November 16, 2012

Winner Bryan Richman '14 pitches SharedSpark, his idea for a dating site with a unique twist, to a panel of six alumni judges.

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By Heather Johns

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Five minutes. That's all the time student finalists in the Bucknell University Small Business Development Center (SBDC) Business Pitch Competition had to convey the innovation, clarity, comprehensiveness, feasibility and "wow factor" of their business idea to a panel of judges.

The stakes were high — $1,500 to the winner, $1,000 for second place and $500 for third. But the finalists proved that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well at Bucknell.

The Business Pitch Competition is open to all aspiring student entrepreneurs currently enrolled at Bucknell. Students may compete alone or in teams. This year, the 23 teams comprising 57 students that entered the fray were whittled down to six finalists who presented to an equal number of alumni judges: Yoshi Maisami '01, Michael Hinchman '79, John Patterson '84, George Burman '74, James Ferguson '73 and Kyle Schoeneman '06.

"One of the steps along the way to starting a venture is being able to communicate your vision - whether it is to rally team members together, secure investments or persuade customers to buy your product," said SBDC Director Steven Stumbris. "With this competition, we hope to inspire student entrepreneurs to pursue their passion."

The five-minute pitch the students were asked to prepare and present is a real challenge: longer than an elevator pitch, but far more condensed than a business plan. "They had to really work to develop their ideas, but also had to be extremely selective and concise in what they included," explained Stumbris.

The finalists did not disappoint. "It was fantastic to see the excitement and passion that each of the six teams brought to the competition," said Patterson. "From personal experience, I know that it's really tough to convey clearly in a very short timeframe a big idea you feel strongly about. I thought each of the teams did an outstanding job."

"Presenting in front of the judges was extremely exciting," said Bryan Richman '14. "Although I was a little nervous, it was a good type of nervous. It felt great to finally be able to do it for real." Richman's practice paid off. His pitch for a dating site called SharedSpark won the $1,500 grand prize.

Entrepreneurs in the making
Bucknell has a fertile history of entrepreneurship, including alumni such as Ken Langone '57 (Home Depot), Doug Lebda '92 (LendingTree), Richard Johnson '84 (HotJobs), Jessica Livingston '93 (Y-Combinator), Marc Lore '93 (Quidsi) and Jessica Jackley '00 (Kiva). "The Business Pitch competition shows us the spirit of entrepreneurship continues to live and grow stronger at Bucknell, and beyond," said Maisami.

In fact, several of the Business Pitch finalists have already started the businesses they pitched.

Third-place winner Felicia Mgbada '13 launched her SOFO Collection in the spring and has already had success selling her skirts, shorts and dresses on campus.

The BuckSell team took second place with its pitch for a website that capitalizes on local connections to buy and sell goods and services. It has been working on refining the prototype of its site and service since the summer, and was the only team to debut a fully produced promotional video during the event.

But the big winner was Richman, who blazed through a polished presentation about a unique relationship platform that helps college students "escape the friendzone" with the people they know. He calls it SharedSpark, and he's excited to turn his idea into a reality.

"Winning this competition was more than I could have ever asked for," said Richman. "I put an incredible amount of effort into this project over the last two months and I am so thankful that my work paid off. It's really boosted my confidence in both myself and SharedSpark."

The prize money will go toward officially incorporating SharedSpark as a company, said Richman. "I haven't decided if I will go the LLC route or the S-Corporation route, but I will get a lot of advice and make the right decision," he added. "After that, I plan on raising funds and developing a prototype of my platform."

Richman said he plans on checking in with the SBDC frequently to seek their advice on refining his business plan and determine which steps to take. His first place finish also allows him to take advantage of space in Bucknell's Entrepreneurs Incubator, where he can tap into a growing network of mentors ranging from Bucknell alumni to professionals in the local community.

"All of the competitors can continue to come to the SBDC for free business consulting in business planning and development — a service available to them, as well as the community, year-round," added Stumbris. "We're proud of what they've accomplished and thrilled to share and celebrate their successes."

"In the increasingly competitive world of higher ed, the Business Pitch competition and the students' presentations were an impressive example of the Bucknell liberal arts education at work," said Maisami. "It shows how the University's community partnerships with organizations like the SBDC help differentiate itself against other institutions."

Contact: Division of Communication