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The story behind Priatek, the little company with its name on Pinellas County's tallest building

ST. PETERSBURG

Miami has the Four Seasons Hotel and Tower. Atlanta has Bank of America Plaza. Houston has the J.P. Morgan Chase Tower.

St. Petersburg has Priatek Plaza.

Who?

Most people have never heard of the 15-employee, 6-year-old tech company that just inked a deal to place its name on top of the tallest building in Pinellas County. Priatek can't be explained in one word like its predecessors whose names once graced the 28-story downtown building at 200 Central Ave. Bank of America: banking. Florida Progress: power.

Priatek stands for Prize Advertising Technology. It strives to be a leader in "gamification," the business of using games to encourage engagement with a product or service. The startup company makes high-tech kiosks that are kind of like advertising meets Wheel of Fortune meets Pac-Man. It has only had four in Tampa Bay malls so far and has yet to show revenues.

But CEO Milind Bharvirkar isn't daunted by this company's young track record or his past financial troubles. He sold his first company in San Jose, Calif., for seven figures, then lost it all on his next company before starting Priatek. He filed for corporate bankruptcy in 2009, followed by personal bankruptcy in 2011. The bank took back his $400,000 house in Lutz.

"I did (bankruptcy) reorganization. I'm still going to end up paying it all back," Bharvirkar said. "I plan on writing a book about it. I want people to know when times are tough, it doesn't mean your life is over. You just have to recalibrate."

Now he has raised $5 million from individual investors and has 13 people ready to buy franchise rights for territories in Florida, Illinois, Texas and California where they will sell advertising on Priatek's UGot2Play game kiosks. The machines are placed in public places like malls or movie theaters where people play a wheel-spinning game for free, then automatically win a prize from advertisers in the system.

The coupon — be it for a free gyro at Little Greek Restaurant or a family membership to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium — is printed on the spot or sent to the player's phone. Priatek invites any company willing to give away prizes, from 30 percent discounts to diamond earrings, to place a full-color, digital billboard on the game kiosk. They are charged 25 cents and up per person who plays to win their prize.

"Very few companies have been able to duplicate what Google does, but we've done it," Bharvirkar, 47, said. "We only charge you for interactions."

And those interactions are with people who already have enough interest in the advertiser to choose it out of the 40 or more advertisers on the kiosk and then take 20 seconds to play for a prize, he pointed out.

"Our interactions mean much more than just a click," Bharvirkar added.

Beyond that interaction, Priatek is collecting demographic information on players, which helps advertisers learn more about who is interested in their product and who isn't. They can ask a survey question each time a player spins the wheel.

Are you a member of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium? Would you join a bowling league? How much are you willing to spend on lunch?

Priatek won't sell personal information it collects from players, but when it has thousands of kiosks in movie theaters, malls, hotel lobbies and sports bars all around the country, it will have a network of customers with detailed demographics that advertisers can target.

"Over time, the network becomes more important than the kiosk. If we know 100,000 people who are runners are in our network then we can sell (advertising) to Nike," Bharvirkar said. The company plans to have 200 to 300 kiosks in place by the beginning of the second quarter of next year and 1,000 in operation by the end of 2016.

He's not ready to share franchise fees or the revenues from a 30-day test in August from kiosks at Westfield Citrus Park mall in Tampa and Westfield Countryside mall in Clearwater.

More than 2,000 people played for prizes from 42 advertisers in the two kiosks. Players can play for prizes from several or all advertisers once a day. When a mobile app is soon released, they can play once a day on their phones, as well.

"We certainly saw some repeat customers come out of that initial contact," said Nick Vojnovic, president of Little Greek Restaurants. He opted to take part in the Citrus Park kiosk in hopes of boosting sales at his store at the same mall.

"That location was trending negative sales, and in the last two months comparable sales are up about 4 or 5 percent," Vojnovic said. "We certainly will stick with this program." First-time customers who tried the store after winning a coupon on the Priatek kiosk converted to repeat customers, he said.

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium had 663 engagements from the UGot2Play kiosks and half of those people said they had never been to the attraction, said Jen Carlisle, the aquarium's marketing director.

"Those 663 engagements resulted in 19 coupon redemptions, resulting in 51 people visiting," Carlisle said.

Bharvirkar knows the power of high-definition video games. He helped start Global VR in San Jose in 1998. The company created and sold video sports games to bars and restaurants. A big coup was getting the licensing to simulate the PGA Tour.

Soon the games were so popular that thousands of players were discussing scores and the games' daily changing weather conditions across social media. Bharvirkar realized there was more potential in creating a network of players than in selling the game kiosks themselves.

He sold the company and "walked away with more money than I ever thought I would walk away with," he said, declining to specify how much beyond "seven figures."

His next venture in Florida also hinged on expensive licensing and technology. But the recession and bad timing became a big problem.

"The technologies took more time to develop than I thought. The licenses stalled out. I had paid a lot of money for the licenses, but I still owed more money for them," he recounted. "It wasn't because I developed a bad product and it didn't work. It was because it was a bad strategy and I think it was a bad decision on my part. Things like this happen with every entrepreneur."

Making and losing fortunes is common for startups in the tech industry, according to Daniel James Scott, executive director of the Tampa Bay Technology Forum. It often takes less money to start a tech company because there are fewer overhead costs as compared with, say, a manufacturer or bank, and there's less need for big offices because employees can work remotely from around the world. But when tech companies grow fast or hit a snag, "they can burn through the startup money very quickly," said Scott, who took over the advocacy group for the regional tech industry last year.

Bharvirkar tried to sell his house, but the lender on the home rejected the offer he got and foreclosed on it, he said.

"Not only did I go through financial issues, I had a fiancee at the time who walked out on me," Bharvirkar said. "It was a pretty low point in my life and I became spiritual and just wanted my life to be more than just about chasing money. The only thing that gave me any kind of relief was reading the Bible, and it changed my whole life. It wasn't just about money anymore. It was about building something and giving back."

Priatek will have repeat advertisers earn loyalty points with financial value. Half of them are given back to the consumers (game players) as merchandise points and the other half go to a charity of their choice.

Bharvirkar has also built a family with a wife and two children. He plans on building a company that will bring attention to all tech companies in St. Petersburg with an unfamiliar name, for now, at the top of a building.

"Maybe it's only two kiosks now, but there's a lot of technology behind that that they are selling," Scott said. "It's going to be a lot easier when they say, 'We have a tower in St. Petersburg. … Cold calls aren't cold when they know your name. Imagine if your business card says 'Priatek Tower.' "

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Katherine Snow Smith at kssmith@tampabay.com. Follow @snowsmith.

The story behind Priatek, the little company with its name on Pinellas County's tallest building 10/09/15 [Last modified: Friday, October 9, 2015 7:17pm]
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