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How 3 Innovative Startups Plan to Grow Through Mentoring

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The top honorees from our 2016 Startups to Watch list share their plans for taking their businesses to the next level.

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The Town Kitchen: Simplifying Legal and Accounting

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The Town Kitchen CEO Sabrina Mutukisna and mentor Mark Kohler. | Photo credit: Rachel Pradhan
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Bitsbox: Product Refinement

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Bitsbox co-founder Scott Lininger (left) and mentor Greg Shugar. | Photo credit: Rachel Pradhan

Leesa Sleep: Leveraging Digital Channels to Grow Fast

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Leesa Sleep's Alex Realmuto and digital marketing expert/mentor Cynthia Johnson. | Photo credit: Rachel Pradhan
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Starting a business can be risky, stressful and, at times, downright scary. For all of the passion and glory of entrepreneurship, there are also a lot of unknown variables that business owners need to wrap their heads around to become successful.

When Entrepreneur and Staples mined the 2016 Entrepreneur 360™ list this year to come up with a list of 10 Startups to Watch, one of the main objectives was to provide these up-and-coming owners with the tools they need to take their ventures to the next level.

In addition to receiving gift cards and marketing services from Staples, the top three honorees on the list were matched with some of the brightest minds in business to serve as mentors—providing advice, guidance, and direction. The startups—The Town Kitchen, Bitsbox, and Leesa Sleep—have already begun reaping the rewards of their mentoring relationships.

Here’s a look at how these exciting new companies plan on putting their mentoring to good use.

Oakland, Calif.-based The Town Kitchen was founded by sisters Sabrina and Tara Mutukisna along with executive chef Jefferson Sevilla in 2015. Their idea is a commendable one: To foster community through local food.

The Town Kitchen prepares and delivers locally sourced, chef-prepared lunches. It hires, trains and mentors under-served youth to learn career skills with chefs and entrepreneurs. 

Having an admirable mission is one thing. In order to become a sustainable venture, the founders need to know their numbers and maintain diligent bookkeeping, as well as have the business structure that best suits what they do. That’s where longtime accountant and attorney Mark Kohler comes in. As The Town Kitchen’s mentor, Kohler is working to streamline their accounting processes and help simplify the legalese that comes with starting a business.

“Our experience with multiple accounting contractors and accounting platforms has wasted time, money and energy,” admits co-founder and CEO Sabrina Mutukisna. “I'm most excited because Mark is an expert and can anticipate areas that may impact The Town Kitchen's growth down the road.”

“In a large city, it’s easy to get caught up in the large company/public company mentality of capitalization and growth, when at the end of the day it’s a small-business owner that needs to make profit and keep it simple,” Kohler says. “I want to help Sabrina simplify the ownership of her company, her accounting systems, and improve the tax planning for when profit hits.”

Scott Lininger and Aidan Chopra are two dads who worked together for years at Google. As tech-minded parents, they wanted to create something to make learning programming fun for kids of all ages.

And so, Bitsbox was born. Founded in 2014 in Boulder, Colo., Lininger and Chopra came up with a monthly subscription box and website that teaches kids about computer programming.

Next up for Bitsbox is to continue to develop the product offering and then hit the marketing and PR channels hard. To help them with this, Bitsbox has been paired with Greg Shugar as their mentor. Shugar is an investor and well-seasoned entrepreneur, having founded and sold online menswear company The Tie Bar, and co-founded Thread Experiment, an online store for men’s bedding products.

“There is already so much conversation out there about the importance of home-growing computer science students and professionals, as technology companies continue to be the seed that's making our new economy grow,” Shugar says. “Quite simply, there's no better type of product to leverage in marketing than one that's as relevant as the product that Bitsbox has created.”

The Bitsbox guys are also hoping Shugar and his children will test drive the product and provide insights on how to make it better. “One of the biggest things I'm hoping to get from Greg is truthful, unbiased feedback on the user experience, from first sign up onward,” co-founder Scott Lininger says. “People tell us they love Bitsbox. That's nice and all, but it's hardly actionable.

“Greg has promised to not sugarcoat any of his feedback,” Lininger adds. “I really think that'll be useful to us as we continue to refine.”

The founders of Leesa Sleep have big ambitions. Founded in 2014 in Virginia Beach, Va., entrepreneurs David Wolfe and Jamie Diamonstein had a dream to take on the big mattress companies, and other hot startups like Casper, by selling their own brand of mattresses online in the U.S. and U.K.

Not only that, Leesa has a social component: it donates one mattress to charity for every 10 it sells.

It turns out they were doing something right. In its first eight months after launching, Leesa was valued at $45 million.

To help maintain and amplify their growth, the company’s head of digital marketing, Alex Realmuto, has been matched with digital marketing expert and mentor Cynthia Johnson.  

“As we continue to grow and scale, understanding both the paid and organic side of digital marketing will be imperative,” Realmuto says. “We realize that every day there are new tactics that we can adopt to help grow our business. The mattress industry has become incredibly competitive over the last two years so working with Cynthia should bring a new set of eyes to how we might refine and improve our messaging and PR strategy.”

Johnson says she is optimistic about working Realmuto and the team at Leesa to “help them tell their story and build upon a defined and powerful brand.” The goal, she says, is to increase brand awareness through strong strategic messaging, community building, and an increased and diversified PR strategy. “The company was founded on a solid and admirable mission by strong leaders, and during our time together we hope to craft and spread that message,” she says.

Entrepreneur will track the progress of each of these startups and their mentors, and will follow up with a new report over the next several weeks. Stay tuned.

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