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FenSens co-founders Andy Karuza, Mohammad Juma, and Dan Luong. (FenSens Photo)

If you drive an older car and you aren’t a parallel parking pro, you might be envious of friends with newer vehicles who get a little assist from their back-up sensors. But even though new car technology is nice to have, most people don’t think it’s worth the hefty cost of installation.

The guys behind Seattle startup FenSens realized they could solve that problem by developing smart car products that don’t require expensive installation. FenSens’ flagship product is a wireless parking sensor that pairs with a free mobile app. According to FenSens, it can be installed in five minutes. The device retails for $150.

The FenSens sensor attaches to the rear license plate. (FenSens Image).

FenSens was co-founded by Andy Karuza, Mohammad Juma, Danny Loung, and Henry Wong, They are developing several other products that allow drivers to add features available in newer cars to their older models.

“Ultimately, we are building a platform of connected devices for the car,” said Karuza, who serves as CEO.

FenSens recently closed a $500,000 fundraising round and has retail contracts with Best Buy, Sharper Image, and All State.

We caught up with Karuza for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

FenSens CEO Andy Karuza. (FenSens Photo)

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “FenSens makes new car technology available for any car. Our first product is wireless parking sensor on your phone through the FenSens app.”

Inspiration hit us when: “We realized that the automotive technology industry was backwards, unlike the smart home which has taken off in recent years. We figured, why can’t we do the same for the car through automotive IoT? When we looked at parking sensors and backup cameras we found that while everyone wanted them, 80 percent of cars in the USA still did not have the technology because it is still not standard on new vehicles and it’s too expensive or difficult to install in the aftermarket.”

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “We bootstrapped with founder financing for the first 1.5 years. In fact, we had been fundraising for eight months before we closed our first check, then everything fell into place after that with deals with Best Buy, Sharper Image, and many other reputable companies that see what we are doing. After that, we were able to raise money using a new form of fundraising called equity crowdfunding through Seedinvest. That campaign was successful. We closed out our round with an investment from the Capital Factory in Austin, Texas at a $3M valuation.”

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “Agile development method. This product has evolved quite a bit over the past year and it will continue to do so. Our strength is our flexibility and transparency working with our partners. We have worked in a lot of feedback into the product and our business model over the year by pitching the product, interviewing customers, and talking to our advisors.”

The smartest move we’ve made so far: “The smartest move in a startup is always to be very frugal, while not letting it get in the way of progress. Our competitor Pearl Automotive shut down after $50M in fundraising recently. We have raised 1/100th that amount and still have most of it in the bank with our product already paid for, two more products developed, and active contracts with some of the largest retailers in North America.”

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “If something is broken, you need to fix it ASAP. We got off to a slow start after winning Startup Weekend Kirkland with our first prototype. What we realized is we didn’t have the full team to really create a DFM product and were bogged down running in circles for the first couple of months. We should have moved faster to expand to get the right team members, which we eventually did, and everything took off after that.”

Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “We would probably choose Zuckerberg, because he has a strong understanding of platforms, which is what we are building for the connected car. It might seem like we are doing one product, but you haven’t seen anything yet. FenSens Smart Wireless Parking Sensor is only the beach head.”

Our favorite team-building activity is: “We regularly like to get together out at restaurants to socialize outside of work.”

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “Passion. Hiring one person that is passionate is better than forty that are merely interested. When you choose team members you really need to pick people that are excited about the problem you are solving and are committed to it, because startups are a big investment where you won’t see much reward (if any) for a long-time. A lot of people think it’s cool to be a ‘founder’ or say you own a company, but those are exactly the types you don’t want on your team. Startups are a lot of work and you have to be excited about it to be motivated, which also means I’m going to spend less time and energy trying to push you.”

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Fear and self-doubt are the two biggest factors holding back anybody from being an entrepreneur. You have to live with the risk, it’s okay to fail, as long as you learn from it. You will never know everything, so don’t make that an excuse for not starting. Find the people, resources, or missing variables and plug them into your business. This is problem solving with the pieces you have and it’s up to you to put it together. The most important person for your success is you. It’s not your team members, your investors, your customers, etc. What you do will determine who you have on your team, who buys your product, and whether they are the right ones.”

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