Innovation for social good was the leading theme among the six semifinalists chosen in the FIU Track of the Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge, co-sponsored by the College of Business’ Pino Global Entrepreneurship Center:
- Court Buddy offers affordable access to legal services;
- Relentless Roasters aims to create a specialty coffee bar and collaborative workspace for students;
- com proposes a cost-effective solution for elderly care;
- Wuelto taps the growing e-commerce marketplace for virtual mall experience;
- FlowKPI provides real-time performance data for retailers;
- Senzu Foods offers affordable, high-protein foods made from bugs.
“It’s nice to see people thinking big, solving big issues for the market and delivering proposals that are economically viable,” said John Fleming, Pino Center advisor and one of the judges on the FIU Track.
Senzu Foods’ founders gave their presentation an added boost, sharing cricket-based cookies with the judges and the other teams participating in the March 30 “Shark Tank Forum” at The Miami Herald. The consensus: they tasted good.
Impressed by the proposals, the judges offered three words of advice: “Don’t give up.”
It may not have been as fierce as the original “Shark Tank” television show, but the FIU Track judges spared little mercy in their questions to the participants.
“How are you going to deal with online fraud?” the judges asked Wuelto founder and FIU alumnus Alejandro Gomez. “Why should consumers buy from you and not Amazon?” added Seema Pissaris, professor at FIU’s College of Business Department of Management and International Business. They also quizzed the Senzu team on their failure to address the required FDA approval and pointed out the need for a food industry expert on their team.
Money was at the core of the judges’ questions to Relentless Roasters’ Daniel Choiseul, an FIU graduate, asking for details on cost per square foot and revenue per square foot – neither one covered in the presentation. “If you can’t explain those two numbers you can’t get anywhere,” said Karlene Cousins, associate professor in the Decision Sciences and Information Systems Department.
Difficult and demanding.
The annual Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge tasks contestants with creating a succinct yet detailed presentation of their business concept, the issues it will solve and how the venture will become a success. The ultimate goal: securing investors to get the venture off the ground or grow an existing business active for less than two years.
“This is real money and I expect you to do real things with it,” Fleming, , co-founder and technology practice lead of Biztegra Partners, told participants as they prepared to make their presentations. “If you’re taking other people’s money, you’re responsible for it.”
A record 248 entries were submitted for the 2015 competition, now in its 17th year. The six semifinalists selected in each track – Community, FIU and High School – all made live presentations before judges and filmed a 90-second video elevator pitch.
Participants in the FIU Track, the majority of them alumni, admitted the challenge wasn’t easy, with tough questions from the judges about costs and business models, competitors, target markets, and marketing strategies.
“It was tough, but it’s constructive criticism from someone who sees these types of presentations all the time,” Nicolexander Garza, an FIU undergrad who co-founded Senzu Foods with current FIU students Ricardo Delgado and Valerie Yoda, said about the shark tank forum, “They suggest what areas we need to work on and we learned from their questions to us and to the others.”
Court Buddy co-founders attorney James Jones Jr., an attorney, and Kristina Jones, an FIU alumna, were asked what their critical mass would be, both in terms of attorneys and non-attorney members, how they would attract new lawyers to the service and maintain interest of those already subscribed, and details about the actual costs of running the business.
“They brought up points that made us realize that we needed to focus more on the business side of Court Buddy,” said James Jones. “It’s a process that requires our daily attention and dedication to meeting our member’s needs.”
Lessons to be learned.
The judges described the business proposals as interesting, original and well presented. One of the areas that Business Plan Challenge contestants, and anyone who’s planning to launch a business, must overcome is the “assumption factor.”
“They have to help me understand the problem and how the business will fill in the gaps,” said Pissaris. “Paint a clear picture of what the market looks like, address the risks and have a plan to mitigate them, describe what makes you well matched to execute the business.”
The presenting teams also need to work on the competitive environment and how to execute the business plan, noted Cousins.
“Some couldn’t explain how their product would be better than competitors’ until they were probed,” said Cousins. “They have to examine legal and regulatory issues, provide solid information on the return for investors and conduct more sophisticated analysis about the business model.”
The grand finale comes on April 27, when a special edition of The Miami Herald’s Business Monday will showcase the winners – the judge’s top three selections in each track, the People’s Pick, and the overall 2015 Challenge Champion.
A Closer Look at the semifinalists in the FIU Track:
Court Buddy, pitched by James Jones Jr. and Kristina Jones. Founded by an attorney, this online legal matchmaking system connects people and businesses with affordable attorneys based on their budgets. The venture offers a-la-carte legal services at a flat rate.
FlowKPI, pitched by Luis Caro, Ernesto Ruiz and Giancarlo Zarrillo. This provider of business software wants to redefine the tools retail businesses rely on to accomplish their sales goals and optimize their potential. Plans include developing software-as-a-service solutions for different industries.
Relentless Roasters, pitched by Daniel Choiseul Paguaga. A collaborative workspace featuring free Wi-Fi, breakout rooms and specialty coffee café on the FIU campus would serve as a retail location, roasting facility and educational center focused on entrepreneurship and School of Hospitality-connected activities.
Room2Care.com, pitched by Todd Florin and Richard Ashenoff. Leveraging the power of the sharing economy, this end-to-end platform is designed to connect those who need long-term care with those who can provide care in the local community via cost-effective solutions.
Senzu Foods, pitched by Ricardo Delgado and Nicolexander Garza. This company’s goal is to provide a sustainable solution to food scarcity and rising costs, nutritional deficiencies, public health, and environmental concerns by becoming a leading producer and distributor of insect-based food products.
Wuelto, pitched by Alejandro Gomez. This global social e-commerce platform provides users with a going-to-a-mall experience by allowing people to share items with friends while also being able to ask questions and interact with the stores regardless of where they are physically located.