In anticipation of the final round of the 2018 Pitch Dingman Competition, the Dingman Center is interviewing each of the five startup finalists about their progress and upcoming challenges as they prepare to compete for the $15,000 Grand Prize on March 6 in the Grand Ballroom of Stamp Student Union. Learn more and register to attend the competition here.
Sydney Parker, Founder & CEO
Senior communications major Sydney Parker is the founder, CEO and “Empress” of Emprology, an empowering influencer marketing consultancy that seeks to educate black female bloggers, vloggers, and podcasters on how to monetize their content. Sydney, who built her social media credentials through multiple Facebook internships, started Emprology as a service that provided her customers with one-on-one consultations, marketing plans and creative assets to enhance their brand presence. With some concerns about overtaxing her own bandwidth, she recently launched a school for aspiring influencers called #BrandBoss Academy. As part of this school model, established macro-influencers teach classes and provide mentorship to aspiring influencers, who pay an appropriate fee for the privilege. Sydney has been developing Emprology since spring 2017, when she first entered the Dingman Center’s Fearless Founders Accelerator. Through grit and determination, Sydney has built Emprology into a one-stop-shop for black women who want to learn how to make a living off of their passions.
Best Marketing’s Liz Sara, Chair of the Board of the Dingman Center of Entrepreneurship and Entrepreneur-in-Residence, just completed teaching her flagship MBA Class, “Business-to-Business Marketing” during this 2017 Winter Session. Now in its fourth year, Liz has fashioned this class as a 100 percent experiential learning environment based completely on outside CEO speakers who present real world marketing challenges. And much like the childhood rhyme we sang in grade school, there really were NO textbooks in this class, nor outdated case studies.
This summer, the Dingman Center will be conducting interviews with the eight student startups who are participating in the Terp Startup summer incubator phase of our Fearless Founders accelerator program. Participating student entrepreneurs received $3,500 stipends that would enable them to work exclusively on their startups over six weeks in the summer.
The plight of the American small business owner is an issue so ubiquitous, it can be easy to take for granted. Even if the product is excellent, a business can easily fail if customers don’t have a strong identification with their brand. Against the immense advertising budget of a competing corporate Goliath, small business owners attempting to promote their business are armed with a futile collection of advertising options that feel cripplingly expensive as well as ineffective. But now small business owners can rejoice knowing they have a new champion fighting on their behalf, a veritable David with a slingshot: founder Dustin Ecton and his startup, TapTime TV, a fully customizable entertainment channel installed on televisions in bars and restaurants that doubles as a platform for local advertising.
Startup marketing can involve a variety of different activities, from the creation of promotional materials to Search Engine Optimization. Given limited time and resources, particularly among student entrepreneurs, it can be overwhelming to think about where to start.
Your marketing focus will depend upon the nature of your business and your target customer. For a fairly comprehensive list of marketing tools and resources, for everything from Advertising to Analytics, check out The Essential List of Start-up Marketing Resources.
We’ve all heard stories of entrepreneurs whose businesses began on the backs of napkins. But how about the back of a job application?
For one Dingman enTERPreneur, what began as a sketch for an at-home, all-in-one fitness device on the back of a gym job application, has turned into a fully operational business. Today, Gym Supreme’s founder and Dingman enTERPreneur Academy graduate, Obidi Orakwusi, has a patented at-home gym device, Mega Bar, and is launching the company’s first kickstarter campaign.
In 2013, the Dingman Center blog caught up with Obidi. To learn about the genesis of his idea, check out that post here.
Since we’ve been uber-focused on the lean launchpad methodology and customer discovery around the Dingman Center lately, we asked Obidi to share some of those insights from his startup journey.
When Obidi initially gained the idea for Mega Bar, he was confident that it would sell. Mega Bar was not the first at-home gym on the market, but Obidi noticed that what was available at an affordable price point was not the best quality. This validated his hypothesis and he saw an opportunity.
What was your path like toward customer discovery?
I did things a bit backwards. I did much of my customer discovery after the prototype had been developed. I walked around campus and stood outside of Eppley Recreation Center with a clipboard to take notes from discussions with potential customers, who were undergrad students ages 18-22. Through those interviews I found that although my product was an improvement from a quality and design standpoint — think the Nokia compared to an iPhone — it was too expensive for the demographic on campus. The needs matched but the price didn’t. From there, I segmented the target market and shifted focus to a more of a working class, young professional crowd that had money but limited time. Within this space I found my target customer and learned what I was really solving for them: saving people time. This customer spends a majority of his/her time at work, leaving minimal time — sometimes just a few hours at home or outside of the office. With that limited time, people may not always feel like working out, but Mega Bar can help.
What was the biggest challenge in developing and commercializing a new product?
