachusetts, in a little town called Sturbridge and ending on day two on the eastern tip of Cape Cod in Provincetown. I am proud to say the team KristenStrong has raised over $250,000 since 2014. We did not get to ride this year because of the pandemic, but I am looking forward to PMC again in 2021.
Do you have a(ny) mentor(s)? If so, what have they taught you?
My father was an officer in the United States Marine Corps. He used to drag me off to Saturday morning Personal Fitness Tests (PFTs) that in the end was really good for me. After 20 years, he left the Marine Corps and took a job with a ‘Beltway Bandit’ – the companies around Washington D.C. that require top security clearances and do contract work for the military. After a successful tenure, he could have retired, moved to Florida and bought a golf cart, but he chose not to. Instead, he went back to school and learned to be a network engineer which ultimately led him to a fantastic career with Intel that he enjoyed until he retired 15 years later. My father taught me a lot over the years, but his willingness to reinvent himself and go down a completely different career path taught me to never stop learning and always keep your eyes open to opportunity.