More than a dozen middle school and high school students recently pitched their original business plans and ideas to panels of investors. Validation — and cash — was on the line.
The night was billed as “Shark Tank” meets “The Apprentice” meets “American Idol.”
The Young Entrepreneurs Academy investor panel events in Sarasota and Lakeland in March and April gave middle school and high school students a chance to present their business plans to area business owers. At stake: a shot to win investment capital and an opportunity to advance to the YEA! Saunders Scholars Competition in Rochester, N.Y., in May. In Rochester, students from across the country will compete to win scholarships and business startup prize packages.
YEA! was founded in 2004 at the University of Rochester. Today, the YEA! program is in 168 communities across the country. The program offers yearlong classes for students on starting and running a business. During the program, students develop business ideas, write business plans, do market research and pitch plans to an investor panel. Chambers of commerce in Lakeland and Sarasota worked closely with the programs.
“Even if they don't end up as entrepreneurs, the experiences they get will make them more valuable members of any organization they join in the future,” says Lyle Bowlin, dean of Southeastern University's Jannetides College of Business and Entrepreneurial Leadership in Polk County and one of the Lakeland area investors.
In Sarasota, nine students competed in front of an investor panel with several area business executives, including Mercedes Medical President Andy Wright; Buchanan Automotive Group President Matt Buchanan; and Willis A. Smith Construction Inc. Vice President John LaCivita. In Lakeland there were 15 students. On the investor panel were former McGee Auto Service and Tires President Mike McGee; Harold McLeod III, senior executive for Polk County at SunTrust Bank; and Publix strategy consultant Tori Allegood.
The presenters cover a wide range of ideas, products and industries. The following is a sampling of some of the best pitches.
Kennedy Laine: Bungee Bed Co., Bradenton
Kennedy Laine, 11, started the Bungee Bed Co. after she bought a bungee chair with her own money.
“I was sitting in my bungee chair one day and decided it would be cool if it were a bed,” Kennedy says.
She worked with her dad, Aaron Laine, a project manager at a Sarasota manufacturing firm, to bend metal into a frame for the first prototype. Then she strung bungee cords from the frame to form the bed's mattress.
The sixth-grade Sarasota Military Academy student says her bungee bed can help sleepers achieve more energy, less pain and better grades. The beds are also perfect for people in the military, campers and people with bad backs, she says.
Her bed was even endorsed for helping with back pain by an important critic — her dad. He's slept in the bed for the past four months.
At the Young Entrepreneurs Academy investor panel event, Kennedy presented the Bungee Bed Co. business plan she developed during the program. She also showed off her latest prototype.
Kennedy told the panel about her goals for the company, including building a website, selling the beds at farmers markets and starting a social media campaign.
Kennedy is also working on Bungee Bed brand extensions — a crib version and a larger version of the bed. She says the standard-size bed works for most people, but the larger version would be better for taller people, such as her grandfather. He bought Kennedy's first bungee bed, but at 6 foot 3 inches, the bed didn't leave quite enough room for his head.
Kennedy, who also plays the piano and is a member of drama club, works on her Bungee Bed Co. on the weekends and some days after school.
“I like the opportunity to create my own product and sell it to others,” she says. “I used to watch 'Shark Tank,' but my parents told me to stop because it was giving me too many ideas.”
— Grier Ferguson
Jake Bennett: Firecracker Lures, Sarasota
The big prize in Sarasota went to Jake Bennett for his Firecracker Lures business. The eighth-grade student at Booker Middle School was awarded $1,300 for his saltwater trolling lure company. As the top winner, he'll also get to make the trip to Rochester for the next level of the competition.
An avid fisherman, Jake, 14, decided he wanted to make his own lures. He taught himself to make them using a book called “Lure-Making 101” by Jim Rizzuto. He even established an ongoing email relationship with Rizzuto, writing him to ask questions about the lure-making process. Jake practiced his craft for a year to get the process down.
During the Young Entrepreneurs Academy, Jake found another good mentor in Scott Perron, founder of the Sarasota-based company 24-7 Floors. Perron helped Jake turn his lure-making passion into a business. The YEA! program taught him how to create a business plan around the products.
His lures target fish such as tuna, marlin, sailfish, mahi-mahi and wahoo. He wants to have a build-your-own lure section of the Firecracker Lures website, where customers can choose colors, inserts and whether they'd like their company's logo or name added. He plans to sell his lures for $19.98.
Jake is working on photography and text for the Firecracker Lures website. He's going to use the money from the investor panel to hire a web designer. He hopes to launch the site by the end of June.
In the weeks before the Rochester competition, he's getting ready for his time in the spotlight. He'll have three minutes to make his presentation — and it all has to be memorized. He's practicing by delivering his presentation to his family.
Jake's sister, Bryce Bennett, also went through the Young Entrepreneurs Academy program this year. At the investor panel event, she presented her business plan for Sarasota Sugar, a handmade body polish company. The panel awarded her $1,000.
