SCORE, a business mentoring organization with a chapter in Richmond, announced three finalists in its start-up competition. People’s business ideas are pretty neat, guys.
Photo by: tableatny
The SCOREcard competition pits start-ups against each other for a grand prize of $5,000 and a year of free office space. That’s nothing to sneeze at when you’re just starting out. Because we enjoy a good look at what’s next in the start-up world, we’ve asked the three finalists some questions.
They’ll present their final case to a panel of judges on Thursday, February 25th at the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park. Go show your support for your favorite!
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Go Ninja – Shaun Whiteley, Bridget Cochran, Michael Anderson
It’s a ninja-obstacle-course-style gym for families!
When did the idea come to you, and at what point where you like “Yes, this could actually be a real business, instead of just a fun idea.”
All four partners are parents, we have explored every activity in Richmond to entertain and engage our children, and so many were dirty, disorganized, or lacking that bonding experience, and we headed home thinking “I wish there was something more…”
One rainy soggy afternoon, Mike Anderson, the leader and visionary of Go Ninja found himself trapped in the house with three rambunctious little boys. Not a fan of TV as appropriate child entertainment, Mike gave in to the request of seven-year-old James to watch American Ninja Warrior. His little friends loved it, Mike had not seen the show, but it was raining. All three boys were mesmerized, and Mike was surely entertained.
James wanted to be a ninja warrior, too and looked up at his dad, “Can we build an obstacle course in our back yard?”
“That’s when the idea hit me,” says Mike. “I’m not going to build a course in my yard, I’m going to build a gym with many obstacle courses for other families, whose kids might also dream of being a ninja warrior. I called Shaun, we are both firefighters and have spent hours at many family entertainment venues, never quite satisfied with the choices. We have a great deal of physical training experience as trainers for the Richmond Fire Department, with connections to help us build it. Together we have organized huge fundraising events and are leaders in our department. We can do this!”
Over pizza one night, the three friends Mike, Shaun and Bridget (an experienced business woman who has helped with many of their events–and also a single parent) sketched out their dream, then connected with SCORE to solidify and polish the business plan.
The final piece of the team dropped into place when Mike’s fishing buddy Fred came into town, he was looking for a new venture and moving to the area. Freddy has international business experience, perfectly complementing the group; he is a core member of this leadership team.
“How did we know it was a viable business? We always knew,” says Mike. “But the confirmation came in the form of advancing to the semi-final round of the business model competition, from 23 entries, we are one of three business models selected for the final presentation.”
What kinds of challenges have you run into that you didn’t predict, and how have you overcome them (or how are you working on overcoming them?)?
The greatest challenge has been trying to balance work and life. Starting a business as a single, working parent is daunting. While demanding, it is quite rewarding. Incorporating children, work, and just life in general, provides opportunities for personal growth and finding that balance. You learn who you are and what you are made of! Our children are part of this team; they are consultants and partners.
How did you even research it all? It is based on actual ninja stuff? Is it just a lot of regular fitness stuff presented in a cool ninja vibe?
“I think we started our research when we first had children!” says Shaun Whitely, Director of Training programs. “Go Ninja is a family fitness center that is planting its roots in Richmond and hiding functional fitness within a fun, family friendly environment. The focal points of the gym are the 4,000 sqare-foot American Ninja Warrior-inspired obstacle courses. Success in this course is based on three basic principles of fitness: Core Strength, Muscle Endurance, and Grip Strength. Go Ninja will focus on fundamentally basic workouts using the person’s own body weight. Similar to the warriors of Crete and the Ninjas of ancient Japan, size is no longer the determining factor of success.”
There are many gyms, each with its own identity, but they all offer pretty much the same routine. Pools, saunas, treadmills, more weights and machines than you can use in a lifetime, yet one in three children are considered obese, and 67% of all gym memberships go unused.
Something is missing.
