Ben Shapiro, a self-proclaimed tech-geek and senior at San Diego State University (SDSU), used his experience as a freelance technician to co-create a company that empowers older adults to confidently use technology.
That company, TekMate, founded at SDSU, offers live technology classes, personal one-on-one training sessions, and remote business-to-business services to local senior living homes.
When Shapiro and his co-founder Micheal Viesca, crossed paths through the Lavin Entrepreneurship Center at SDSU, the need for TekMate became clear as they “both noticed a lack of accessible and affordable senior-tailored tech support.” Their shared experience helping older adults and seniors with their technology troubles was the basis for their idea. And so, they launched TekMate, an Uber-like platform that connects seniors with tech-savvy college adults who provide on-demand, hands-on tech support and training.
“We saw there was a widespread problem and we felt we were in the perfect position to help,” Shapiro said. “Most of our customers have had a bad experience with technology. It is our job to change their perspective.”
According to Shapiro, most questions are about laptop and tablet functions, privacy settings and other cyber security information, and how to use different social media apps.
We recently chatted with Shapiro about being an SDSU entrepreneur and how he and his team are passionate about helping seniors improve their quality of life in today’s digital age.
Year Founded: 2019
Founders: Ben Shaprio (CEO), Micheal Viesca (CSO), Jasmin Villa (CPO), Naveed Gorgani (CMO)
Business model: It took the TekMate founders a few tries before they found a business model that worked. “Seniors and older adults are the hardest population to target with a digital marketing strategy, and when your target public is seniors with technology problems, advertising online becomes even trickier,” Shapiro said.
At first, the team tried Google and Facebook ads in an attempt to catch the eye of anyone looking up help with technology challenges. This strategy proved to be ineffective.
“The issue is that technology is the problem, and we are the solution,” Shapiro said.
Advertising online to an audience who doesn’t understand or trust the communication channel is difficult. The TekMate team saw this and pulled back its digital marketing campaigns, instead deciding to focus on building trust between their company and relevant organizations. From that point, they began to operate mostly business-to-business, having senior living homes and senior community colleges hire them out for group classes or a certain number of hours per week for resident tech training.
Customer growth became consistent only after they built relationships with trusted organizations.
‘Smart’ Seniors: The age gap in technology adoption is narrowing, with many older adults and seniors showing a greater interest in smart devices and laptops than ever before. The issue is, many consumers over the age of 50 do not use this technology to its full advantage, and many do not trust their privacy online. According to AARP, only 1 in 10 older adults are confident that their interactions with these devices will stay private. This is where TekMate comes in.
“The two main topics customers ask about are basic how-to’s, especially with newly bought devices, and digital privacy functions,” Shapiro said. “Many also want to learn how to use social media accounts and need the reassurance that their information will stay safe. Our goal is to educate them, to give them the knowledge and tools they need to feel confident using their devices to their full potential.”
Look here for a TekMate customer spotlight.
Pandemic: COVID-19 has not slowed company growth. TekMate was founded before the pandemic, but grew rapidly since last April as technology became necessary in order to stay connected during lockdown. In order to protect their customers and respect social distancing, the team had to find a way to continue their one-on-one technology training services remotely. Surprisingly, they haven’t faced many difficulties.
“The biggest issue the team faces with remote one-on-one calls is poor internet connection,” said Shapiro.
The TekMate team also sends visual guides to seniors and provides options like live chat in addition to their video call service in order to help their customers navigate the digital world without in-person assistance.
Mentors: Shapiro has had a number of meaningful mentorships throughout the years. His first was Tim Ortiz, an entrepreneur and founder of Eventvibe. Shapiro credits Ortiz with giving him necessary tough love.
“He told me, ‘You have so many ideas, but you won’t execute them.’ The Lavin Entrepreneurship Center and Zip launchpad also gave me the ability to execute on my ideas,” said Shapiro.
These SDSU programs provided the funding and support needed to launch a student run startup. Every quarter, the TekMate team meets with three mentor advisors, who challenge the team with questions and talk strategy. According to Shapiro, they don’t let the team off easy. Instead, they challenge and push them to think outside the box.
Funding: In October 2019, the TekMate team won the Lavin Center’s VentureStart competition, walking away with the first place trophy and $1,000 in funding for their idea. Since then, the team has been provided with just under $10,000 from the Lavin Seed Fund, all provided by the Lavin Entrepreneurship Center. Currently, TekMate is “not looking for additional funding, as the startup’s last quarter revenue and past funding is enough to cover expenses,” Shapiro said. However, he is not ruling the need for future funding as TekMate expands and new avenues are considered.
Horizon: According to Shapiro, TekMate has a goal of a 250% increase in revenue over the next two quarters. Now that the company has strong relations with multiple senior living organizations, revenue growth has been much more consistent.
The founding team also hopes to see the company grow as they prepare for graduation in May. They are currently talking about creating an interactive platform that Shapiro calls a “LinkedIn for seniors with technology problems” and would include a blog, walkthrough lessons, office hours, and social connection all in one place. The TekMate team hopes this digital learning center will encourage seniors and older adults to feel confident on the internet and give them the tools they need to navigate new devices without outside help.
“As long as technology continues to advance, there will be people who need help understanding it,” Shapiro said.
The TekMate team is also currently looking for a seventh member: an service technician intern to help with customer calls.
San Diego Tech Ecosystem: Shapiro praised the San Diego tech scene, and sees a bright future for the community.
“My mentors always talk about how San Diego is the next tech place over Silicon,” Shapiro said. “I’ve never been to Silicon, but from my experience the tech scene in San Diego is amazing. I don’t want to go up to San Francisco or the Silicon Valley area.”
Shapiro regularly attended San Diego tech conventions before the pandemic hit, and thinks it is clear that San Diego is a rapidly growing tech space.
“I went to the Tech Hub event in December, with Claude Jones, and it was incredible. I went to the San Diego Tech con, at Sony, and it was amazing. Really, there’s no place I’d rather be.”
Tacos: Shapiro satisfies his inner taco craving at City Tacos in La Mesa & North Park.