Jake and Bryce's parents, Jason and Alisa Bennett, own Bradenton-based Bennett Contracting, an excavation and underground utility contractor with projects from Tampa through Port Charlotte.
Jake says he would encourage other young people to become entrepreneurs, too. “Go for it,” he says. “Put passion into it. You can't half do it, you have to do it.”
— Grier Ferguson
Anjali Visvalingam: Turn to Flow, Sarasota
Anjali Visvalingam presented her concept for a hands-free music stand at the YEA! investor panel in Sarasota. The ninth-grader at NewGate School plays the flute, piano, clarinet and ukulele, so she's clearly a member of her product's target audience.
The music stand prototype she developed works with a pedal — users push the pedal with their foot to turn a page of sheet music. The stand she showed the panel only turns a single page, but she's working on another prototype that can turn multiple pages. Her goal is to create a viable multi-page prototype by June 30.
Anjali, 13, plans to sell her stand for $210. Her competition, she told the investor panel, is electronic devices that help musicians turn sheet-music pages.
After her presentation, investor panelist Matt Buchanan asked her how quickly she could ramp up production to sell to schools that might be interested in her music stand. Anjali had her answer at the ready — she can be at that stage in a year.
— Grier Ferguson
Niriham Shah: Bus Whiz, Lakeland
Shah saw a need that wasn't being met for parents of school-aged children, which inspired the seventh-grader to make a new application for smart phones.
Shah is the developer of Bus Wiz, a bus-tracking app to help parents keep track of their child's school bus. “Most parents want to know where the bus is at all times and want to know their child is on the right one,” says the Union Academy student. He surveyed 100 parents, and 81 said they would use the app. It will cost $25 per year.
Shah was awarded $5,337 from the investors to continue developing the app — even though he only asked for $2,842.50. He was given the highest amount out of all the presenters.
Shah, who eventually wants to be a surgeon, says the program was a big help. “I had instructors to help with my business plan,” he says. “I knew I had to do a good presentation.”
With the money, Shah can develop his prototype to present to the Polk County School Board. He will also compete nationally in Rochester.
— Liz Morrisey
Logan Soria: Stand Up!, Lakeland
The majority of working Americans sit for most of their day — but it was a Polk County 17-year-old, Logan Soria who invented a product that could help them be healthier. Stand Up! is a seat cushion that reminds people to stand up and stretch.
Logan Soria was awarded $1,585 from investors to help him continue developing his product. The money will aid him in making the cushion and paying for licensing, among other tasks. “I was surprised at the amount,” he says, adding that he only asked for $970.62. “It gives me a lot of hope for this business.”
The Stand Up! seat cushion can be set with automatic reminders on your phone, texts and alarms that can be customized. “Health wise, standing up can improve brain function,” Soria says. “We are not supposed to be sedentary. This will help people be more healthy and productive.”
The cushion will sell for $75.
Soria, homeschooled in Lakeland, realized a few years ago he would love to be an entrepreneur. The high school senior has been dual enrolled in college and he plans to attend Florida Southern College after serving in the U.S. Army. For now, he's excited about focusing on Stand Up! He will begin marketing it locally and online.
Soria says all the students worked hard on their presentations. “I was nervous,” he says. “There was a lot of competition.”
— Liz Morrisey
Mairead Studdiford: Snappy Starters, Lakewood Ranch
Mairead Studdiford aims to pass along the entrepreneurial spirit through her business. Her Snappy Starters kits combine education and crafting to help students start their own venture.
The kits include supplies to make 15 necklaces, plus an instruction booklet that explains how to make the necklaces and offers tips on how to sell them. Each Snappy Starter kit is $20 and promises to “engage children on a journey to create their own business.”
The 10th-grader at Out-of-Door Academy in Lakewood Ranch also started an entrepreneurship club at school to share her passion for starting businesses.
Her first goal after presenting at the investor panel is to increase her company's social media presence. Then she wants to expand her entrepreneurial starter kits beyond the current necklace-making kits to other products students can create. The $700 the investor panel awarded Mairead will help her expand her Snappy Starters product line.
Mairead, 16, is well ahead in the marketing game — she already has a Snappy Starters slogan picked out: We teach and you create, in a snap!
— Grier Ferguson
Eleora Funk: Cubs & Co., Lakeland
Eleora Funk, 12, wants to save money for college by launching a website to help parents find babysitters between the ages of 11 and 15. Cubs & Co., targeting the Lakeland area, will launch in June.
“I always wanted to start a business, but I didn't know how to do it,” says the Lawton Chiles Middle Academy seventh-grader. “YEA! has taught me so much, and now I'm more prepared.”
Eleora asked the investors for $346.25 and they awarded her $200. “I promised myself that if I didn't get at least half (of what I was asking for) I wouldn't continue,” she says.
Eleora is the oldest of her six siblings and says learning how to plan a business early on will not only help her now but in the future. “There are so many opportunities out there,” she says. “It's much better to learn now, and I can apply it earlier in life.”
— Liz Morrisey