Interview with Matt Pleatman '13 of Refresh Innovations

Interview by Howie Rhee, December 2012

In the fall of 2012, Matt Pleatman and his startup, Refresh Innovations, beat dozens of other Duke student startups to win the early fall portion of the Duke Start-Up Challenge. Their product is an innovative disposable contact lens case and solution dispenser that fits into a wallet. They will advance to the spring portion of the competition, where they will compete against an expanded field of Duke student startups for a $50,000 Grand Prize.

Tell us about yourself. What year are you at Duke, what do you study and what are you involved in?

I’m a senior at Duke (Class of 2013), and study electrical and computer engineering and economics as a double major.  I’m involved in DVF (an entrepreneurship club) as well as the Duke Motorsports team which
designs, builds, and races a race car every year at the Michigan International Speedway.

Tell us about your background.  Have you done anything in entrepreneurship before?

Yes.  I started my first company when I was 12 years old.  It was a media studio providing photography and videography services in southeast Michigan.  Our typical clients spanned all the way from school districts, to random people for weddings and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.  

What happened with that?

When I came to Duke, I continued to run the company freshman year, remotely, but it turned out to be way too much work. So, I knew I wanted to unload the company, if possible, during the summer, and luckily I found someone who was interested.  I sold that company in 2010, during the summer after freshman year at Duke.

Next, I co-founded a company called the  LocalStew is a one-stop shop for people in a community to find out what’s going on in their town.  The company is still around today, though I don’t work on it any more.  

And then in my sophomore year, I started a non-profit called 21st Century Durham with other students from DVF, which refurbishes Duke’s used computers and donates them to other non-profits in the Durham area, such as the Ronald McDonald house.  

And then later that year, I competed in the Start-Up Challenge with a company called Servisaurus, which ultimately failed, but was an amazing learning experience.  

Was it helpful to go through Duke Start-Up Challenge (DSC) with Servisaurus?

Yes, very helpful.  I recognized the value in being methodical in how you were going to run your business.  Going through the DSC process forced me to instill myself with a vision for my venture, as opposed to just sort of winging it.  It helped me learn that entrepreneurship is both an art and a science.

And you got some feedback from judges in the DSC, was that helpful?

Yes, it was helpful.   They pointed out some things about the market that made us reconsider the idea for Servisaurus, and with that advice we were able to broaden the scope of our venture. We made it to the semi-finals that year.

Tell us the story of Refresh. How did that come about?

At the beginning of my junior year, having stopped working on Servisaurus, I took on the role of VP of Entrepreneurship in DVF, and oversaw several ventures starting up on Duke’s campus.  But after a few months of not working on a startup, which I hadn’t done for about 8 or 9 years, I was hungry to get back in the game.

The one area of startups that I’ve had a lot of ideas for, but hadn’t acted on, was a consumer product company.  I wanted to make something physical that I could hold in my hands and that people could buy off the shelf one day.

So, I literally made it my New Year’s resolution (January 2012) to start a company, not knowing exactly what I’d be doing, just knowing that I wanted to build something.  Luckily, just a couple of weeks later, I got an email from a Duke alum who had also been in DVF while he was at Duke, who had an almost identical goal.  So, we assembled a team; we didn’t know exactly what we were going to do, but knew we were going to build something physical.  We all pitched in some ideas, did some diligence on a few of them, and in the end, voted on the one we wanted to go forward with, which was unanimous and was the Refresh Card.

Tell us the story of where it went from there

Our team, from the beginning, subscribed to the Lean Startup methodology.  So we came up with a list of questions that were essentially testable hypotheses.  One of those hypotheses was “people will buy our product” (laughter). So to test that we talked to over 400 people in individual user interviews. The response was overwhelmingly positive.  A vast majority of contact lens wearers said “yes, they’d use our product”.

We already had some preliminary designs for the product at that point in time.  But we de-risked the business to the point where we were comfortable to keep moving forward, and further develop the product.  So we onboarded an industrial designer who had a lot of expertise building plastic parts.

We also onboarded an IP attorney to file patents for us.  We got a provisional patent filed and some solid industrial design done, all without raising any money.

Then, we spent a lot of time figuring out if it was possible to bring this to the market ourselves and manufacture it ourselves. So at that point you’re asking yourself questions like “how much does it cost to manufacture?  Can you make the margins attractive enough?  How much can we charge for a Refresh card?  What’s the distribution strategy?”

