Student Started Life-Saving Small Business After Seeing a Need

Aspiring entrepreneurs can learn from this university student’s methodical path that included identifying a need, focusing and building a great team.

A group of people toast with drinks, only their hands showing.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

You likely have never heard of Keith Nothacker, or BACtrack, the small business he founded in 2001 during his senior year at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was an economics major.

And that’s okay with him, because Keith knows his company can take credit for saving untold numbers of lives — and that is no exaggeration — keeping drivers safe and preventing thousands of arrests for DUI.

BACtrack’s story is an example of what one entrepreneur did to succeed, and Nothacker was more than willing to set out the steps he took that led to his company having the largest market share of personal-breathalyzer sales in North America.

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Law Enforcement Had Them, But Individuals Did Not

BACtrack is the result of observations leading to an idea for a product that would address a specific need: Letting drivers know their own blood alcohol level before driving.

“On a university campus,” he pointed out, “it is no secret that students consume alcohol, and some get pulled over and cited for DUI.” The police had breathalyzers, but there was nothing on the market individuals could buy to enable them to test their own blood alcohol content (BAC) before deciding to drive.

This need was met by the team Keith assembled to develop the first personal breathalyzers.

Operative Word: Focus

“In a world where cryptocurrency gets hot, all these new fads come and go,” Keith said, “but for us, the operative term was focus. We did not try to become something that we were not. We identified an opportunity and focused relentlessly on it. It is a key to our success, as there is no other company out there who can say, ‘We know personal breathalyzers better than BACtrack.’”

I asked Keith, “What role, if any, did customer feedback play in your success?”

“Good is good, but bad feedback is much more important,” he replied. “We had to focus on what the customer was willing to buy and their needs. That’s what paid the bills and allowed us to invest in research and development, allowing us to grow this market from nothing to where we are now.”

Determine and Overcome Initial Challenges

“In the beginning, we had no momentum, and so everything was a challenge. Getting any type of market acceptance was hard. Hiring people was difficult. Getting product developed was hard. Fast-forward 21 years later, we have team members, but we had to create our own momentum day to day and hour by hour.”

He went on, “You have to fight every hour of every day. That means checking all the boxes: Develop a product and distribution model that is profitable. Build a talented team. Have an eye on the future so you will have relevant products years from now — in addition to concentrating on the day-to-day.”

If Your Product Works, It Will Be Picked Up by Major Retailers

While things like Fitbit are accepted as normal and necessary health accessories today to some people, “owning a personal breathalyzer was not in the beginning,” he pointed out.

“But what made it obvious as an item retail should be selling was our online sales that were huge, as it met a customer need, solving a real problem. If you have a product or service that works, and you do things correctly, you’re going to have success.

“We were satisfying a true customer need — the ability to quickly and accurately estimate your BAC before driving. Law enforcement has an alcohol detector, so why shouldn’t everyone own one at a reasonable price point and test themselves?”

Start by Satisfying One Customer’s Needs

There is, of course, a formula for success in sales: “You start by satisfying one customer’s need,” Keith said, “helping them to understand the relationship of alcohol levels to driving ability and safety. As we grew, we saw parents buying them to test their kids, schools who test the kids at a dance — so many people who have alcohol-use disorders. Society is much more aware of addressing health problems with technology, and that is what a breathalyzer offers. Ours are sold worldwide in 20,000 stores.”

What Causes an Entrepreneur to Fail?

Usually, we hear only success stories, but I wanted to know Keith's view of what causes an entrepreneur to fail. What do they do wrong?

He listed:

  • They focus on the wrong thing. For example, logos are nice, but they don’t pay bills. Your product or service must resonate with customers.
  • They don’t hire a great team. “Our team is amazing. We have passionate and extremely smart people to work with.”
  • They play hide the ball, refusing to discuss bad news. “Problems only get worse!”
  • They wait too long. “Start a business at a young age. If you can do it before having a family, so much the better so you will not have to navigate the challenges of family and work-life balance.”

Why This Topic Is So Important to Me

As a deputy district attorney, I prosecuted many DUI cases, and I handle them in private practice. In every instance, if the defendant had known their BAC, I’m sure most would not have driven. Next to the requirement of a driver’s license should be owning a personal breathalyzer.

I’ve tested BACtrack devices against law enforcement units. Their numbers match. And, yes, there are good devices manufactured by other companies. My point is that if you are going to drink and drive, it is just common sense to own a personal breathalyzer.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield, Calif., and welcomes comments and questions from readers, which may be faxed to (661) 323-7993, or e-mailed to And be sure to visit


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."