St. Petersburg’s entrepreneurial spirit was on full display Tuesday night, as a standing-room-only crowd packed into 3 Daughters Brewing to hear five local founders showcase their startups.
The Greenhouse presented its first St. Pete Pitch Night of 2022 in front of an enthusiastic audience of local officials, business leaders and residents eager to cheer on five innovative concepts. The Greenhouse chose the finalists from a pool of 26 applicants who launched their startup within the last four years, previously presented at a 1 Million Cups St. Pete event or are currently attending an entrepreneurship program at an area college or university.
Jessica Eilerman, business development manager for the city and co-manager of the Greenhouse, served as the master of ceremonies for the friendly pitch competition that awards a $5,000 grand prize, $500 for the audience choice award, and offers exposure to the local seeding community. The founders had six minutes to present their best pitch, followed by a question and an answer session with four area business leaders.
“One of the mayor’s five pillars of progress for our work here in St. Pete is really focusing on equitable development and business development,” said Deputy Mayor Stephanie Owens during her opening remarks. “Especially our ability to help local businesses thrive here in the City of St. Petersburg.”
While St. Pete Pitch Night is a friendly competition, it is still a competition, and the judges award Sheffie Robinson, founder and CEO of Shmrck, with the night’s top prize.
Robinson described Shmrck as “Fiverr meets Handshake – but for high schoolers.” Fiverr is a popular online platform that matches freelance services and businesses, while Handshake is a leading job board for college students.
Robinson launched Shmrck after realizing high school was not doing enough to prepare her son for college and an in-demand career. She told the audience that the education gap is so vast that 70% of students graduate unprepared to enter the workforce, even at the collegiate level. She added that 78% of hiring managers struggle to fill jobs, while many companies lack an intentional pipeline to reach diversity, equity and inclusion goals.
“So, I gathered a team of professionals across edtech (education technology), industrial-organizational psychology, sociology and human resources, with myself as a software engineer with over 20 years experience and a clinical sociologist, to create Shamrck,” said Robinson. “A talent matchmaking system for businesses to connect with vetted high school students for internship opportunities.”
Shamrck helps students explore future career paths, create resumes, provides relevant basic training and offers career counseling. Robinson said the training could save businesses nearly four years and $250,000, and Shamrck takes an 8% transaction fee when companies hire students from the platform.
Robinson said the instruction her platform provides ensures that businesses receive quality work.
“We’re not just a fancy job board – it’s the entire process,” she said. “So that businesses don’t have to wonder whether the students have the skill they need. We let you know.”
Robinson said Shamrck, which opened its beta version in April 2021, currently has about 1,100 students utilizing the platform. She plans to onboard 100,000 students across five school districts during the platform’s official launch in August. The $5,000 prize will fund Shamrck’s first live instructional program, where students will learn how to provide marketing and automation solutions through the HubSpot and MailChimp platforms.
“I think I’m going to cry,” said Robinson after taking first place. “Since coming to St. Pete, everyone has been so welcoming.
“No matter how many times I show up, St. Pete shows up for me.”
Scott Revey won over the crowd and took home $500 for his matchmaking app for golfers – Swingin’ Stix. The mobile application allows golfers in need of partners to customize their pairings based on common interests.
Revey explained it is difficult to find like-minded golfers you would enjoy spending the day with, and if you do have ideal partners, scheduling outings is a hassle. He said Swingin’ Stix provides a solution for both problems and allows users to join or create events with new or existing friends.
“There’s also this latent demand of interested but inactive golfers – nearly 19 million,” said Revey. “If you drill down into the National Golf Foundation, nearly 60% of these 19 million did not play because they quote, ‘did not have somebody they felt comfortable playing with.’
“Huge opportunity here.”
The remaining finalists
Marcus Howard, a self-described serial entrepreneur, Esports professor and one of LinkedIn’s top-20 voices for sports, pitched MetArena. His startup merges video games and Esports to increase a company’s brand awareness and consumer engagement.
Howard said that studies show two-thirds of Americans play video games, meaning most brands have employees and consumers that enjoy the pastime.
“But they don’t have the insights and domain expertise to action that strategy,” he said. “They also don’t have the technology to action that strategy.”
Howard created a book – distributed through six continents – that teaches families, brands and schools how to leverage video games to achieve goals. A technology platform complements the book, which he said allows scalable, low maintenance Esports tournaments that are brand relevant and brand safe.
Neil Jirele showcased his AppyHour mobile application. The platform connects bars and restaurants with consumers who actively seek timely offers and information. Since its soft launch in 2021, Jirele said AppyHour received 30,000 active device installs and continues to grow by about 800 users per month.
Jirele said AppyHour features over 260 business listings and will launch a fully monetizable version next month. While his business team is small, he said that a former CEO of Heineken International acts as an advisor.
“So, what started off as an idea of how can I get a good beer at a great price turned into so much more,” said Jirele. “We like to say that happy hour is no longer reserved to just one hour – every hour is AppyHour.”
Maria Garces highlighted her mushroom-infused chocolate company, Fungible Chocolates, offering samples to the crowd. After realizing that daily doses of adaptogenic mushrooms enabled her to stop taking medication for hormonal issues, she decided to share the benefits with the public through chocolate bars.
Garces said 11 local health stores agreed to carry the chocolate in just the first month following the product’s soft launch, selling an average of 36 bars at each location. Garces said there is a significant public interest in the Fungible Chocolates, although pricing and supply chain issues are a concern. Garces explained that creating a transparent supply chain with certified organic and gluten-free ingredients leads to higher costs.
“The reason we are out of chocolate right now is because we didn’t anticipate that it would run out so quickly and that it would be adopted the way it has,” she said. “Right now, we’re expecting a run of 2,400 bars, and once we sell a thousand, we’re going to order in advance.”