MANSFIELD – John Covender started out in the disaster restoration business but took a zigzag in 2012 by founding a company designed to meet an unserved need for small businesses like the one he’d run.KnowYourCustomers.com helps business owners, landlords, attorneys, accountants and others who run small offices figure out which prospective customers might not pay their bills.He’s had to master some skills he never needed before, including an understanding of software.Covender grew up comfortable with entrepreneurship.“My family has been in the disaster restoration business since the 1960s,” helping clean up after floods and fires, he said. “I grew up in it.”He worked for an uncle who built a janitorial business, got burned out and applied to the unions in Cleveland to do painting and taping work for awhile. But “I topped out and couldn’t be paid any more, so I went to my uncle, and he says, ‘You can come back.”Covender expanded his uncle’s business into Ohio under a different name.“We did well and grew it,” he said.Most of the work entailed insurance claims on buildings that were damaged.But “we started getting customers that wouldn’t pay,” he said.Because of privacy laws, insurance companies stopped putting his company’s name on the check.“Now the insured was getting paid – and not paying us,” he said.He had an effective attorney who never lost any of his nonpayment cases.“But still ... the hassle and the cost,” Covender said. “I started getting my competitors’ customers that didn’t pay.”Covender tried calling a competitor he knew well to ask about one prospective customer for a middle-of-the-night cleaning that had to be started immediately.“He said, ‘Stay away from this person because we did a fire in this person’s house six months ago, and never got paid,’” Covender said.But that information had come one day too late.“I was thinking, what’s out there before you engage with customers? Just because the person has a high credit score doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a good customer,” he said.An idea was born:KnowYourCustomers.com, launched Sept. 7, 2012, operates by inviting small business owners to share – and dip into – information on risky customers.“We’re crowdsourced information for our members that don’t report to credit bureaus,” Covender said.Small businesses can purchase a membership or be charged on a pay-per-click basis.“Credit bureaus have been out there since modern finance,” he said.But while large and medium companies report non-payment, many smaller professional business owners don’t typically report to credit bureaus, especially when smaller amounts are involved.“People just take the hit, because it’s not cost-effective,” he said.So Covender has focused on risk that has flown under credit bureau radar.He is marketed the site’s services toward specific industries, starting with one he’d worked in, the more than 4,500 restoration companies.“I went to my competitors and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to get out of this business. You would want to know about my bad customer, wouldn’t you?’” he said.“There has always been a place for consumers to post against businesses, but there’s never been a place for businesses to post against the consumer,” he said. ”Within a few months, we had over $3.5 million of debt listed to our site.”Covender works out of Braintree, the Mansfield-based business incubator.He realized when he founded the business that he was an expert on payment issues, but faced a challenge “learning the software part.”“I actually jumped on a plane and went to Silicon Valley” in a search for technical help, Covender said.His business is small, but growing with third-party partners, he said.What does it take to be an entrepreneur?“Never give up,” Covender said. “You have to have the drive. You have to have passion. You have to keep moving forward, even when hard times hit. Make sure you’re focused.“We all have hard times, but are we able to get to the goal line, instead of being stopped on the 1-yard line? A lot of people give up because they don’t have that drive or willpower.“You definitely have to have a team that believes in you. You can’t do it by yourself. There’s no way.”It helps entrepreneurs to surround themselves with others who stay positive in their search for ways to solve the problems new businesses might have.“Braintree has been great,” Covender said. “It’s focused, and it’s collaborative.”He has found teachers, mentors and peers at the incubator.“You’ll get told that it’s not going to work that way,” he said. “That kind of upsets you at first. But they work you through the processes. Did you do this? Did you think about that?”Starting a business is hard work, Covender admitted. “You know how many ‘nos’ I’ve got?”“Three hours of sleep is good,” he added.But his wife and grandchild have remained important.“I do make sure I spend time with my family,” he said.