From a one-stop-shop website for outdoor adventure seekers to a payroll solution for businesses with union employees to a gaming store, dozens of University of Montana students spent all day Friday pitching their best business ideas.
Eleven different teams competed in the 29th annual John Ruffatto Business Startup Challenge hosted by the UM School of Business Administration and the Blackstone Launchpad at UM. Judges listened to both 60-second elevator pitches and more in-depth explanations during the day, and members of the public got to vote on their favorites.
“The goal of the competition really is to help students sort of explore entrepreneurship, and to do that by trying to be entrepreneurs,” said Paul Gladen of Blackstone Launchpad. “This is a tremendous opportunity to focus their entrepreneurial abilities to be ready to compete. The thing we hear most from students is the learning they get out of interaction with the judges, the feedback, the questions the connections. That’s really the power of the competition."
The first-place prize winner gets $15,000 to help boost their business, and many other teams can also win substantial prizes worth thousands of dollars.
"They love to win money, but the value of experience and insight they get from the judges is the real value," Gladen noted.
He also said the students get valuable feedback from the judges and members of the public, including additional ideas and suggestions for people to connect with.
“Some of them have been working on them for maybe even over a year, so we try through the academic year to engage students,” Gladen said. “In the fall semester, we do an Epic Pitch, so at least three of the teams competing today competed in Epic Pitch.
"We changed the name from the Business Plan Competition to the Startup Competition because we want the students to be working more on their process now rather than their business plan. We want them to be getting out there, creating prototypes and talking to potential customers.”
In past years, some notable winners include Big Sky Brewery (Montana’s largest brewery), Five On Black restaurant, American Expedition Vehicles, Chilton Skis, GeoFli (a tech startup) and Market On Front.
Craig Koller, a graduate student in UM’s geography department, has created a tech solution for dealing with the payroll complexities that businesses with union labor have to deal with. He said his family’s business signed a contract with union labor this past year, and all the benefits information and complexities caused a huge headache.
“It was a super-frustrating problem but it was solvable,” he said. “So I created the most minimum viable product, which was a self-calculating spreadsheet that managed all these different funds and information, and then I had to export all my data. It was still a headache, but at least I had a solution compared to doing it by pen and paper and calculator. That’s when I realized I wanted to compete in the Epic Pitch competition last fall, which gave me further validation that I want to continue.”
He calls his solution, which can be integrated into accounting software, Wage Sheets.
“It’s a pretty big marketplace,” he said. “In the U.S. there’s over 650,000 construction companies that employ almost 7.5 million people. And 14 percent of that labor market is actually union labor, so it’s still almost a million people that are union laborers in the construction industry. So that’s a lot of different wages and all the different unions. It’s carpenters, it’s floor-layers, it’s concrete masons, it’s tillers. The complexity of how these jurisdictions are outlined is worse than U.S. congressional districts. It’s all gerrymandered and crazy in different counties. It’s pretty painful.”
Max Reuter, Missy Falkenstein and Ben Enseleit pitched a website they call Montana Outdoor Experiences, which they say would give people a listing of all the available outdoor opportunities in a particular area in Montana for a given time, along with a whole host of other resources, including gear rentals, trails, scheduled activities and contacts.
“We are a website. We provide a calendar list for outdoor, education and recreational events, while we’re also equipped with marketing tools for businesses and organizations to reach their target markets more effectively,” Enseleit said. “The events calendar page itself is a chronological calendar.”
They’ve been working on the idea for 11 months, and have worked out too many exciting details to list here. But they feel good about their quick pitch.
“So, someone says, ‘I need something to do and I want to go outdoors and recreate or learn about the outdoors’ and so our platform allows people to log on and take a look at what’s happening in Montana,” Falkenstein said. “You can search by location and date and activity, organization and venue. And you can find something to do in your area and with the interest that you already have. Once you get on there you can also find cross interests. So you can find an educational lecture series as well.”
Reuter said they also want to provide a newsletter, which would show tourists a comprehensive list of events they’re interested in.
“If you say you want to try out fly fishing, we’ll send you information on fly casting or fly tying classes that would go along with your river trip that you have planned, maybe on Day 2 or later on that day,” he said.
Tosha Neal-Ragsdale and John Ragsdale have a plan to open a shop called Evergreen Game & Hobby in Missoula at 2100 Stephens Ave. sometime this summer. It would give kids a chance to play modern game consoles in the store, which means low-income kids could satisfy a yearning without having to convince their parents to buy a $500 game console.
“We’re not just a standalone game and hobby store, we’re going to be a full family destination,” John Ragsdale said. “Once Hastings closed, there was a giant void. There is a large community that’s looking for a place to go. We’re going to be that place. We’ll have all the latest games. We are always new, always refreshing. It’s a play on our name, Evergreen.”
For more information visit online at umt.edu/launchpad/Competitions/Business%20Startup%20Challenge/default.php.