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Company meetings at dinner: How Mark Kovscek leveraged his focus group-sized family to start Conserv


If Mark Kovscek had been in his 20s when he started his own company, he would have abandoned it long ago.

“As with most entrepreneurs and founders, you hear no about 100 times before you have any positive interest from the investment community,” he said. Now that he’s older, “It’s easier for me to bounce back from rejection. Or be more persistent in solving problems by dialing a friend.”

Mr. Kovscek, a mathematician, worked for 25 years sorting data to help other companies catch rogue stock traders, strengthen their supply chains and better target their marketing.

“I was doing really quite well with it, working with large brands. Then I had a leak in my house.”

As far as founding stories go, Mr. Kovscek’s is filled with wholesome charm.

Instead of fixing the leak and moving on with his life, he began researching what equipment is available to monitor leaks. He found all of it to be too expensive and clunky.

Meanwhile, his family — wife, five daughters and one son — was going through a “Shark Tank” obsession. They’d settle in to watch the televised pitch competition and then the kids would turn to dad and ask, “What’s your big idea?”

“One time, I pitched them my automated snow angel idea. They didn’t like that,” he said.

On another day, he grabbed a tube of Chapstick from his pocket and heralded the invention of a “super low-cost water sensor.”

How did it work? The Kovscek sharks asked.

Easy, he said. You just secure it to a water pipe and hook it up to WiFi. A microphone in the sensor records the sound of flowing water, then an algorithm translates the drips into measurements and it diagnoses leaks. At the time, though, he short-handed that all as “magic.”

The sharks approved.

He didn’t exactly start his company, Conservation Labs, that day. But the family kept talking about it and the idea solidified.

They workshopped names for the WiFi sensor and settled on H2know, after the prominent female contingent dismissed anything with the word “flow” in it.

One advantage of Mr. Kovscek’s age — he was 46 in 2016 when he launched his business — was his ability to keep consulting on marketing analytics while he game-planned his own company.

Another perk was having a family the size of a focus group to challenge and support him.

"Company meetings happen at the dinner table or in the car,” he wrote in an article on business networking site LinkedIn. “They have helped to make this experience an adventure.”

Before all of this, Mr. Kovscek didn’t talk to his family much about work and his wife sometimes joked that she didn’t even know what he did for a living.

While her father has always been “family oriented,” his daughter Olivia Kovscek, 22, said, building Conservation Labs brought his work into the house and opened up that aspect of his life to all of them.

“I think that really strengthened our family,” Ms. Kovscek said.

She, too, has been reeled into the business.

In the summer of 2017, when Ms. Kovscek was home from college, her dad tasked her with settling up a 3D printer to make models of the sensor he was developing.

The next two summers, he had other projects waiting for her when she came home from West Virginia University. When she graduated in May, he offered her a job. She accepted the following month.

‘Cognitive dissonance’

It wasn’t until 2018 that Conservation Labs truly became the family’s future. That’s when the company was accepted into Amazon and TechStars accelerators and Mr. Kovscek had to give up his other job and devote all of his working time to his startup. He also had to go to Seattle for three months for a kind of Amazon bootcamp.

Mr. Kovscek wondered if at 48 he would be the oldest new entrepreneur in the group and was delighted to learn that he wasn’t. He was second oldest, by a few months.

While there, he learned that his experience — not just professionally, but simply being in the world longer than some of his startup peers — made the “cognitive dissonance” of being a founder easier to sit with.

“You have to live in this kind of constant tension of believing that everything will work exactly as planned and nothing will work exactly as planned,” he said. “Every moment of doubt is matched by an equal amount of confidence.”

The company’s water sensor, which retails for $129, finally started shipping the product November, after hundreds of tests and pilots.

Conservation Lab’s next venture, he hopes, will be a similar device to predict when a machine might need maintenance. Mr. Kovscek, while eyeing expansion, still plans to keep the business close his family’s home in Brownsville.

Even though most of his 12 employees are scattered around the country and the company’s lab is in Chicago — built in the house of its chief scientist by her retired plumber father — Mr. Kovscek bought a townhouse a few doors down from his to house employees visiting for meetings.

For an upgrade — which will include a bigger lab, meeting space and a mini distribution center, as well as some small rooms for lodging — Mr. Kovscek is looking at an old warehouse. It’s also in Brownsville, near the sharks.

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