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Maryland startup addresses small businesses’ inventory challenges

Marvin Harris (Submitted photo)

Ovalz CEO Marvin Harris helped co-found the digital inventory service that helps small businesses with auditing their inventory. The goal is to help them compete with Amazon. (Submitted photo)

A College Park-based startup says its product may help small businesses compete with Amazon. Ovalz, a digital inventory service co-founded by CEO Marvin Harris, addresses challenges small businesses face auditing manually.  Harris’ experiences as a social entrepreneur and the alumnus of a historically-black college have influenced his outlook on business, he says.

Ovalz was one of four startups that recently received an investment from the Maryland Technology and Development Corporation’s seed fund, they announced Monday, July 20.

Harris said Ovalz has interviewed a few hundred small businesses, and they found owners have many discrepancies in their data inventory systems.

“At one retail shop, they were a minimum wage employee, and they were like, ‘I hate doing inventory because every time I feel like I’m going to lose my job. Because it’s never right, or I’ll mess up a count or it’s wrong.’ So, it’s bothersome,” Harris said. “They also talked about how it impacted how they interacted with the customers because, in the back of their mind, they’re thinking, ‘Okay did I do that right?’ ”

Harris said business owners struggle with inventory distortion, a trillion-dollar global problem caused by having too much or too little inventory or being unable to sell inventory that has spoiled or been damaged.

“I always like to use that example of you ordered something on Target or Best Buy’s website and then you go to the store, and they don’t have it. But, when you were on their website it said it was available, but then you got there and it wasn’t,” Harris said. “So, what do you do to resolve that issue? You probably pick up your phone, and then you just get it on Amazon because you know that they’re more reliable, and they’ll have what you need. So that’s an area how small businesses lose customers.”

To address this issue, Ovalz allows users to digitize the auditing they were doing manually. The product’s technology can also be integrated with companies’ pre-existing inventory management systems. Ovalz is also working on a unique data prediction model.

“We can create a score to say ‘Hey, based on the data that you have and promotional events, it doesn’t look like you’re going to sell these items by X date or this factor. You may want to discount and put it on sale or whatever,’ ” Harris said. “The reason Amazon wins is because they understand data about their customers, while the small businesses need to take control of their data, so they can understand.”

Harris grew up in southern California, hoping to attend the University of California, Los Angeles, but his mother convinced him to try a historically black college or university for  “just one year.” She was a big proponent of HBCUs and believed that moving away from home would make Harris more independent.

Although Harris planned on attending Howard University in Washington D.C. they incorrectly processed his housing arrangements. Harris’ mother did not want him to move to the city. without having a place to live, so he chose to attend Morehouse College, the country’s only all-male historically black college, located in Atlanta

Harris says he loved Morehouse, a place where he learned important principles about responsibility and time management that he carries with him today. Morehouse is also where Harris got his start as a social entrepreneur and developed a “help mindset” that drove Ovalz’ mission to assist small businesses.

Harris and a colleague received as college seniors the Echoing Green fellowship, which provides seed-funding and leadership training to impactful leaders solving community problems. They were the first non-Ivy League students to receive the fellowship, which today accepts around 1% of annual applicants. The pair co-founded Running Towards the Future, a reading and math program for children ages 7 to 12 that included summer and after-school activities.

When asked about the role he should play in racial equity conversations as a Black CEO, Harris said he wants to lead with the value he offers without having his appearance be the focal point. Still, he feels responsible for discussing some aspects of inequity, since a very small percentage of black startups receive adequate funding.

“I think there needs to be an environment where we can demonstrate success. We can be judged on our merits or our ideas or whether we fail or succeed because most – 90% – of startups fail,” Harris said. “So, you at least want a chance to fail or succeed based on your merits, and I hope people move in that direction and give people a fair chance, not necessarily for venture capital but for success.”

He said people should also notice and recognize founders of color trying to solve big problems.

“I think it’s important to show how people are out there trying to do impactful things that you may not know of, but we’re out here doing stuff and trying to make a difference and I think that’s important,” Harris said. “And I think as we grow and flourish, part of my journey is obviously to try and create opportunities for people that may not be given an opportunity in spaces that are not as diverse.”

(Editor’s note: An early version of this story incorrectly stated that the Ovalz is based in Bethesda. The company originated there but is now in College Park.)

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