Six years of working at a nonprofit offering rental housing to low-income families taught John Bialk just how precious quiet can be. He frequently fielded noise complaints from tenants—from late-night parties to loud TVs. And these issues often led to nasty feuds between neighbors. "I'd see cars keyed, tires flattened, physical threats," says the Neshkoro, Wis., resident. "As a property manager, you sit at your desk waiting for bad things to happen." In the meantime, he came up with a solution: a noise-monitoring system that works on a wireless network to alert landlords to problems.
In hopes of finding a partner with technical expertise to help create the product, Bialk attended a local startup conference in 2012; there he met computer programmer Jonathan Narwold. Soon after, the duo were accepted into a three-month business accelerator, which included a $20,000 investment and help making a prototype. Afterward they raised $300,000 from affiliated investors to take the device, Quietyme, to market.
In January 2013, Bialk left his job to focus on Quietyme. "My wife wasn't thrilled I was starting a business so late in my career," says Bialk. "But I believed in this product." And with their three kids grown, their living costs were modest, allowing him to take a chance.
Bialk and Narwold hit the ground running. Via cold calls, they built a solid customer base of landlords and hotel managers. And along the way, they found another market: hospitals. Seeing a chance to expand and having proved they could build the technology, Bialk and Narwold were able to raise $980,000 more last summer, allowing them to hire 19 people and bring R&D in-house.
In 2014 revenues hit $300,000. The business isn't yet in the black, but it could be by next summer, says Bialk, who has already found his new path personally profitable: "I left property management to solve a problem, and that's what we're doing. It's a good feeling to have when I go to sleep at night."
By the Numbers
How long he went without a salary: To supplement his half of the accelerator grant, Bialk cashed in a $40,000 401(k)—his whole nest egg—to cover his and his wife's living expenses. "We needed to scale the business and couldn't if we were taking money out," he says.
What he will earn in 2015: After the first six months, Bialk and Narwold each began taking a $40,000 annual salary. Following the second round of funding, they both upped their pay. Bialk is now making as much as he did prior to starting the company.
Equity in the business Bialk retains: A 10% stake in the company went to Narwold, 20% went to the accelerator, and another 30% was given to investors. While Bialk sacrificed all of his retirement savings for startup costs, he says his shares in Quietyme are now worth $4.2 million based on a recent valuation.