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Founder Profile: Tony Powell of Orbweaver Sourcing

When Chris Ciesielka was working in electronics manufacturing and Tony Powell — who he met in the MBA program at Lehigh University — was working as a software consultant, they discovered an interesting truth.

The industry responsible for producing some of the highest-tech products, like missiles and sophisticated cell phones, was using some very low-tech methods when it came to ordering parts; ditto for the suppliers of those parts.

Their solution to this problem, a sophisticated supply-chain management software, became a company. And since its founding in 2012, Orbweaver — named for the garden spider that creates complex webs — has been disrupting the industry.

Orbweaver’s software is being used by clients all over the United States, and the company is now poised to begin a vigorous marketing campaign.

What inspired you to found Orbweaver?

Chris and I, who both graduated from Lehigh University in 2008, had full-time professional jobs. Around 2011, he came to me and said, “I’m in the electronics manufacturing industry, and we have a communication problem — it’s very difficult to move information around. I need you to help me with this one little thing for my job.”

I met with him and looked at the problem. It looked like a good fit for software. There were a lot of inefficiencies in the way data was moved around in the industry, and that’s exactly what software does well. I said we should take a look at this — because probably everyone else has this problem — and try to turn it into a company, and we did.

Right now, the industry moves information about the parts in a very manual way. Because there is so much information, and because it changes a lot, the industry has grown up with a brute-force mentality. They have spreadsheets with thousands of rows, and they build very complex macros to translate the information. When I saw this unique problem, where software could be applied so effectively, it was a very exciting prospect.

Tell me about your product.

Our clients are typically contract manufacturers and distributors who need to source parts, or bring parts up through the supply chain. We help connect [those] buying parts to the people they’re buying parts from, and we move the information back and forth between them.

We move things like price data, quantity on hand, governmental compliance and regulation data, and physical spec data. On the way back from the buyer to the seller, we manage things like automated POs, ship notifications and exceptional handling. Essentially, we handle the procurement cycle, the information needed to make a purchasing decision, and then we move the information to execute the purchase.

The parts are the tiny components that are attached to printed circuit boards in almost everything you buy, from televisions to toasters.

How did you get the business started?

Originally we decided to build a prototype and see what would happen. We scraped together a few thousand dollars to build the prototype, and we got it working pretty quickly.

Then we went to Larry Heller, who is now our president. He is an industry veteran; he worked as a senior sales executive with Avnet, the largest distributor of electronic components in the country. We showed him our product and he was very excited. We asked him for some money and asked if he’d like to join us, and he said yes to both. The three of us formed the nucleus, and it has grown from there.

We officially launched at the EDS Summit in Las Vegas in May 2013. We took our beta prototype to start seeing if people were interested, and they were. We got a lot of very positive feedback.

We came back and tuned the product a little bit, based on the feedback we got, and have been selling it actively since then.

Did you take advantage of any resources in getting Orbweaver off the ground?

In early 2013, Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern PA helped us a lot. Wayne Barz (manager of their incubator program TechVentures) has been an unbelievable advocate for us and a guide throughout. Honestly, I’m not sure we’d be here without him.

We did two or three rounds of prototypes. When it was time to go to market, that’s when BFTP/NEP stepped in. We started meeting with Wayne and he helped us shape our message so it would be interesting and structured properly for investors. He told us where to look for investors. BFTP/NEP offered us space in TechVentures and all kinds of services. They’re an exceptional resource for the local startup community. They also were one of our original investors and that brought us credibility. They funded us in 2013 and 2014.

How has the company grown?

We are up to about two and a half dozen clients at any given moment. We have three large enterprise-class customers for whom we move enormous volumes of data. They have a version of our platform that is hardened and privatized. We help move information into their business and within their business, from one department to another. We were profitable during the first quarter of 2015.

We have 10 employees — six full-time and four part-time. We have had some very big contracts and we’re looking to do a very significant amount of revenue this year.

What has been the biggest challenge so far?

Keeping the right pace with the marketplace. What we’re doing is very disruptive in the industry — we’re changing how people do their business. We’re making decisions for people that they used to make very hands-on. So keeping pace with the industry’s psychological ability to accept what we’re doing has been very challenging.

If you’re too far behind it, you lose the ability to grab market share. And you can’t get too far in front of it, or you’ve spent a lot of money and you have to wait for the industry to catch up. For example, back in 2012, we wrote an entirely cloud-based version of our application that was so dramatically different from what our clients did that we had to throw it away. We had to write a version that plugs into Excel, which in our minds is sort of a big downgrade. But in our clients’ minds, that’s where they do a lot of business, and that’s where they see their data.

It’s a strange dichotomy, because they’re producing things like amazingly high-tech missiles or televisions or cell phones. But they do it in a very manual, brute-force kind of way.

What’s the big differentiator for your company?

What we have that our competitors don’t have is a lot of access to industry insiders. Chris has been in the industry for almost 30 years and Larry for 30-plus years. The industry is very small — there are only a few thousand companies. It’s a fairly tight-knit community and getting inside is difficult.

Most of our competitors are focused on the engineering side rather than the production/procurement cycle. We have a very unique mix of software and industry knowledge as core competencies. That gives us the ability to move at a speed that most of our competitors cannot.

What’s next for Orbweaver?

We’re shifting into a very aggressive sales mode over the next few months. Our technology has been proven; we have a lot of clients up and running on it. So now we’re working to expand our sales and marketing force, to shape our message, and to build a very large and scalable pipeline. We want to grow the business as quickly as we can.

Our clients are all over the county with a concentration in the Northeast. We’re moving information from two large European distributors into our clients in the U.S. We’re in talks with a number of manufacturers to move information into China and Taiwan. As we start to grow and expand, there will be a need to move information in from folks who participate in a global supply chain.

Right now we’re still crammed into a small office at TechVentures, but Wayne has promised he’ll get us another one next door. We’ll probably stay here at least another year or two. We want to make sure that when it’s time to go solo that we have the cash flow and a strong revenue base and money in the bank to do that.

Writer: Susan L. Pena
116 Research Drive Bethlehem,, 18015

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