Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Ventures column
Jan 20, 2013 (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
At Wilson Commons, a retirement community on the south side of Milwaukee, residents are making video calls to family and friends even if they have never heard of Skype, much less ooVoo, Tango or Google Video.
Wilson Commons is among the first customers of BrightLife Innovations, a start-up company that is selling a turnkey service for video calls to retirement communities.
"It can make such a difference in the quality of life of the residents," said Jennifer Kessel, who oversees operations for the independent living complexes at the 10 retirement communities run by Capri Communities in Waukesha.
Josh Silldorff, who started BrightLife in February 2011, is hoping those kind of endorsements will open doors at other retirement communities.
Silldorff, 27, credits the idea for the company to his mother and, indirectly, to his girlfriend's nine-month stint in Minneapolis.
He and Betsy Behling, his girlfriend, had video chats daily, and Silldorff's mother noted that residents in retirement communities would enjoy video calls with their families.
The observation intrigued Silldorff, who majored in advertising and marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. After doing some research, he decided to start BrightLife.
Silldorff knew he would need investors. When he sought the advice of Jeff Behling, his girlfriend's father, Behling said wanted to invest in the company after going over the business plan.
Behling, who lives in Tucson, Ariz., now oversees business development for BrightLife.
Keeping it simple
The company floundered a bit in its first year.
Silldorff first tested a touch screen that proved unpopular. But he knew that people, no matter what age, were comfortable with remote controls.
He pieced together a system in which a camera with a processor sits on top of a television screen. The processor provides the connection to the Internet. The system doesn't have a computer, keyboard or mouse.
"Simplicity was the most important thing," Silldorff said.
BrightLife provides the equipment and charges $200 a month for the service.
"All they need to do is say 'yes,' " he said. "We take care of everything for the community."
The simplicity also is part of the appeal.
"It's touch of a button," said Kessel of Capri Communities.
BrightLife also offers the service -- EasyConnect HD -- for private rooms for $50 a month.
"It really is a very cool thing," said Kim Khail, who lives in Manitowoc.
Khail had EasyConnect HD installed in her father's room in the assisted living center where he lives, even though they live in the same community.
She visits her father at least every other day, Khail said. But the service has enabled her to take vacations with less worry.
When you can see someone, Khail said, you get better clues to their health and mood.
Her father also uses it to keep in touch with friends.
Sales haven't been easy.
"There's been a learning curve," Silldorff said.
Knocking on doors wasn't successful, so he's now relying on getting sales prospects from word-of-mouth.
The eventual goal is to approach national chains, but he first plans to focus on smaller, regional chains. BrightLife hopes that retirement communities come to see the service as an amenity that sets them apart.
"Everybody has a piano," Silldorff said.
The service particularly appeals to family members in distant states.
"It's a wonderful service," said Jo Ann Miller, who moved to Alaska from Milwaukee and whose mother lives at Wilson Commons.
Silldorff knows that the idea can be copied easily, and he worries that if BrightLife doesn't move quickly, another company will. For that reason, the company has considered bringing in additional investors. He also has given thought to hiring someone from the industry to help with sales.
But he is optimistic that the company will close one or two sales in the first quarter of this year, adding about 10 retirement communities, and he has hopes that eventually word-of-mouth will begin generating significant sales.
Kessel of Capri Communities believes that's possible.
"We think it definitely will take off," she said.
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