Daniela Perdomo couldn't quite get her transistor radio to work.
The Brazilian was hunkering down in her New York City apartment during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 when she heard then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg's voice chime in about chaos breaking out in the city and rampant power outages. She knew the dirty details already. One quarter of all cell phone towers were down. Looters were running amok, bent on mayhem and destruction. And, her cell phone didn't work. She felt isolated from the world.
Growing up, she knew a bit about the loss of communication in developing countries. Her parents worked in the local communities in Guatemala City and Sao Paulo. She had worked for a time as a community organizer herself in the affordable housing industry.
In underprivileged areas in South America, mass communication was not a given like it is in the U.S. "If you had any privilege at all it was so much clearer to everyone," she says. Having a phone was one thing; getting it to work another. "The powers that be did not have any incentive to make sure the communications infrastructure worked."
After Sandy, she resolved to do something about it. With her brother Jorge, she came up with an idea for an innovative gadget called the goTenna (no capital G).
It works over the VHF radio band across an area of about 50 miles. To send a text or your GPS coordinates, you sync the antenna to your phone over Bluetooth and then transmit the signal to another goTenna user. It's a simple fix to a major problem, and it works anywhere in the world. (For now, the company plans to release the product in the U.S. only and work out foreign regulatory issues.)
"I was moved to start a company that can help democratize access to everyone in the world," she says, recalling the Sandy disaster. "I grew up in a country where there is a disparity of wealth distribution and saw how my parents were giving back to the community."
The antenna can solve a few problems. Initially, it would work for hikers in remote areas and at mountain basecamps. (The radio signal is the same one park rangers use.) It's ideal for festivals, business events, sports venues, and frequent travellers. Yet, Daniela says the bigger goal is to help people in areas where communication signals are sketchy at best.
That's the big motivation she needed, the driving force.
"People start companies for the wrong reasons," she says. "Sometimes it is to make money or out of boredom. Those motivations don't last through the ups and downs, the professional roller coaster you go through. If you are starting a business, you should feel deeply personal about it, because there will be peaks and valleys--more valleys than peaks in the early days. It's hard to sustain your excitement and dedication about something you don't really care about."
Some of the valleys for goTenna (and Daniela personally) have been difficult to traverse. She says the company started about two years ago, but had to work in semi-obscurity with her brother and two other employees (they now have four employees plus one intern). She says no one knew about their company, so there was no one to champion their cause or encourage their efforts, so they had to dig deep to find personal motivation and incentive.
The good news? Her passion will start paying off soon enough. The device will go on sale for $150 in March of next year and is already racking up robust pre-orders. After she proves the value of owning one in this country, she plans to expand to other countries. That's the true ambition, and the one that has helped build the company up from just a glimmering idea.