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Investors evaluate Florida startups in latest pitch round

Veronica Brezina

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Florida-based angel investors evaluated and questioned local startups during Upsurge Florida’s Inside the Investor’s Mind virtual event on Wednesday.

The companies participating in the Shark Tank-style event include Tampa-based Wedzee, which is an online shopping platform specializing in new and used products for weddings; Orlando-based Home Lending Pal, an AI-powered marketplace that compares mortgages; and Orlando-based Bacarai, an online marketplace for travel management.

The angel investors, who gathered at the Guidewell Innovation Center in Orlando, include Jim Thomas, a partner at Orlando-based Kirenaga Partners, who also helps lead the Central Florida Tech Fund; Kathy Chu, co-founder and managing partner at Orlando-based DeepWork Capital, former COO of a statewide network of angel investors; Charlie Lewis, a serial entrepreneur-tuned-investor and founder and CEO of Orlando-based BlueWave Resource Partners; and Ryan Whitmore, CIO of Florida Founders, a hybrid of a venture capital fund and an angel investor network.

Here are the highlights of how the companies pitched themselves and responded to the investors:

Bryan Young, founder and CEO of Orlando-based Home Lending Pal: 

Bryan Young, founder and CEO of Home Lending Pal.

The company is an AI-powered marketplace that uses blockchain to connect homebuyers with lenders. Young says that there are still many discriminations from lenders against certain buyers. With Home Lending Pal, consumers create an account, give details about themselves as well as upload documents. The company then matches the user to lenders that are a fit for the user. Over 19,000 users are on the platform, and the company has helped roughly 800 of those users find homes.

Young describes the platform as an “Amazon-like experience” where users find homes they are interested in, and can add them to their Home Lending Pal cart. That home is then evaluated to see if the individual can afford it, and what lenders are willing to work with them. The goal was to create a transparent and unbiased experience by using data.

“I bought my mom’s dream house when I was 17. I nearly lost it when I was 20. My mom is a veteran and we were put into an ARM [ adjustable-rate mortgage] loan when we should’ve given a VA [veteran] loan. I don’t think I would’ve done that if I had more education upfront,” Young said regarding his motivation for starting the company.

The investors: The panel was asked about the revenue stream and flexibility of the platform.

Young responded by stating the company charges transactional fees through contracts such as the actual mortgage paperwork. The company earned $94,000 last year; however, that was through grants with municipalities that wanted to increase the number of minorities owning homes. He also announced that the company recently closed a funding round, raising a total of $3.5 million. One of the investors, Lewis, is a current investor in the company and has invested $1 million. Young was asked if this platform could be utilized for other situations such as car buying – he replied that it could, but the current focus is solely on home lending.

Michael Burns, co-founder of Tampa-based Wedzee: 

Michael Burns, co-founder of Wedzee

Wedzee is a one-stop platform offering new and used items for brides and weddings. The company was created by husband-and-wife duo Jennifer and Michael Burns.

Burns said brides typically spend more than $6,000 on bridal items. The problem is when planning for a wedding, it’s super stressful and there’s no one true marketplace to find the items they need.

Burns said Wedzee wants to engage with Etsy, as there at 11.5 million handmade wedding items on Etsy that Wedzee would like to provide its users.

“We see weddings as our beachfront item, but Wedzee can be used for other events as well,” Burns said.

The company is currently raising $2.25 million.

Read more about the company and its planned soft launch. 

The investors: The investors questioned Wedzee’s reoccurring revenue.

Burns responded and said that there is recurring revenue from photographers and venues, as the purchases go beyond the actual purchases made by the bride.

Kenny Totten, co-founder of Orlando-based Bacarai 

Kenny Totten, co-founder of Bacarai

Bacarai is a trip management company that partners with airlines to automate group sales.

Group fare is what airlines sell offline, meaning if someone is a tour operator, customers typically have to call to book spaces, Totten said. This platform allows a user to easily book large spaces with a refundable deposit and allows the user to pay in segments.

The Investors: The investors’ questions related to how the company functioned during the pandemic and how it is raising funds.

Totten said pre-pandemic, the company wanted to sell a version of this to the airlines, but the airlines became difficult to work with.

“We had to reduce our headcount by half. We went from 15 people to seven,” Totten said.

The engineering team focused on redoing the entire platform because there would be about 12 to 16 months of insignificant booking activity.

The company raised $2 million in 2019 and had cash reserves as well as PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] money, which allowed it to financially weather the pandemic.

“We do need to expand development staff. We do service a lot of tour operators and those survived. We are going to have to find ways to acquire new business,” Totten said.

The company has $1.8 million of gross group bookings through February 2022.

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