Start Me Up: Institute sharks teach entrepreneurs how to swim

By on December 17, 2013
Sandy Hessler at the ‘office.’
Sandy Hessler at the ‘office.’

Sandy Hessler at the ‘office.’

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – The inaugural Start Up Institute fall session culminated last week at a two-day pitch seminar that had the look and feel of the ABC reality show “Shark Tank,” where hopeful entrepreneurs sweat out their ideas for a startup business in front of a panel of potential investors, affectionately dubbed “sharks.”

Each of the 16 students who enrolled in the class offered by Silicon Couloir through Central Wyoming College made their 10-minute presentation last Wednesday and Thursday, capping their intensive 10-week (three days a week) course taught by Sandy Schultz Hessler.

Hessler spent seven years in brand management at Proctor & Gamble. She also co-founded the successful startup Imagitas, which sold to Pitney Bowes in 2005. Hessler has since developed and instructed an entrepreneurial training program in Boston for several years prior to serving as an assistant dean at Harvard.

Mitch Dann advises Mary Lynn Wilmore.

Mitch Dann advises Mary Lynn Wilmore.

“What’s fun is there is a lot of energy behind entrepreneurism right now,” Hessler said. “I think there is a ton of energy around the country from the Forbes and Obama speeches. Inventing and starting businesses … Obama has made a bunch of speeches around that.”

Hessler’s course attracted a strong crop of students. The buzz is carrying over to a spring 2014 course, which will be offered April 8 through June 12. Enrollment begins in January. Jackson Hole seems to be ready for Hessler’s business-ready boot camp.

“You have the perfect intellectual capital and financial capacity here,” Hessler said. “And tons of smart people who are risk-takers and adventurers. So there is that kind of cultural salt in the water so to speak, but many don’t have the kind of business conceptualism needed to work out a plan. That’s where many businesses succeed or fail. The existing model is too often ‘ready-fire-aim’ in many businesses. We don’t put in the time to figure out what we’re doing.”

Hessler said she encourages young entrepreneurs to find their passion before worrying about how to turn that into a career and make money. “Whether you want to make long johns or start a kombucha brewery, you’ve got to identify the consumer need, generate interest, and figure out how to get people to lean in and buy something,” she said.

It isn’t all passion, however. Hessler makes sure her students know the importance of showing potential investors the numbers.

“Starting a business isn’t about being an artist,” Hessler said. “Inner passion is good, but half the artists in the world are starving. Starting a business takes that kind of passion, and the more you can articulate how that passion connects with your customers, the more successful you can be. You need passion and you need to be open and a great listener.”

Canine hotelier? Feary points out bottom line.

Canine hotelier? Feary points out bottom line.

Woofers (Jayme Feary)
Upscale pet resort

Feary’s was the most polished pitch of the 16 presentations. As a freelance writer, Feary had a bulletproof script but he was comfortable enough and rehearsed enough to go off the cuff with only an occasional glance at his notes.

“My name is Jayme Feary, and I have a question for you. How many of you own a dog?” Feary began his presentation with a classic salesman’s technique: engage the audience immediately with a question likely to be answered in the affirmative.

Then Feary played the guilt card on dog owners, showing photos of existing boarding facilities in Jackson, including two vet clinics offering traditional overnight kenneling. He described them as little more than doggy jail.

“Here is the game changer,” Feary said, popping up a photo of dogs at play in a fenced in area. “This is my competition. This is DogJax, of which I am a big fan. They changed everything by offering group play.”

“Free-range dogs,” an audience member offered to great guffaws.

“Right, and your dog is not stuck in a jail cell all day long,” Feary added.

Feary admitted his idea was not going to save the world, and it was hardly a new concept – existing facilities like Kickapoo Ranch (Dallas) and Pooch Hotel (California) were running close to 99 percent occupancy year round. But the trend of treating pets like family is cresting, and the numbers seem to indicate a market roomy enough for someone to carve out a local slice.

“The pet industry is second-fastest growing behind only consumer electronics,” Feary said. “Pet services are growing at an even faster rate. Over the last 10 years, even through the recession, the industry never had a losing quarter.”

Jackson Hole offers the perfect storm of the affluent and the dog-crazy, Feary noted. In his mind, an upscale pet resort should work in Jackson, and it’s surprising there isn’t one already. In a perfect world, Feary anticipated branding a hotel chain regionally or nationwide that would cater to dog owners who love lavishly on their pets.

“Why would you send your dog to the Motel 6 when he is used to staying at the Hyatt Regency?” Feary asked the audience.

Amy ‘Hatches’ plan for online outdoor gear.

Amy ‘Hatches’ plan for online outdoor gear.

