(Photo above: First prize in 2019 VIBE Business Plan Competition awarded to Aristo Wraps, by judges Jack McQuade, far left, David Parr, second from left, and Meredith Neal, far right, and VIBE director Thomas Kuljam.)
In era in which, according to one critic, “every university, region and car wash now has a business plan competition,” what could UW Tacoma bring to the concept that would be of value to our students and the South Sound?
Plenty, according to Thomas Kuljam, director of VIBE, the five-year-old start-up incubator in the Tioga Library Building.
“A lot of competitions are actually more like awards for creative-writing exercises,” said Kuljam. “They expect start-up teams to have a level of knowledge of their business that contradicts the basic experience of an innovative entrepreneur.”
Kuljam points to the judging standards for one competition that calls on teams to have “well-defined customer segments,” an economic model that is “well-articulated,” and “validated MVP tests.”
“Those things are all important,” said Kuljam, “but more appropriate for the expansion of an already-established business.”
Start-ups, by their nature, especially if using innovative technology, don’t necessarily have a clear idea of who their customers will be, or how well their revenue model will work. Their success emerges through persistence, iteration and constant refining of their business structure.
The VIBE Business Plan Competition, which just wrapped up with a final round on May 22, was founded to recognize the role that grit and determination play in getting an economic activity on its feet. The judges look for business ideas that, according to Kuljam, are “less Kung Fu and more chop.” In other words, less about perfection of presentation and more about a spark of ingenuity or a demonstrated passion for solving a problem or filling a market gap.
The 2019 winners of the competition make the point admirably.
First Prize – Aristo Wraps
First prize, valued at $10,000 in cash and in-kind support, went to Ashley Steingard and her budding business, Puyallup-based Aristo Wraps, which provides custom vehicle wraps. Steingard’s business was literally born in her garage, and she wasn’t at first even aware that she could make money doing it. She does drift racing and started learning about vehicle wrapping simply as a way of getting a distinctive look on her racer without breaking the bank. Soon she was doing wraps for others in the close-knit drifter community. Meanwhile, while completing her college degree at UW Tacoma, she had enrolled in Thomas Kuljam’s entrepreneurship class during the winter 2019 quarter.
It was Kuljam’s insistence that she could build a business out of her wrap “sideline” that convinced her to enter the VIBE competition. Her persistence in the face of significant personal challenges led Kuljam to present her with the 2019 VIBE Courage Award.
Second Prize – HandiMaps
The second prize of $1,500 in cash went to the HandiMaps team, led by Vishaal Diwan. HandiMaps will be an app-based tool to help people navigate the interiors of performance and sports venues like arenas and stadiums. Diwan, who graduated from UW Tacoma in 2017, was inspired to found the company by the experience of a friend in a wheelchair at a local major-league football stadium.
The app, in concert with a network of Bluetooth beacons installed within the venue, will provide users with indoor route mapping and directions based on user preferences, such as ADA-compliance or congestion avoidance.
Third Prize – PopOver
The third prize of $500 in cash went to a team from University of Puget Sound, PopOver. Members Chris Porter, Griffin Pontius, Jeremiah Hobbs, Ben Scarbrough and Nick Bigger are creating an app-based business that will give college students a source of supplemental income they earn while carrying out small tasks and chores for customers within a small radius of a college campus.
Value in the Process
Kuljam and the competition judges – Jack McQuade, owner of The Swiss Restaurant and Pub; David Parr, senior vice president at HomeStreet Bank, and Meredith Neal of the Manufacturing-Industrial Council of the South Sound – were quick to note that all six participating teams had crossed many hurdles to reach the final round. “Just because a team didn’t place in the competition doesn’t mean the ideas aren’t all good,” said Kuljam.
Besides the winning teams, the other three teams (described in more detail here) in the final round were Corvus Security, Endofin Pharmaceuticals and EZ Reader.
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536