Talk about what happened next

We had been working together for seven months without ever meeting each other in person. And we finally had made enough progress that we decided to formalize things in person. Our industrial designer, based in Florida, was on his way out to San Francisco to meet the partners over there for the first time in person.  And tragically was killed in a traffic accident.

This was a really tough time for our team.  We were figuring out our next steps, having lost a really valuable member of our team, and someone we viewed as a friend by that point.  We had to do some soul searching.

We decided to keep pressing forward, and take the next steps to bring this product to the market.  

Talk about how you got involved with the Duke Start-Up Challenge?  

We had always planned to enter the Duke Start-Up Challenge.  And we had all the material together.  And before we competed this past fall, we actually competed with Refresh in the spring 2012 Start-Up Challenge and got totally destroyed by the judges, which was great. 

Why was it great?

Because being forced to answer those questions made us realize we had a lot more work to do.  

So, coming back in fall 2012 and being able to answer the same questions, really well and thoroughly, was awesome.  And the feedback from the judges’ was night and day.  That was the point we realized “Wow, we actually made a lot of progress since last spring”.  When you enter the Duke Start-Up Challenge and get negative feedback, it really doesn’t mean you have a bad idea - it may just mean you have a lot more work to do before you can effectively convey your vision, and to attain some domain expertise.

We were unconsciously working to answer all the questions that we couldn’t answer in our earlier entry in the DSC.

Since the spring, we had a provisional patent filed, a design that was much closer to production specification, an advisory team that included an FDA expert, and eye doctors.  We had made a lot of progress.

So it doesn’t sound like you hold it against the judges from the spring that they didn’t have you proceed to the next round of the Duke Start-Up Challenge?

It’s funny because I’ve been through both of those situations, doing well in the Start-Up Challenge and not doing well. Previously with Servisaurus, I made it pretty far, then lost in the semi-finals, and sort of gave up at that point, even though there was more positive judge feedback.  But, at that point, I didn’t know anything about lean startups or running a company in a more methodical way.   But I certainly don’t have any bad sentiments towards the judges for giving honest feedback.  

And competing with Refresh in the Start-Up Challenge this past spring, we received critical feedback and didn't advance out of the first round. But so many of the judges were willing to help.  We talked to several of them who, on our feedback forms, said they’d be happy to talk to us.  Like Carla Viana, a Duke alum who works at J&J Vision Care in Europe. Given her area of knowledge, she was really helpful to speak with.

You're going through first order questions when you're entering the Start-Up Challenge, but talking to a judge let us go to a deeper level of questions that weren’t on our radar initially.

So your feedback from judges can be as valuable as you choose to make it.  Especially if you follow up with judges.  By the sheer number of judges in the Duke Start-Up Challenge, we were bound to have a connection somewhere.

That’s good to hear, because in the last year we grew the initial judges from 70 to 350, with the thought that more judges would lead to more matches, even if they didn’t have startup expertise per se.

The Duke entrepreneurship community is so incredibly supportive and people will go out of their way to help you.  And they might say “even though I don’t know something about this, here’s someone who does.”  So it’s definitely helpful to talk to judges, and anyone in the DSC community. Because they’ll find a way to help you somehow

What advice do you have for Duke student entrepreneurs that are thinking of starting a company?

I would say, starting a company while you are in college is really tough.  One of the hard lessons I learned from starting Servisauras was that, devoting half your attention to school and half your attention to your startup sets you up for failure in both.   There’s so much work to be done, and so many questions to answer when you are starting a company that, with only so many hours in the day, a lot of things just drag on.

Having said that, I’ve been working on my company while working on my double major for the last year; and working on my venture full-time over the summer while I also had a job at General Motors.  You just don’t sleep (laughter).

So what is my advice then?  My advice is to do it.  There will be plenty of time to sleep later in your life (laughter).  But, you will learn more working on your startup than you could possibly imagine, at a rate that school could never dream of keeping up with.

What were you doing at GM?

Among many things, I worked on autonomous vehicle charging system architectures in Warren, MI.

Wow, a pretty busy summer.

Anything else you’d like to say?

I’m enormously grateful for the opportunities that Duke has granted me.  I never would have been connected to my team without the entrepreneurial infrastructure.  I think the future is bright for Duke entrepreneurship.

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