Vincent Hsieh ’07 The Duke MBA—Cross Continent Vice President, Business Development Atlas RFID Solutions, Inc.
Robert Fuqua ’07 The Duke MBA—Cross Continent President and CEO Atlas RFID Solutions, Inc.
With support from their professor and classmates, two Cross Continent grads launch the company they’ve always dreamed of—and aim to lead an emerging tech field
The CEO did a simple calculation. Each year, their warehouse shuts down for six days to count inventory. Each day, the company does $1.2 million in sales.
“So we’re losing $7.2 million counting inventory every year,” he stated.
And that’s when Vincent Hsieh, co-founder and VP for business development at Atlas RFID Solutions, Inc. (www.atlasRFIDsolutions.com), knew this CEO had seen the value of RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) technology—and that Atlas had a new client.
It’s the kind of moment Hsieh and his fellow co-founder Robert Fuqua, President and CEO of Atlas, envisioned when they met in The Duke MBA—Cross Continent program’s Class of 2007, hit it off, and decided to start a company together.
In Operations Management, taught by Dr. Paul Zipkin, the two men learned about RFID technology and how it was being used in supply chain management. RFID uses radio waves to automatically identify people or objects. RFID tags can be read from a distance. Tag your inventory and track everything you own at the touch of a computer button. Hospitals can tag defibrillators and stretchers and locate them instantaneously. RFID is also great for tracking IT assets such as laptop computers and printers. The potential is limitless.
Although RFID technology has been around for decades, in the past two years its application has developed rapidly. Fuqua and Hsieh knew if they could get started now, they could position Atlas to be an industry leader when things really exploded.
“Vince and I both had visions of building a great company and how we’d want that company to look,” said Fuqua, who is a distant relative of the business school’s founder. “We saw that RFID would be the technology of the future, and this was a product we could build that company around.”
They started planning their new business, even as they continued their Cross Continent program and their full-time jobs: Fuqua as VP of Business Development for a pharmaceutical marketing firm and Hsieh managing the capital-raising group at a biotech. They enlisted Professor Zipkin as a senior industry advisor to “keep an eye on the forest while we are amongst the trees.” They meet with him monthly for industry updates, and having Zipkin on board has helped give the company immediate credibility.
Hsieh and Fuqua raised capital from twenty-three investors, including ten Cross Continent classmates. “Someone described Atlas as ‘the class project,’ because we feel like it’s our baby,” said Hsieh. “People have invested, advised us, or introduced us to potential clients, including in Dubai and China. You wouldn’t get those connections at most other MBA programs.”
By July 2006, Fuqua and Hsieh realized that if this new company was really going to happen, one of them needed to jump in full-time. So Fuqua quit his job and devoted himself to the new enterprise. Hsieh followed in November. Atlas bridges the gap between firms developing RFID technology and end users that stand to benefit from it. Hundreds of companies develop the various components of an RFID system. Atlas partners with the best and uses their technologies as a platform to develop, integrate, and maintain customized solutions for clients.
The company began fully operating in January 2007, even as the two men were completing the Cross Continent program. Atlas now has twelve employees: three with Hsieh in New York, the rest with Fuqua in Birmingham, Alabama. Already, they are working with clients in ten states and in Canada, and have built partnerships with technology developers in the U.S. and five other countries.
The biggest surprise so far, said Fuqua, is that they’ve been able to talk to more— and large—potential customers and gotten further in conversations than they’d expected at this stage. On the downside, the sales cycle is longer than anticipated. “Adoption is always an issue with an emerging technology. Our challenge is to change customers’ perception of RFID from a ‘nice to have’ to a ‘need to have.’ As more companies adopt this technology, it’s becoming a ‘need to have’ in order to compete, and the sales cycle will decrease.”
Another business challenge has been finding top-quality people to join their team. “We’re proactively looking for the most talented people we can find, and we’ll do what we can to bring them on board,” commented Hsieh. “It’s challenging at the beginning, because this is a start-up and obviously security is a question. But we’re overcoming that, and we’ve hired exceptional talent.”
The Cross Continent program gave them insight into hiring, building effective project teams, and creating incentive programs. It also taught them how to communicate effectively in a dispersed environment— something that has proven vital with the team split between New York and Alabama.
And said Fuqua, “Being in a global business program and meeting people from different parts of the world really changed my perspective on how we can do business internationally. I’d always dreamed of building a great company domestically, but I’m grateful to the program for teaching me to think globally.”
“Between the two of us, we invested $180,000 to go to Duke,” Hsieh noted. “We got our ROI back before we even graduated, in terms of investors, suppliers, potential clients, advisers, our education—and even meeting each other. Anything in the future is icing on the cake.”