Garage Grown Gear (Amy Hatch)
Directory of the finest USA-made outdoor gear

Hatch boasts a journalism background, which she has enhanced with social media savvy that is practically a requirement for any startup nowadays. Her plan may stand to be the most altered of the two-day session, but an idea lurks somewhere in there.

Hatch said she would launch a website based on the Etsy model, which is a popular e-commerce website and eBay competitor devoted to providing a marketplace for handmade or vintage items. Her site, called, would be a portal for only the best outdoor gear manufactured in the United States. She would not hold inventory, but simply take a small percentage (3.5 percent) of any Internet transaction.

Feedback included some wondering whether the name wouldn’t confuse shoppers into thinking that the gear on the website was secondhand.

“‘Garage’ is a value-diminishing term that could lend the impression that it is used gear,” one ‘shark’ suggested. “And you never want to let the user know you are not holding a wide warehouse of inventory.”

Other comments were directed toward Hatch’s plan of reviewing and summarizing product herself.

“That could be draining on you. Why not allow user-driven feedback and content review to take place?” was one suggestion.

Happy Life Kombucha
(Dan Abromson)
Kombucha brewery

Abromson began his pitch with a confession: He was a soda jerk as recently as six months ago. Coke, root beer, Red Bull … he drank all that junk. But his marriage to a holistic nutritionist and wellness coach pretty much forced his hand and led him to the discovery of kombucha, the fermented tea so popular now it’s a $350 million industry, according to Abromson, and expected to grow to $550 million by 2015.

Abromson identified the consumer need, claiming today’s beverage drinkers demand more from their drinks – including energy, vitamins and probiotics – without the over-processed sugar high so many concoctions are known for in the burgeoning branch of libation known as the functional beverage industry.

Abromson identified his competition as the only game in town, essentially. A company named GT’s kombucha is currently hogging nearly half the market share of kombucha sales in the United States. Abromson said he thinks the industry is heading the way of microbreweries with an emphasis on smaller outlets that can better guarantee the freshness necessary to keep the tea’s SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast) alive and alcohol content low.

Abromson’s target market is the active and health conscious Jackson crowd. This demographic mainly is comprised of women, ranging in age from 35 to 55, who prefer organic, natural and fair-traded product.

Abromson is looking for investors to get his home-brewing operation out of the house and into a dedicated brewery. He felt he could turn a profit of $23,000 in the first year, increasing that sevenfold in year two. He estimated a need for about $100,000 in startup costs.

The Hole Story (Christie Koriakin)
Radio talk show

Koriakin is the poster child for the Start Up Institute. She fashions her passion to business model and then figures out how it might make money. In Koriakin’s case she’s hitched her wagon to a dying industry; but smaller, local niches remain in radio broadcasting. In fact it is in small town markets like Jackson where the medium will likely make its last stand.

“I really just adore this community. I feel at home,” Koriakin told the tank full of potential investors and community members. “That’s the feeling I want to share in this show: a strong sense of community. I don’t know what the plot is yet. That will be made by each and every one of you. We all have a story to tell.”

Koriakin is the program director at KHOL, Jackson’s low-power community radio station. She shared her enthusiasm for a produced talk show on KHOL, airing weekly to start in March and more often as interest grows, perhaps by September of next year. She estimated KHOL’s audience at about 3,000 listeners.

Koriakin explained there was room in the local media landscape for a local talk show that focuses on community issues and features valley characters as guests. No other radio programming addresses this need, Koriakin said. She referred often to a WPR-styled program like “Open Spaces” with a conversational tone ala NPR’s “This American Life,” hosted by Ira Glass, a show Koriakin said costs about $9,000 an hour to produce.

Interest exists, Koriakin said, pointing to the 75-plus filmmakers that submitted material for “One Day in Jackson Hole” last December.

A live talk show would cut down on production costs and Koriakin volunteered to be the show’s producer. Other costs would be manageable, according to Koriakin. A place on the dial already exists.

“It only took us eight years to get here,” Koriakin joked. She estimated a $2,000 budget with much of that going to promote the show to new audience listeners. An estimated 2014 budget is $50,000 in total. Koriakin also said she might promote the show at Ira Glass’ appearance at Center for the Arts next month.

Crowley models her own recycled threads.

Crowley models her own recycled threads.

belle eco (Kathleen Crowley)
Upcycled, upscale women’s fashion

Crowley helped start the Community School with Scott Hirschfield. She has dabbled in numerous other occupations including a stint as a buyer for Teton Mountaineering and, recently, landing at Browse ‘N Buy where she made an eye-opening discovery: Literally tons of clothes are discarded at thrift shops all around the country every day – more than could ever be repurchased and reworn.

