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Jacksonville's Startup Economy: KYN Gives New Businesses A Leg Up

Jacksonville may be struggling to get locals to spend more time downtown, but it’s finding some success with small startup businesses.It’s a giant leap to go from brilliant concept to commercially viable product. Helping promising entrepreneurs make that jump is a business accelerator called KYN.

Credit Cyd Hoskinson / WJCT
A customer orders from MENUAT's digital menu board at Chamblin's Uptown Cafe.

It takes young, existing companies and mentors them so that, by the end of four months, they know what they’re doing, where they’re going and how to get there.
Among the first class of KYN graduates was a little company started by Jeff and Emily Charette. 

They had been living in San Francisco: he developing software, she working for a graphic design studio whose client list included Coca Cola and Metallica. Then they had a daughter and decided to move to St Augustine where they could raise their kids and, hopefully, create a business capable of supporting a growing family.  

But it wasn’t until a hungry Jeff got frustrated trying to order lunch from a menu board that, he says, he got his first inkling as to what that business should be.
"So I was standing in line at a cafe and I was looking at the menu and I couldn't read it," he said. "So I thought, why don't I pull it up on my phone."
Which he did, only to discover the online version was no help since it was woefully out-of-date.
"So I talked to these restaurant owners and they quickly reiterated what I had been thinking," he said.
And that was that keeping wall menus, online menus, mobile menus and printed to-go menus current is almost impossible.

And so was born an idea: Charette would take a system he’d spent a decade fine-tuning, one that lets people with few technical skills update websites without doing permanent damage, and adapt it for restaurants to use.

"So they can do what they do well, which is making food and I can do what I do well which is make a digital experience that's easy to use."

But what to call this new business?
"We wanted a name that sounded close to what we do, so with menus. And then something that, when you think of a menu, where do I find this menu at online?  So we thought naturally MENUAT."

The next step, find a restaurant willing to take a chance on the new company.

Credit Cyd Hoskinson / WJCT
MENUAT co-founder Jeff Charette and Chamblin's Uptown manager Jennifer O'Donnell.

One Spark gave them the opportunity to find the perfect guinea pig: the small but very popular café belonging to Chamblin’s Uptown on North Laura Street.
The bookstore let MENUAT replace its giant chalkboard wall menu with an equally large digital menu board. Manager Jennifer O’Donnell says that meant no more climbing a tall ladder to update the day’s offerings or having to wipe chalk dust off of everything when you were done.

"I was pleased. I was really pleased with it," O’Donnell said. "We saw how easy it was to use and update and we bought it from them."

But one client does not a successful business make. So they turned to KYN for help. 

Charette says, during the four months in KYN’s business accelerator program, MENUAT worked with 30 different mentors who helped them build on their strengths and identify and correct their weaknesses. 

It was an invaluable experience, Charette said.
"I'm a builder and a creator. That's what I love to do every day. But at the end of the day, if you're building a business, you're not just building things," Charette said. 

"And that was the biggest take-away I got from KYN: to look at the business as a whole.  How are operations going? Are your customers happy with your support? They're not as exciting things to think about but you have to think about them to have a successful business."

And MENUAT seems definitely on the road to success. 

Last week the company learned it will be funded for the next year and a half, thanks to two local investors: Stache Investments Corporation, which was started by Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Kahn,  and the venture capital group PS27.

You can follow Cyd Hoskinson on Twitter @cydwjctnews.

Cyd Hoskinson began working at WJCT on Valentine’s Day 2011.