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May 25. 2013 1:52AM

Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: Start-ups aim to run like Stark


 

Alex Hollis, from Manchester, co-founder of TestSoup, explains his mobile test prep solutions during the Manchester Young Professionals Network business plan competition, held at abi Innovation Hub, in Manchester, on Tuesday. Thomas Roy/Union Leader 

MANCHESTER -- In the Tony Stark school of entrepreneurism, "Sometimes you gotta run before you can walk."

And when you have just three minutes to pitch your idea, you have no time to crawl.

The founders of six New Hampshire start-ups took turns making their cases Tuesday as they vied for a prize package valued at more than $55,000.

Some presented their business plans with the kind of bravado you'd expect from Iron Man's alter ego, who loomed above them from a poster on the wall of the abi Innovation Hub's downtown headquarters.

And some wobbled and spun like Stark trying to get the kinks out of his new Iron Man suit.

But all learned something valuable from the experience: Starting a business is tough work.

"This ecosystem will be built by people putting themselves out there," abi CEO Jamie Coughlin told the group before they made their pitches. A couple of the evening's contestants made sure to invoke his fledgling catch-phrase for New Hampshire's small-business community: "Live free or start."

The Manchester Young Professionals Network has doled out more than $155,000 in cash and in-kind services to Granite State entrepreneurs over the past five years in packages that include professional help from lawyers, accountants and other professionals and some seed money.

Clearly not enough money to build an Iron Man suit, but enough to see if that entrepreneur has enough mojo to transform a business plan into a viable commercial enterprise.

Before a crowd of about 75 people, the founders of Dreamy Paws, Regaalo, TechLok, New England Culinary Center, Ustablize and TestSoup made their public debut in a friendly environment. Call it "Shark Tank" without the sharks. That part will come on June 10 when the two finalists selected from the six will duke it out for the top prize before a judging panel at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College.

What each of the six companies had in common was the desire to solve a problem or fill a need, often one they've experienced themselves.

For Melissa Tagliamonte of Dreamy Paws, that meant creating a portable pet bed with a storage area that functions like a piece of luggage. Inside, there's room for leashes, pet bowls and chew toys. The Salem resident said she saw no such product when she researched pet beds online and in pet stores. "None of them had a storage component so I thought it was an opportunity to take advantage of this booming pet market," she said before presenting an example of the product available at dreamypaws.com, which features interchangeable pet bed covers.

Jessica Streitmater of Regaalo.com said she and co-founder Matt Robinson of Dover aimed to curb the number of presents unhip family members send to college students. Rather than buy something they will never use, why not send a mobile gift card to their cellphone that they can use to get what they really want from local merchants around the university. "My grandmother loved to send me gifts in college, but she never got it right," Streitmater said. "Eventually, after my grandmother sent me the third two-sizes-too-big really colorful Goodwill sweater, my mom said why don't you just send her cash next time? Regaalo.com makes gift-giving easy for all the grandmothers of the world, and moms and dads and aunts and uncles."

Andrew Richards of TechLok wants to make sure you never lose your laptop or smartphone - and the data they contain - to thieves. The company's software (available at signup.techlock.com) monitors your devices and includes security features that protect your data should the device get stolen, which just might save your job if that laptop holds proprietary information. And TechLok's tracking features help you recover that laptop should someone lift it from the coffee shop.

"We're developing the first mobile security platform so that we can stop this $5.4 billion problem dead in its tracks," the Manchester resident said. "Each year over 640,000 laptops and tablets disappear in U.S. airports."



Tom Puskarich, who closed Z Food & Drink restaurant on Elm Street last year after a five-year run and closed its catering operation six months ago, wants to create a business incubator for culinary entrepreneurs. The New England Culinary Center would help them prepare for the rigors of an industry that has high start-up costs and a myriad of regulations. "Passion isn't always good enough. ... A lot of food entrepreneurs lack a certain business acumen," Puskarich said. "A good chef can open a good restaurant, but if he can't balance his checkbook, he won't be in business very long."



Michael Muldoon, who co-founded Ustabilize with his wife, Monica Muldoon, said his company had a "game-changing product to increase your fitness and improve the way you move by turning your smartphone into a fitness game." The Hampton couple developed a gaming platform and a series of app-enabled devices that allow users to improve their stability through a series of movement challenges. The physical therapist made note of the high percentage of Granite State residents who are overweight or obese. He referred to the company's product as "Wii Fit on steroids."



Alex Hollis asked the audience to think back to the last time they took a standardized test: "You probably walked into that testing center with a feeling in your gut like you just ate a bunch of lead pellets. ... You probably felt underprepared and overwhelmed." Hollis of Manchester and Tom "TK" Kuegler of Litchfield founded TestSoup (www.testsoup.com) to provide online and mobile test-prep solutions for such exams as Wonderlic, a cognitive ability test used by employers. "A million people have to take that test every year in a corporate setting in order to get that new job or to get that raise," Hollis said.

Mike Cote is business editor at the Union Leader. Contact him at 668-4321, ext. 324 or mcote@unionleader.com.


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