Fledgling entrepreneurs impress judges in 'Shark Tank'-style competition for capital

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Posted: Friday, April 25, 2014 12:00 am

Of the more than 30 companies that applied, five got to pitch their ideas “Shark Tank”-style to a panel of judges before an audience of about 200 people. And one company walked away with the win: online group travel tool Travefy of Lincoln.

The prize for winning Get Started Omaha, a pitch competition for entrepreneurs hosted Thursday night by Cox Business and Inc. magazine, includes $5,000, a $2,500 Cox Business technology package and $1,000 in Cox Media consultation and production services.

“This is so exciting. ... All of these services and dollars will help us innovate and change travel forever,” Travefy CEO and co-founder David Chait said as he smiled widely.

The contestants each got two and a half minutes to pitch their ideas at the Holland Performing Arts Center, then were grilled by the judges about their business model.

Travefy aims to simplify group travel with a Web-based application that allows users to book group travel, create itineraries and track expenses by taking photos of receipts.

Chait said the prize would be used for marketing and to perhaps open a full-time office in Omaha. One of the company's four employees works out of Omaha a few days a week, he said. “It's not unlikely that in the near future we would want some dedicated space (in Omaha). That could actually help us with those expansion-type efforts.”

Travefy “understood their business really well,” said John Wirtz, co-founder and chief product officer of Lincoln-based Hudl and one of three judges.

But he praised all the contestants.

“You could tell the whole group was passionate, and everyone nailed their pitches in two minutes or less.”

Eric Paley, another judge and co-founder and managing partner of Founder Collective, based in New York City and Cambridge, Mass., said what set Travefy apart from the others was the work the company has already done on customer development. “All of this comes down to execution. Travefy really got the execution plan.”

There are also a lot of ways to monetize the business, he added.

The other finalists in the competition were:

» PaySAFE, an online escrow service that can be used by a consumer for almost any transaction where there's a lack of trust or familiarity, such as home improvement projects or buying an expensive car, a piece of artwork or equipment online. New features include an integration with online auction services and classifieds.

» Mole Mexico LLC, which launched this year, sells traditional Mexican mole sauce in a powder and paste form. It was started by husband and wife team Julio Cesar Galvan and Molly Minturn, who have been marketing the product by word of mouth and have been looking to partner with a restaurant in Omaha.

» Blogglebeans, an online tool to connect grandparents with their grandkids via an application with games, a calendar and messages. The app launched in 2012 and has now pivoted to include a device for kids to use to access the app.

» PhotoBomb, an app that automatically prints photos from a smartphone or other device. The app is pre-launch now, founder Ryan Klootwyk said. “It all started when ... our 3-year-old needed a picture for preschool or day care and we couldn't find one in the house,” Klootwyk said.

Before the event, the audience networked and got a chance to chat with the pitching entrepreneurs.

The networking was a great opportunity for exposure for Mole Mexico LLC, which had sauce on hand for the audience to try. “People are like, 'How do we get this?' ” Minturn said.

“I have never seen a powdered mole,” said Jai Gonzales, who attended the event with his sister and brother-in-law. “I think that would be an easy way to get it into a non-Hispanic household.”

Members in the audience also had a chance to ask questions of the entrepreneurs and of the judges after the pitches. Many asked for advice about their own businesses.

Omaha is the fifth city where Cox and Inc. have hosted the event since it launched in early 2013. Others include Oklahoma City and Providence, R.I. The next stop is Tucson, Ariz., said Shana Keith, a spokeswoman for Cox Communications.

“Probably the best pitches we've seen,” said Ken Kraft, Cox Business' vice president of marketing. “It's clear there's a lot going on in Omaha.”

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