By Jessica Borders
Times West Virginian
The West Virginia Statewide Collegiate Business Plan Competition continues to help bring business ideas to life for young entrepreneurs.
Eric Watkins, from Morgantown, was recently awarded $10,000 for winning in the Hospitality and Tourism category of the 2012-2013 competition for his business, Dub V Safe Ride. Watkins, 26, a junior at West Virginia University, is studying entrepreneurship and business as well as strength and conditioning.
This year was the first time in the history of the competition that the judges selected two teams as winners in the Lifestyle and Innovation category.
Randi Dove, 22, a WVU senior, received $10,000 through the Business Plan Competition for her business, Randi Dove Farms. Dove is from Oceana and is majoring in animal nutritional sciences.
The team of Racheal Fetty, 21, and Caleb Greathouse, 22, seniors at Glenville State College, was the private industry winner, with INNOVA Commercialization Group of Fairmont providing $10,000 in funding for the business.
Fetty is in accounting and management, and Greathouse is in accounting and computer science information, and both are originally from Spencer. Their business is called EZ Reader.
This year’s contest was the seventh statewide competition that the WVU College of Business & Economics’ BrickStreet Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship has hosted. The competition, which spans the course of the academic year and involves three rounds, is open to full-time students from four-year colleges and universities across West Virginia.
The 2012-2013 competition started at the end of September with 141 teams submitting summaries of their business ideas. The 51 entries in the Hospitality and Tourism category and 90 entries in the Lifestyle and Innovation category came from 11 schools, which was the largest participation in the history of the competition.
The entries were cut down to 20 semifinalists — 10 in each category — who were invited to compete in round two.
On Nov. 13, those students traveled to the Robert H. Mollohan Research Center in Fairmont’s I-79 Technology Park, where they gave elevator pitches for their business plans in front of a panel of judges and then went through individual interviews with the judges. The teams also submitted a seven-page feasibility study for the semifinals, which were hosted by Fairmont State University.
During the first week of December, the 10 finalists — five teams in each category — that were chosen to move forward in the contest were announced.
Tara St. Clair, office administrator for the WVU BrickStreet Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, said March 18 was the deadline for the finalists to submit their full written plans.
On April 5, a welcome reception was held at the Waterfront Place Hotel in Morgantown, and the teams also did practice presentations, she said. The final round of the competition took place the following morning at WVU’s Erickson Alumni Center, and featured 13 judges from across the country.
Each team was given 20 minutes for their presentation and 10 minutes for a question-and-answer session with the judges, St. Clair said. After the presentations were completed, the judges deliberated on the winners in each category, and a luncheon and awards ceremony followed.
“We were very pleased with the presentations,” said Steve Cutright, director of the BrickStreet Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Cutright said a lot of teams in the competition had very good business plans, but the degree of preparation and the ability to make high-quality presentations and answer questions really set the three winning teams apart.
Watkins was actually a finalist in the 2011-2012 competition, but didn’t win. He decided he would try again this year with the same business idea.
After winning this time around, he said it felt great to finally accomplish a goal that he had been working hard to achieve.
His business, Dub V Safe Ride, has been operational since April 4 and is getting a good response from the public.
“Everybody seems absolutely excited about it,” Watkins said. “Dub V Safe Ride is an asset to the community.”
Dub V Safe Ride is a designated driver service, and its tagline is “cheaper than a DUI.”
Watkins said the company is a way to keep people from driving intoxicated and getting a DUI, wrecking or causing harm to others. Instead of just watching people continually get DUIs in Morgantown, he decided to be proactive and do something about it.
When people contact the business, Watkins sends out an insured designated driver on a motorized scooter, which is street legal and can travel 35 miles an hour. The driver folds up the scooter, puts it in the trunk of the client’s car, and drives them home in their own car for a small fee.
Dub V Safe Ride also has a mobile app, available for download at dubvsaferide.com, that people can use to request service, and groups can make reservations for a designated driver in advance. The business serves the whole Morgantown area and beyond, Watkins said.
He said the Business Plan Competition taught him how to turn an idea into an actual concept and start up a business. His experiences gave him the skills to follow through and be successful.
The end result of having two winners in the Lifestyle and Innovation category was an anomaly, Cutright said. He explained that the judges felt that two teams were equally impressive and couldn’t come to a decision. When INNOVA offered to contribute funding, the judges decided to choose both teams as winners in that category.
“They both had such potential for commercialization that (the judges) wanted to have both of them be able to implement their business plan and move into a commercialization state,” he said.
Guy Peduto, director of INNOVA, an initiative of the West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation, said the investment agreement with EZ Reader is contingent upon the company completing the due diligence requirements.
When this unique situation presented itself, Peduto and two members of INNOVA’s Investment Advisory Committee were serving as judges for the Lifestyle and Innovation category.
