From India To Silicon Valley To Arkansas, Meet Serial Startup Entrepreneur Unni Peroth

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 501 views 

There are probably not many startup risk-takers who would boast about leaving the comforts of Silicon Valley to chase their dreams elsewhere. Yet Bfonics co-founder and CEO Unni Peroth has found a perfect place in Central Arkansas to test and grow his entrepreneurial mettle.

Self-described as a serial startup entrepreneur, Peroth has spent the last 15 years of his globe-trotting career as a much sought-after software architect and information technology expert. Nearly eight years ago, he made the decision to move his family to the Little Rock region, away from the venture-capital friendly San Francisco area, the literal center of the startup and technology universe.

Today, the India native, who has worked in seven countries, laughs about the fact that he had to explain to his friends across the globe why he was moving to Maumelle, Ark.

“When I said I was moving to Arkansas – they asked me, ‘what are you going to do there?’” Peroth said. “For me, (Arkansas) is a good place for family and I felt there are a lot of good things going on in the technology sector in other places outside Silicon Valley.”

During his career, the 36-year old Peroth has worked for technology giants IBM, Samsung and Hewlett-Packard (HP) while on the West Coast. Despite those demanding corporate day jobs, he has still managed to moonlight and stay actively involved in startup and early stage ventures.

When he moved his wife Sreeja and 2-1/2 daughter Esha to Arkansas, Peroth also immediately began seeking out early stage business opportunities, although he found a corporate position as a systems manager for Transamerica Employee Benefits, a Little Rock life and health insurance provider.

While there beginning in 2007, he was responsible for information technology strategy and the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the workplace benefits provider’s IT systems and operations. In late 2014, Peroth decided to exit the Little Rock voluntary benefits company and put his full energy into a myriad of emerging business opportunities and volunteer activities in Little Rock’s growing startup community.

Peroth said he is excited about what is taking place in Central Arkansas, and wants to be part of the burgeoning entrepreneurial energy and activity, fostered by the development of the Main Street Corridor and the Little Rock Tech Park, along with the grassroots efforts of the Arkansas Venture Center and Argenta Regional Innovation Hub.

“I want to contribute to the success of what’s going on here,” Peroth said. “I don’t know what brought me or is keeping me here, but I would like to give something back. That is my future – I want to create some jobs and help people out.”

He added: “If I need to, I can get a (corporate) job any time, but that is not my focus now.”

Currently, the list of early stage companies the former Silicon Valley IT specialist is involved with is quite impressive. His name is currently tied to the creation or development of at least five startups or early stage development companies in the Little Rock area, including Bfonics, LenDen, nFonics Solutions, MedicusConnect and Bid4Time.

He also serves as a mentor at the Arkansas Venture Center and the ARK Challenge, the statewide accelerator program for technology startups.

Still, there is no doubt that birthing and breathing life into an infant or early state technology firm is what gets Peroth excited. At nFonics, he is Chief Strategy Officer for the software service consulting firm with operations in the U.S., India, the Middle East and Europe.

As co-founder of LenDen, he was behind the development of a neighborhood marketplace app that helps consumers buy, sell, exchange and give away things in their own neighborhood. “It is a location based app that is working great in India and the Middle East,” he said.

Peroth has also put his experience to work in the venture capital side of the tech sector. He and partners in India created a “first seed” fund and incubator firm called Your Seeder, where the goal is to provide early stage, seed funding for innovative business ideas with “high value growth opportunities.”

But it is at Bfonics where Peroth sees a thriving technology firm with accretive earnings over the next five years. He said he is a big fan of former Gov. Mike Beebe’s strategy that the way to build a local economy is by adding highly-skilled and good-paying professionals through smaller companies that add a few employees at a time.

“It is not only about the jobs, it is the confidence gained by others to start a business,” Peroth said of startup companies and small business development. “That is where the real value is. Everyone knows that HP (Hewlett Packard) has been around for a long time, but to a kid who wants to get in business that may not be the model that you want to show them. No one wants to go back and talk about when it was started by one person.”

That said, Bfonics’ short-term goal is to be a significant technology firm in Arkansas with revenues up to $10 million in five years, and a payroll that supports 50-60 employees. Today, the Little Rock startup has four full-time employees and five consultants on the payroll, besides the company’s four founders – Peroth, Romy Mathew, Arun Raj and Binoy Mathew.

As Bfonics chief executive, Peroth’s key role in the company’s early development is successfully explaining to potential business customers and partners how Bfonics adds value to retailers and shoppers in the growing consumer and shopper engagement sector. He also has to make sure that his investors get the maximum return on their investment as the company seeks to grow.

“Bfonics is here to help those retailers to engage those shoppers real time and in-store, which can lead to more sales and improved return on investment for store owners” he said. “Our proximity marketing platform allows retailers to deliver highly targeted mobile experiences when it matters the most to the customers. For shoppers, they get real time deals, dynamic pricing and personalized messages real time which may lead to more shopping.”

