How she built it: Startup founder shares story of Fattmerchant, 100 employees strong

By Nancy Dahlberg
Suneera Madhani did not set out to build a fintech startup.
She was working at a merchant payment processor and learned a lot in the field about the pain points and complaints. After doing a lot of research, she tried to pitch her company’s management on her idea to bring more transparency and efficiency to the industry. They didn’t understand the whole transparency thing. So she left the company, and tried to sell her idea to more than a dozen more  payment processors. Not interested.
“That’s when I knew I would have to make a bet on myself,” Madhani said. She put $10K in, she talked her brother into putting in $5K, and her boyfriend (now husband) chipped in another $5K.  It was 2013, and that was the humble start of Fattmerchant, a subscription-based flat-rate credit card processor and one of Orlando’s most successful current startups.
Madhani was a keynote speaker at SUP-X: The Startup Expo on Thursday, during the daylong conference at the Fort Lauderdale Convention Center. She was interviewed by Joy Randels of New Capital Partners. Other sessions at the 6th annual event, produced by Bob Fitts and backed by TechLauderdale, addressed digital transformation, startup funding, digital marketing, big data, the cannabis industry, and other topics.
 Fattmerchant now has 100 employees filling three floors of a downtown Orlando office building. The company generates triple-digit annual growth, has 5,000 customers  and has raised $20 million in venture capital. But in Fattmerchant’s first couple of years, it was pitch contest winnings ($200,000 in one year alone) that powered a small team along. That led to some media coverage – including a Fast Company story that went viral. While the exposure was great, the team of two in the tiny office couldn’t handle the orders, nor could their systems, after that story published. It was Madhani’s “holy shit moment.”
Fattmerchant needed to build a team and proprietary technology. After joining the StarterStudio accelerator in Orlando in 2015, the technology development, team and investors began falling into place and the foundation was set for the fast growth to follow. Madhani said she is most inspired by Sara Blakely of Spanx.
Some of Madhani’s advice:

  • Strong culture is everything. “When you walk in to Fattmerchant from the elevators, there is this sense of energy I can’t explain but it is contagious.” But it isn’t organic, it has be intentional, she said. Every job candidate is vetted through the startup’s core values (get it done, create joy and one team).
  • Think bigger. You’re going to scale so think about what that future looks like, she said. Technology and processes they built had to be 10X scalable.
  • Hire one layer down — the person who is more motivated to roll up their sleaves and get it done. Also, offer equity as part of the pay package.
  • Transparency in the product; transparency in the company. Share your goals — as well as the learnings — with your team. Fattmerchant has weekly, quarterly and yearly gatherings to do this. 
  • To raise funds, get out there and network. Her first-in investors were Florida’s FanFund (now DeepWork Capital) and VenVelo. She was connected to her first institutional investor from outside Florida through the Florida Venture Forum.

It’s likely the Fattmerchant story inspired the startups who presented and competed at SUP-X later in the afternoon.
Taking home the big check ($40K) was Hubspring Health of Miami, presented by founder and CEO Frank Gencorelli.
The Hub platform holds resources, protocols, guidelines, schedules, documents, media, HIPAA compliant communications and more, so healthcare providers  and staff can get to – in three clicks or less – all the information or the people they need, said Gencorelli, an anesthesiologist,  in his 5-minute pitch to judges.  The cloud-based mobile platform has been used a million times in the last year, and Hubspring’s revenue has grown every year, he said. Hubspring Health was founded in 2016. 
The other finalists were Bioverse Labs (Miami), Cassion Solutions (Pittsburgh), Citachek (Miami) and Vitruvian (Parkland). Judges included Lil Roberts of Xendoo, who won the competition last year.
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Nancy Dahlberg