Crowley told the audience she came from a long line of Quebec women that knew their way around a sewing machine. She began gathering the better fabrics and repurposing them into sweaters and dresses for herself.

Crowley figured she had hit on something truly unique. “I thought I answered that age-old question: Why do women like to buy clothing?” she said. “To feel beautiful, confident and to express themselves in order to satisfy their needs.”

It’s not exactly a novel revelation but when Crowley delved into the “why” of belle eco, it started making sense. “The fast-fashion model produces too many cheap clothes that are hard on the environment when they are discarded,” she said. “Eleven billion tons of textiles are thrown away every year. Fabrics designed to last one season take a lifetime to decompose.”

Crowley’s tagline – “Turning piles into styles” – is the kind of global-minded sustainable-thinking consumerism that is gaining traction. Still, no matter how fashionable saving the world is, women want to be fashionable. Crowley assured attendees that her dresses and cardigans would be not only upcycled but upscale.

“We would target women age 30 to 50 in the upper income bracket,” Crowley said. She added that there was currently no dominant player in the field as of yet.

As a final selling point, an audience member asked if she was wearing one of her own upcycled creations. She was.

Awakened Art (Alissa Davies)
Creativity coaching

“Release your inner artist,” Davies’ tagline reads. The self-described visual artist quoted Pablo Picasso, saying, “Inside every child is an artist; the problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

Davies said the public school system is partly to blame for the decline in professional artists or those tapping their inner artist. “The education system is cutting arts right and left for more test-measurable subjects,” she said. “But businesses are looking for more creative people. I truly believe the more artistic individuals we have walking on the planet, the happier and healthier this world would be.”

Davies wants to provide a non-intimidating environment, where adults can feel comfortable creating in a structured setting. She deflected some criticism that her idea may conflict with the Art Association, saying this was not in competition with that organization.

She was looking for women aged 30 to 60 with an existing interest in perhaps alternative healing methods, which art could be used for.

(Bubba Albrecht)
Lifestyle clothing company

Albrecht seized on the battle cry of Canadians everywhere when he named his fledgling company Give’r. The subculture term is one of encouragement meant to convey an all-out effort in something.

Albrecht’s plan is to design and sell outdoor apparel – mainly caps and t-shirts, currently – to the active, socially conscience. Albrecht believes plenty of scraps fall through the cracks in the $4 billion outdoor apparel industry. He wants some.

Several sharks pressed Albrecht on whether his plan was to be the next Patagonia or simply to brand the idea of Give’r in the United States. Albrecht didn’t seem sure but admitted he has not yet trademarked the name.

“You are a great presenter. I admire your grit. I think once you get in the room you can sell anything,” one responder said after Albrecht’s presentation. “However, looking at your current model it seems like a slow burn. I would challenge you and your team to see if there is a big transformational idea in here somewhere. Are you an apparel company or a brand company? Why don’t you go to some big entity who is consistent with your brand and gets it, and loves you guys and sell them on your brand idea?

“I like that,” Albrecht said, “fishing with bigger lures.”

Vera Iconica Architecture
(Veronica Schreibeis)

Footcare: an emerging topology in the spa industry
Schreibeis has had great success in the world of architecture – many of her designs have been published throughout the world, she said. But Schreibeis’ pitch was all about the foot.

Her modern-day foot parlor would combine reflexology with detoxing ionic foot baths. Schreibeis explained a burgeoning interest in the foot as a gateway to pressure points connected to the entire body is maybe the hottest trend currently in the spa industry.

Ski queen wants to pay it forward.

Ski queen wants to pay it forward.

Unicorn Picnic/Wonder Academy
(Lynsey Dyer)

Empowering adolescent girls to achieve their potential
Dyer, a professional athlete, began her presentation by asking audience members to stand up and get their blood flowing. She then showed photographs of young ladies that currently serve as less-than-desirable role models, including the infamous Miley Cyrus twerk irk.

She identified girls between the ages of 11 and 15 as the most at-risk for needing direction and positive influences. While it wasn’t exactly clear what Dyer was selling, she did have a keen interest in boosting the confidence of young ladies.

• 9Cloud Web Works (Mary Lynn Wilmore) – Digital web services for the travel industry
• SkiBumz (Ika Hadlock) – Merino baselayers for stylish adventurers
• Growing Great Families (Rachel Wigglesworth) – Community parenting center
• The Ideal Sports Bra Company (Celeste Myers) – Sports bra manufacturer
• AltaVoltaics (Gordon Finnegan) – Revolutionizing home solar systems
• Limitless Outdoors (Juan Morales) – Jackson-based indoor team sports facility
• MiHi (Kellie Hotema) – Hawaiian/Latin fusion late-night delivery in Jackson Hole

About Jake Nichols

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