More than three dozen people got a crash course in the life of an entrepreneur this weekend as the sixth Kansas Startup took place at Fort Hays State University.
Through 48 hours in the Robbins Center, 41 participants made pitches for new businesses and products, formed teams, refined the proposals and created presentations for a pair of judges to vie for cash prizes.
The purpose of the event wasn’t necessarily to end up with an actual business, rather the experience of developing one, its directors said.
FHSU instructor of management and marketing Henry Schwaller IV, who also is president of real estate firm Henry Schwaller and Associates and a city commissioner, told the participants — most of whom were FHSU students — the process consists of four basic steps:
• Identify a problem.
• Find customers who have the same problem.
• Validation of the idea.
• Creating a solution.
Approximately a dozen of the participants already had a problem identified Friday evening and, after some exercises to get them accustomed to working with new people, stepped up to the microphone to make their 60-second pitches to lead a team.
Some were wild, some practical, some big in scope, but all those making pitches expressed their passion — bacon-flavored wine, pedal cabs, an app to integrate location-based social media posts with an event and restaurant finder, cryptocurrency education and investment, a game store/cafe, an app to pay for gym use by the minute, a donut truck.
The participants then were given seven votes each to give to the ideas they thought were the best. Those who made their pitches positioned themselves around the conference room to answer questions and further their pitch to garner the votes.
The top vote-getters formed their teams, and many of them got to work right away. Most of their work forming their ideas happened Saturday — with a break for many in the afternoon to attend the FHSU football game. Nine coaches — from banking, accounting, web design and other professions — were available to help guide them through the process.
Several of the groups spread out across town to conduct marketing research as best they could.
“They learned a lot very quickly, and on a weekend,” Schwaller said, pointing out many of the resources an entrepreneur would normally have available for research, such as vendors, were not available during the 48 hours.
“The students that took the time to go out and interview customers, that shows a lot of dedication. You’ve got to develop the survey instrument, then figure out what it means. We’re very impressed with that,” he said.
One of those teams was led by Alan Romans, Hays, and Rebecca Munson, Lawrence. The couple and their team conducted customer interviews at Hays liquor stores to gauge the interest in their product, bacon-flavored wine.
“People were a little surprised,” said Munson, a University of Kansas student. “I got a lot of ‘I would try that,’ but people weren’t sure how much they would pay for it.”
But they believed their novelty product would find a market among millennials, many of whom, their final presentation suggested, enjoy breakfast for dinner.
“I feel like there’s demand for it,” Romans said. “Are we going to make as much money from this as Google? Probably not. But I feel like it’s a niche thing but that doesn’t mean there’s no money in it.”
“We’ve kind of exhausted the market in microbreweries, the beer market,” Munson said. “But I feel like it’s just starting with the wine market with weird-flavored wines and small wineries.”
One of the most popular ideas among the initial pitches was offered by FHSU corporate communications student Feysel Rahmeto — a digital platform connecting residents of elder care facilities with their families and their families with the facility staff.
Rahmeto said he recognized the problem through talking with his sister, who works in such a facility and said the staff didn’t get to know much about the people they were taking care of.
“We said why not create that platform that would allow her to get to know who the elders are before they even come in,” Rahmeto said.
His pitch attracted Pablo Garcia, who is majoring in human resources with a minor in finance at FHSU.
“I saw a hole in the market that no one else is filling. That would be a great opportunity to jump in before someone else does,” Garcia said.
Others saw the opportunity as well, as the team that came to be called Linking Hearts was the largest among the groups with 10. They spoke with staff at two of the nursing homes in Hays during the weekend, and worked with the coaches to expand their idea.
Their research paid off, as judges Myrle McNeal and Dennis Hodges chose Linking Hearts as the best at Sunday night’s final presentation, garnering them the $1,000 prize.
“It was definitely intense,” Garcia said of his first experience at Kansas Startup.
It was not Rahmeto’s first time at the event, and he said it is close to the experience he’s had in internships as well.
“This is real-world experience. This is what it comes down to, working with teams, with different personalities, engaging everybody. Me being the one who had the idea, I was the one everybody turned to when they had questions, so it was honing my leadership skills. I was able to study myself while also studying others. This will help me better myself for the future,” he said.
Co-director of Kansas Startup, Nick Caporusso, assistant professor of informatics and an entrepreneur himself, told the participants much the same.
“It was amazing to see your persistence though the weekend,” he said after the final presentations. “You were showing up early, working ’til late. This is really the essence of being an entrepreneur because that’s what you’re going to do your entire entrepreneurial life.”
“Some of these guys didn’t know the others until Friday night,” he said later. “To me, that’s the most interesting part. I’m looking forward to seeing what could happen with them.”
Hodges said when considering the top groups, it was a difficult choice.
“There were a couple that stood out as not being as well thought out,” he said. “It was hard at the top four because there were slight nuances as to why this one versus that one.
“If they had more time to develop their concept, and we had more time to evaluate the concept, there would be deeper questions and more in-depth conversations,” he said.
“But it should give them a sense of the importance of a laser focus, the importance of a very clear concept and the importance of good communication. That’s huge,” Hodges said.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who spoke at Friday’s opening of Kansas Startup, said the skills the participants learn are needed in the country today.
“We’re at a historically low time in our history in the United States for startups, and that is a problem,” he said.
“The world has looked to us for what is really known around the world as the American dream, and in the absence of this entrepreneurial spirit, the American dream becomes something less achievable.
“If you can succeed in pursuing the American dream, you will help others achieve theirs. And that’s a great thing for one generation to pass of onto the next,” Moran said.