Our team are all working parents, we found ourselves choosing between family time and work out time. Go Ninja solves that gap. We offer coaching sessions with parents and kids together or separately, obstacles they can overcome together, or compete on the separate courses. We have yoga and spin for the quiet time away, yet the kids are with you, playing (physically not in front of a TV) on the different features, trampolines, zip lines, and obstacle courses; where paramedic firefighters are the coaches who help them achieve their goals and mentor them through the process. No more do you put the kids in daycare while you go nowhere on a treadmill. If the kids want to go, the parents are motivated to go!
What is your grand vision for Go Ninja–where would you ideally like to see it in 10 years?
Our grand vision? To have our competitors win the American Ninja Warrior Championship of course!
“Our leadership team is diverse yet connected, as friends and parents, our team has triumphed over many of life’s challenges, we are set up for success.” Bridget Cochran, while not a gym rat, certainly enjoys a place to play with the kids, “I have no doubt that Go Ninja will have locations nationwide, creating a fun, healthy atmosphere for all families, a venue that welcomes all skill sets, as we nurture family bonds that build pride in the adventure rather than comparing ourselves to unrealistic expectations.”
Go Ninja supports the journey to a healthy lifestyle with fun. How better to combat childhood obesity than for a parent to play with their child. We take the stigma out of the gym concept and replace it with fun. Our trainers don’t shout, they coach, mentoring families to create a lifestyle, not reach a weight loss goal that ends on Beach Week.
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Ivy Oaks Analytics – Isaiah Ham
Protecting summer campers and counselors from the bad parts of nature.
Tell me more about Ivy Oaks Analytics. What does outdoor recreational safety mean, exactly, and why the “analytics”? How did you come up with the idea?
As a child, I was hospitalized at summer camp due to poison ivy next to a designated play field. Poison ivy should not have been growing in an area where campers were instructed to play. I worked in camps for four years, and unfortunately, poison ivy and other preventable threats are still not being adequately addressed. Tick-borne diseases are a serious threat, and there have been campers and counselors that contracted Lyme disease at summer camps in this region. I developed Ivy Oaks Analytics to provide advanced control of ticks, poison ivy, stinging insect nests, and other public health threats at camps. Currently there is no way to find camps that remove poison ivy or have prevention of ticks. We certify camps with our services and list them on our website allowing the public to locate these areas.
The term analytics focuses on the valuable data and analysis we provide in reports to camps. We determine the number of tick bites and poison ivy injuries that occurred in summer 2015 for our client camps. We then determine the amount of these injuries that occur with our services in summer 2016. Further, we work with VCU Biology to measure tick populations before services and after our final service. We anticipate great injury and population reductions in our first year.
What kind of challenges have you run into that you didn’t predict, and how have you overcome them (or how are you working on overcoming them?)
A percentage of summer camp directors do not feel responsible to protect campers and staff from ticks and poison ivy. I had a camp director tell me they use ticks and poison ivy as a teaching tool. This camp is in a region endemic for Lyme disease. The notion that a camp would justify ignoring these threats by wanting to teach a lesson that involves exposing children to dangerous diseases or allergic reactions is reckless. Another director told me the last thing they’re worried about is getting rid of ticks or poison ivy. Many camp directors are very supportive of our mission, but I did not anticipate this portion of directors that are content.
To overcome this, we’re making parents aware of our database and services. We encourage them to contact their camp directly and request they implement prevention. Certified camps have a competitive advantage over the camps that have not addressed these threats. Parents desire to see their children in camps with modern safety measures will likely force most camps to address these threats. We are working with the Global Lyme Alliance, the nation’s largest tick-borne disease organization, in our mission.
Who’s your target market, and why do you think it’ll catch on?
Summer camps are currently Ivy Oaks’ primary focus. Having our advanced safety certification will become valuable to parents and camps. Camps that have not addressed these threats will have campers go home with ticks and poison ivy. When parents realize their child has been injured because their camp rejected prevention measures, they may be inclined to find a different camp. Camps will begin to experience additional enrollment due to being listed on our database.
What is your grand vision for Ivy Oaks–where would you ideally like to see it in 10 years?
