University of Pittsburgh

Alumni Spotlight: New Book to Help Startups Get Traction

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The business approach of Justin Mares (BSBA ’12) is straightforward. He sees a problem in the world and tries to fix it. As a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh, Mares had a bad roommate experience. So he created a platform to match roommates with complementary traits, like an e-Harmony for college housing.

RoommateFit, the company he developed out of this problem-solving activity, attracted interest from colleges and universities. When it came time to raise another round of investor funding, Mares chose to sell the company to a large property management firm in Washington, D.C.

Mares, now living in San Francisco, wondered why some startups go bust while others become household names. This question became the basis of his new book, “Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers,” that he co-authored with Gabriel Weinberg, founder and CEO of DuckDuckGo, a search engine that does not track its users, and an angel investor in tech startups.

“Traction” draws on interviews with the creators of Wikipedia, Reddit, OkCupid, Evernote, and Kayak — more than 40 different well-known company founders in all. Each offers anecdotes for how they grew their concept into a venture with staying power. The book ties these lessons to marketing tactics designed to create customer growth, something the authors call the “Bullseye Framework.”

“Lots of startups are failing less for reasons of they can’t build a product and more because they couldn’t get traction. They don’t have the marketing, the right people, they’re not selling enough to break even or raise their next round of funding,” Mares says.

For Mares, conducting interviews and writing the book was time consuming — but not so much that he didn’t carve out time to develop another startup business on the side.

Inspiration for his new venture came from another personal problem: a strict diet.

Mares follows the Paleolithic diet — also known as the caveman diet. The diet eschews the consumption of foods not available to mankind’s hunter-gatherer ancestors. The diet cuts out dairy products, legumes, and salt but allows for eating meats, fish, and vegetables. Proponents support the diet because it eliminates consumption of processed foods and lowers carbohydrate intake.

Problem is Mares can’t drink alcohol without violating the diet restrictions. The grain in beer, grapes in wine, and just about everything from which liquors are distilled all violate the diet.

Mares began to research alcohols distilled from alternative sources. There weren’t many. He struck up an online correspondence with a businessman from India who was making liquor from fermented coconuts. Coconuts would be acceptable to paleo-dieters and appeal to people following a gluten-free diet. Over time, Mares hashed out a business plan and was rewarded with the exclusive import rights for the coconut liquor.

Now Mares is leading a small team of people to develop a brand around the liquor, which they are tentatively marketing as CoVo and hope to launch in winter 2015. The fledgling business has an advisory board. One member is Tucker Max, the best-selling author known for his crass blog and book  “I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell.”  Like other celebrities, Max has begun investing in startup businesses.

Mares expects the American public to warm to the new drink.

“Our product is 42 percent alcohol. So it’s a high alcohol percentage. It tastes a bit like vodka, with less bite. It’s a coconut finish. If you’ve ever had coconut-flavored alcohol, they’re made from a chemical to smell and taste like coconut. This is the real thing,” he says.

Mares is considering basing the new business in San Francisco. He sees the city as “the best place in the world to do a startup,” but believes Pittsburgh was a better environment for him to grow as an entrepreneur, back when he was a finance major at Pitt Business.

“In San Francisco there’s so much money chasing legitimate startups, a billion people moving there to start a company. A 19 year old who doesn’t know what he is doing probably won’t get a ton of attention. The Pittsburgh scene is smaller. It was a lot easier for me to make a name for myself, and the resources at Pitt and in the city were fantastic,” Mares says.

After selling his original roommate-matching company, Mares worked as the director of revenue at Exceptional Cloud Services in San Francisco. The software company was later acquired by Rackspace. Mares stayed for a while but soon felt the urge to strike out on his own.

Mares enjoys having the freedom to create businesses to solve the problems he sees in the world.

“I just enjoy doing my own thing and having control over my stuff. I get to do what I want to do, which is awesome,” he says.

Connect with Justin on LinkedIn

Read Justin’s personal blog