The event, which focuses on showcasing, elevating and seeding community-based businesses. featured presentations from five local entrepreneurs seeking funding to help grow their companies.
“St. Petersburg is a city that celebrates small businesses,” said Mayor Rick Kriseman before announcing Embrew as the winner. “We really recognize the important role small businesses and entrepreneurs play in our community, and it’s what sets us apart from so many other cities.”
During her presentation, Ashley Haywood, the owner and founder of Embrew and a longtime tea drinker, said she spent 13 years searching online for sweetened tea bags to no avail.
“I kept checking back for years thinking someone would come out with something,” she said. “They never did.”
Inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Haywood decided to take the plunge and start her own sweetened tea bag company. In 2017, she found her first customer at Localtopia and knew she’d discovered an untapped market. She kept working on Embrew in her spare time as her “side hustle.” It wasn’t until this year, when she lost her corporate job due to the pandemic, that she was able to dedicate herself to Embrew full time.
After spending the last few months working on a rebrand and launching a new website, Haywood said she’s currently seeking investors to carry her through the growth period. She plans to use her Pitch Night winnings to purchase packaging for her products, which sell for $15.95 for a box of 10 tea bags.
“I have my purpose now,” she said.
Other startups pitching Wednesday night included:
- Kinstak, a photo organization and cloud-based storage application that allows users to search and share photos privately with family and friends. Carolyn Eagen, founder and CEO, said she has more than 100 trial users so far and plans to charge $11.99 monthly or $119 annually. So far, she’s bootstrapped Kinstak and is currently in the seed funding phase. She said she’s seeking value added partnerships with selected companies such as Shutterfly, along with participating in activities to get in front of investors.
- Startup Space, an entrepreneurship ecosystem software platform that provides the tools and resources needed to support small businesses. David Ponraj, founder and CEO, said he created the platform after a small business he started in 2008 failed. It was only after he pulled the plug on his company that he learned about community resources he could have connected with to support him. He bootstrapped funding to launch and is fully profitable in year one, with $500,000 in revenue and 30 clients. His goal is to grow to 300 clients by year three with $10 million in revenue.
- WannaGo St. Pete, an online tool that helps people explore activities at special member pricing and connect with local businesses. Rob Sanchez, WannaGo’s founder, said that he found it overwhelming to find quality things to do around St. Pete when he moved here two years ago so he sought to create a curated set of experiences for residents and visitors through the WannaGo app. In the two months since its founding, Sanchez has developed partnerships with 20 local businesses and has signed up 60 members. Sanchez pays business partners up front for their goods or services, and in turn, WannaGo members can buy credits for those goods and services at a discount on the app. He said he’s spent less than $5,000 on the venture so far.
- Cultured Books, a multicultural children’s bookstore on 22nd St. South that spotlights works from people of color and aims to nurture a literary culture within the community. Lorielle Hollaway, the owner and self-described “head book pusher,” said the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 inspired her to do something to help her community see Black people as human beings. Protests weren’t really her thing, so in 2017, she opened Cultured Books as a way to change the narrative around Black people and people of color. In the future, she hopes to franchise Cultured Books to other areas and have each store reflect the community in which they’re located. Cultured Books was voted the audience favorite at Pitch Night, earning a $500 prize.
Thirty startups applied for Wednesday’s Pitch Night, the third such event to be organized by the St. Pete Greenhouse, the University of South Florida St. Petersburg Kate Tiedemann College of Business and Regions Bank. To be eligible to participate in Pitch Night, startups must meet certain criteria, including providing a scalable and/or innovative concept. They also can’t be more than four years old, and they must have previously presented – or be scheduled to present at a 1 Million Cups meeting – or be enrolled in an entrepreneurship program at a Tampa Bay college or university.
The entrepreneurs pitched to a panel of judges, including Dr. Cynthia Johnson from Pinellas County, Jim Dontelli from Regions Bank, Rachel Carpenter from Intrinio and Sridhar Sundaram, Dean of USF St Petersburg Kate Tiedemann College of Business. They scored on content and structure, communication, presentation effectiveness and innovative idea quality and vitality.
The next Pitch Night will be held in early 2021.