In 10 years, Ivy Oaks will be international, as tick-borne diseases are huge in other countries. The specific threats we address will shift for each region. We will have certified thousands of outdoor recreation areas resulting in hundreds of thousands of injuries and diseases prevented. Do you remember when kids would get poison ivy and bit by ticks that spread diseases at summer camps? This question in 10 years will be similar to asking today if you remember when people smoked in restaurants and hospitals.
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Smart Web Squad’s “Smart Web Restaurant” – Alex and Alena Tarasevich
Tell me this will be the end of terrible restaurant websites. As someone who is constantly trying to get information from businesses’ web presence, I do not understand why this is such a hard thing to figure out–but I guess their expertise is in a different field. How did you come up with the idea and how will it help restaurant owners?
We certainly hope that with what we do there will be much fewer unusable and bad-looking restaurant websites. Like many people, we enjoy eating out in different restaurants on a regular basis. So we often spend time online choosing a place for dining. And one day we went to Virginia Beach for the weekend with our small kids. After a long day at the beach, the kids fell asleep in the hotel room and we decided to order some food online so that one of us could go and pick it up. Then we both could enjoy the evening breeze eating dinner on the balcony.
We were lucky to have a restaurant downstairs at the hotel and started searching their website. We were surprised to find out that their menu was in PDF format (almost impossible to read on our phone) and showed outdated prices. We decided to look for a couple more places we saw on our way to the hotel, but none of them allowed online ordering and just a couple of websites looked good. And it was in an area that brings so many tourists every year.
That’s when we decided that with our technical skills, we can make people’s dining choices easier. And we have worked hard to create a complete web solution for independent restaurants–Smart Web Restaurant–to allow restaurant owners to get a high-quality website fast and at lower cost. With our solution, they can easily update their websites in no time, manage online orders, and get actionable information for growing their business.
Is Smart Web Restaurant one-of-a-kind? Have restaurant-specific web companies had success in other markets?
We believe that we are one-of-a-kind. There are a number of big companies who offer website services for small businesses, but none of those cater to specific restaurants’ needs. There are even a few website builders who serve the restaurant industry, but they are built on top of existing website creation tools and therefore are very limited and not user-friendly.
We have built Smart Web Restaurant from scratch with restaurant owners in mind. We take into account that they are really busy and work most of the time from day to night, that the industry is highly competitive, and that there’s a risk to fail. That’s why we don’t have high upfront costs, we offer three affordable subscription plans with additional maintenance plans for those who want us to regularly update their website content. Smart Web Restaurant is not just a platform for clean and attractive websites, it’s a long-term partner to a restaurant, we are constantly listening to our customers and based on their input, we build a system they would build for themselves.
What kind of challenges have you run into that you didn’t predict, and how have you overcome them (or how are you working on overcoming them?)?
One of the major challenges that we started to face from the beginning is that we didn’t realize that restaurant owners are much busier than we expected. So starting with our first client, we had to adjust the setup process and build our system accordingly to require minimal communication. Right now we have six easy steps restaurateurs need to follow in order to provide us with the basic information about their business and we do the rest to get their website ready for launch.
Another challenge we had involves payment processing fees. As you can see from our web site, we want to give our customers the best features available while keeping the cost low, and it’s not always easy to do. In the beginning, we partnered with a payment processor and didn’t take into account an average restaurant check. It turned out that the processing fees were pretty high, even though it was a typical cost for online ordering. After evaluating a number of payment processors, we partnered with another company and are currently integrating with them to deliver lower processing fees. The nice part about our product is that both new and existing customers will be able to use that functionality.
What’s your grand vision for Smart Web Restaurant–where would you ideally like to see it in 10 years?
We would like Smart Web Restaurant to become the leading solution for online and mobile presence as well as for other food tech features involving POS (point-of sale) integration like “Pay at the Table,” Loyalty Programs, Activity Based Marketing, Easy Reservations, and Waitlist. Our short-term goal is to help independent restaurants to reach a larger audience through online and mobile presence, at the same time providing them with tools to maintain their content and grow business. But our long term goal is to help our customers to streamline any process in their restaurant. We want our customers to know that no matter what tomorrow will bring them, as trends are changing fast, we will always be here for them, and they will always be up to date.