As a licensee of the latest iBeacon technology from Apple Inc., Bfonics plans to take the computer and technology giant’s new Bluetooth-enabled and location-based mobile tool to the next level. The company is already testing several products and solutions that help retailers use cost-effective mobile technology to connect with their customers and offer customized deals.

Google has also announced plans to debut a new “Nearby” service that triggers actions based on device location awareness for Android devices, according to industry reports. That new feature is expected to be a rival to Apple’s iBeacon, although nothing has officially been released.

Like many industry experts and analysts, Peroth believes iBeacon technology and similar location-based technology will be the “next big thing” that hits the growing smartphone marketplace.

In fact, at this year’s international Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the huge technology trade show in Las Vegas that the New York Times called “Woodstock for nerds,” several companies announced major developments involving the emerging location-based technology.

The way the Apple-branded “beacon” technology works is that platform users are able to send location-based messages or prompts directly to a smartphone or tablet. What excites just about everyone is that the GPS-enabled technology is based on hardware that is relatively cheap, battery-friendly and low-energy.

The beacon hardware, about the size of an Oreo cookie, is also small enough to attach to a wall or countertop and can be deployed for a multitude of possibilities and endless mobile applications, Peroth says.

For example, at a grocery store, shoppers might be reminded by the retailer to check their shopping list app upon entering a store, or receive text message offering coupons and daily specials based on their online profiles. Or a local manufacturer could use a beacon app to detect and locate workers at a large factory, removing the need for a standard time clock or the need to keep track of the employees’ hours for payroll.

Currently, retailers, galleries, restaurants, museums, public spaces, healthcare providers and enterprises across all sectors are testing the technology in their workplaces. According to an analysis by Business Insider Intelligence, there is an estimated 30,000 active beacons in the U.S. today. Within 4 years, the same study reports, the number of installed beacons is projected to grow 287% to five million (four million of those are expected to be in use by retailers).

At this year’s CES show, which was held Jan. 6–9, several companies also gave demonstrations of new applications, products and developments that were powered by the iBeacon technology.

And just before Christmas, the emerging technology got a big boost when a McDonald’s franchise in Columbus, Ohio announced that it was partnering with a San Diego-based beacon provider to give its customers “a new and better dining experience.”

The California tech firm, called Piper, offers iBeacon technology that will allow franchise owners to easily deliver coupon offers, timely alerts, job opportunities and surveys to any customer with a McDonald’s app that walks through the fast food giant’s door.

Piper’s technology will also support the latest iPhone and Android platforms, something that Bfonics’ customers will enjoy too, Peroth said.

For now, the enterprising India native said his startup will initially focus on working with local retailers and helping them to engage more personally with shoppers. He said the Bfonics platform is designed to leverage beacon technology by enabling the delivery of marketing messages to consumers in real-time via their mobile devices, and also provide marketers the opportunity to customize and change messaging or offers “at the touch of a button.”

“With our smart beacons and platform, we are moving forward with one goal – helping retailers (both brick and mortar stores to major chains) engage their customers in a better way, in-store and real time,” he said. “We are going to help them to convert a moving mass of consumers to loyal customers.”

Currently, Peroth said that Bfonics is in negotiations with two large corporations in Arkansas that may test the company’s technology sometime in the first quarter. Once retailers and shoppers are able to actually see the new technology in action, he believes the company will experience dynamic growth in just a few years.

“We are also in the process of building a iBeacon-based network to cover busy city streets, malls, airports, metro rails and more,” he said. “Don’t be surprised when you get some information – it can be a deal, information about weather, traffic, events or anything you prefer to receive – to your smart phone when you walk through the Little Rock River Market or in the Hot Springs downtown in the near future.”

The next step for Bfonics is to actively market its technology to potential customers in Arkansas, then target markets across the U.S. and abroad. Peroth readily admits that he is not a natural salesman and at some point, he may have to turn the CEO reins over to someone who is better able to take the company to the next level.

“This is a technology company, but it is also a sales organization. And if you would ask me if I am the most capable person to run a sales organization, I would say no,” Peroth said. “I am about creating things, refining it and taking it to the next big level and then handing it over to someone who can sell it better than me.

“The moment I have such a person, the moment I have the resources, the moment I have sustainable income and revenue stream, and I have completed my commitment to investors – then it would be better to give it over to someone else,” he said.

He added that he has birthed at least eight other startups in the past, some great successes and others “not so much.” But, he said, all of his “babies” have taught him important lessons about developing early stage tech firms, as well as giving him the necessary experience to know when to let go.

“I have had eight babies,” he said wistfully of his former startup ventures. “But I also like to figure out and do new things.”

And if that happens anytime soon with Bfonics, Peroth said he already has some great ideas that he would like to pitch to investors for his next venture.