“This was not intentionally planned as part of the competition,” he said. “The competition ended with two excellent opportunities, both deserving of a win. After much discussion, a solution was determined which would allow both very deserving entries to move their initiatives forward.
“In evaluating the stages of each entry, it was determined that Randi Dove Farms as a new product in development would best benefit from the grant funding available from the Business Plan Competition to establish and support a new endeavor, while EZ Reader, with a developed product, distributor interest and early sales, was an opportunity ready for early stage investment targeted to growth and expansion.”
Just like the WVU College of Business and Economics and its BrickStreet Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, INNOVA also supports student entrepreneurship across West Virginia. INNOVA wanted to support EZ Reader through an early stage investment, Peduto said.
“EZ Reader identified an opportunity in a growing market, designed and refined a product to meet the needs of the target market, attracted an industry representative, made initial sales into the marketplace, and have attracted interest and requests from larger markets outside of West Virginia,” he said.
“Our belief is that with a small amount of capital and a minimal enhancement to their business plan and strategy, an extremely successful company, and job creator, will be established in West Virginia.”
Fetty and Greathouse’s company manufactures the EZ Reader, which is a device that helps to read electronic ballots. They have sold about 100 EZ Reader units so far, and their next step is to expand their business and decrease their cost per unit.
Fetty explained that their hometown of Spencer has a company that distributes voting supplies all over the East Coast. The head of the company, which is a close friend of Fetty’s family, had expressed frustrations about how long the process of reading electronic ballots took.
That led Fetty and Greathouse to come up with a business idea in the summer of 2012. They proceeded to develop a prototype and come up with their final design.
The team had actually entered the Business Plan Competition the previous year with an entirely different business plan, but they weren’t chosen to move forward to the semifinals. This year, they felt that they had a better idea and a more concrete plan, Fetty said.
“It was really exciting,” she said of winning this year. “We had put so much time and effort into an idea that we thought was great.”
Fetty commented that the best part was knowing that esteemed professionals also saw the potential of their idea.
She said that she and Greathouse grew leaps and bounds throughout the competition, and the skills they learned will play into their professional future.
“I think the most helpful thing that Caleb and I both walked away with was how to professionally handle ourselves, to have poise and be able to present ourselves in a manner that not only sold ourselves but made ourselves look good as well,” Fetty said.
Dove said being named a winner in the Business Plan Competition’s Lifestyle and Innovation category was a big surprise for her.
A requirement for one of her classes last fall was to submit a business idea for the competition, and she ended up moving on through all the rounds. She said she knew that her equestrian-based business “was something off the wall, totally brand new,” but never expected for it to get this type of recognition.
Randi Dove Farms is a stable in Wyoming County that offers lessons, boards and trains horses, and hosts parties and events. The business also includes a retail/wholesale operation that focuses on all kinds of western wear and logo-themed clothing, and an innovation called Randi Bands.
Dove, who is a competitive barrel racer, saw riders using regular rubber bands to keep their feet in the stirrups. Her product, Randi Bands, is a rubber band device that is more functional, safer and tested.
“Horses have always been my passion,” Dove said.
She plans to open her stable on May 15, as soon as she gets home from Morgantown, and already has the inventory for the retail operations. The Randi Bands portion of the business should be ready to go soon after.
Dove said the Business Plan Competition isn’t easy and is very realistic.
“It kind of sets you up for real life,” she said. “It’s been a very long process, but a very rewarding one at the same time. It’s an eye-opener.”
Whether students are named winners or not, the competition helps them use data to come up with conclusions and recommendations on how to navigate opportunities. Their experiences show them how they can convince people to invest money in their idea, Cutright said.
The teams worked with business coaches from across the local community and academia.
Finalists Steve Neff and Corey Hinterer from WVU didn’t win with their business, Two Guys and a Pig, which focuses on traveling around the state with a mobile barbecue service. But a local barbecue restaurant saw their presentation and was interested in discussing a joint venture with them, Cutright said.
The WVU College of Business and Economics helped arrange meetings between the parties last week, he said. Another finalist has also been approached by private industry about opportunities to partner.
“We’re very pleased all that is happening for the students,” Cutright said.
“Even if you don't win, you can still win,” St. Clair added.
In other competition news, Cutright said the college has entered into a three-year agreement with the Nebraska company PitchBurner, which builds software for competition management. Using the website from PitchBurner, the college will be able to make the competition more efficient and effective in the future.
The College of Business and Economics also invested in a new video, which can be viewed at www.be.wvu.edu/bpc, to promote the competition to academia and private industry.
In addition, St. Clair mentioned that the Business Plan Competition is having a reunion next year to bring back all the past finalists. Past finalists can contact her at 304-293-7221 for more information.
Email Jessica Borders at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @JBordersTWV.