From my experience, the biggest challenges in creating a new product and commercializing it, are marketing and pricing. Pricing will narrow your target market and really affects revenues. For example, if you try to force the price to fit a cheaper audience, you might be faced with a situation where your margins are just too low to keep the company growing. Once you have a set price, the hardest thing is figuring out how to reach the market with the highest willingness to pay when you have no budget for marketing, because marketing has to be continuous for it to be effective.
How did you navigate the patent approval process?
Getting a patent so early on was a great boost of confidence, and the fact that it arrived at the door on my birthday last year was unbelievable. I knew how important it was to have a patent in the pipeline, but I didn’t have the resources to pay excessive legal fees, so I had to learn it all. I read all the rules very carefully, read articles, and called the USPTO anytime I had a question. With all the knowledge I gained, I was able to submit the patent application and receive the approval to grant the patent within nine months of applying, which is extremely rare. I applied for my second patent last summer.
Have you tried any unique marketing campaigns?
I’ve tested three different marketing strategies. The first two were great strategies, but they wouldn’t work with the minimal resources the company had to work with.
The first was a social media campaign. The second involved attempts to have influencers in the fitness industry promote the company, and then the 3rd strategy was to get a booth at a fitness convention. The social media strategy was put on hold because it felt like the posts were getting nowhere without paying for ads; it was taking too long. The fitness influencers marketing strategy didn’t work because we couldn’t afford to send in free gear so early on or pay them to promote to their fan base. I also tried to get the Mega Bar featured in major fitness publications, but the cold emails felt like putting a message in a bottle and throwing it into the ocean of emails that those publications received everyday.
The entire time, I was trying to figure out a way to reach an audience that would also see the value in the product, but I realized that I had been searching for the marketing middleman that would help us reach the potential consumer, when I should have actually been the one reaching directly to the early adopters because middlemen are always more costly. I had to find a way to reach directly to consumers that would understand the value of the product just by seeing a 30 second video of what the product can do without further explanation, so I decided to get the company’s first booth at a personal training convention to gain exposure for the Mega Bar. That turned out to be the most effective strategy based on time and the little resources the company had.
What resources have you found to be most valuable to you as an entrepreneur?
The most valuable resources found throughout my journey, thanks to the Dingman Center, are the entrepreneurship classes. It started with the Entrepreneur Academy that eventually evolved to Fearless Founders. From that class, I learned so much about how to understand your target customer. Everything about the Dingman Center has been a great resource for me along the journey. From winning the first funding ever for the company, which went toward the issue fee for the first patent, to being able to talk to other successful entrepreneurs to get feedback. It’s all been a source of encouragement to keep progressing.
At the Dingman Center, I attended Pitch Dingman on Fridays where I could talk about creative ideas and strategies freely without being looked at like a crazy person because I was so young. You run into a lot of doubters when you first start your idea because no one believes you, but at Dingman, they believe you and are always there to help you succeed even if you are trying to turn water into wine. I had the chance to go on a trip to New York this past spring to show off the cool ideas that are coming out of UMD to Terps who now live in Manhattan. That would have never happened if the Dingman Center didn’t hook us up with a booth at Cupid’s Cup earlier this year where I connected with the UMD Alumni Association.
University of Maryland President Wallace Loh with the Mega Bar
What advice do you have for student entrepreneurs?
The biggest advice I would have for student entrepreneurs is to be confident, but don’t think you already know everything about your idea on day one. Be confident about your idea, but don’t be arrogant because it is just an idea until you can start selling it or acquiring users. You will need help to keep your idea progressing, but watch out for anyone who starts wasting your time because you can not replace time. Learn from the good things that happen along the journey, and also learn from the bad. Every experience will help you understand what to do the next time.
What’s one of the biggest lessons learned in starting Gym Supreme?
I’ve learned so much through building a product and launching a brand to push the product, but the biggest lesson that I’ve learned is that you should always test out your theories, never rush into decisions. Starting a company with no money after product development will force you to find new solutions to overcome marketing barriers.
You recently launched a Kickstarter campaign. What do you hope to achieve through Kickstarter?
My main goal with the Kickstarter campaign is to launch the first sales of the Mega Bar and to introduce Gym Supreme’s story to the world. The goal is to raise $12,000 through sales so that the company can finally generate revenue.
Do you have any bootstrapping tips for our readers?
Start saving your money now! Before senior year, I had a work-study job on campus and saved every paycheck. By the time graduation rolled around, I had enough money to develop a prototype.
Never jump into decisions without thinking twice about it. When you receive that first offer, don’t just take it. Be cautious of investors who are just opportunistic and don’t genuinely believe in your product.
Also, be resourceful. For example, I taught myself to code, which saved a lot of expense and was something I could figure out through studying.
What’s your long-term vision for Gym Supreme?
The long term goal for Gym Supreme is to become a fitness lifestyle brand that creates excellent products, which help us all stay consistent with our health goals. I want this company to help anyone that has a desire to Lift Good, Live good, and Look Good®.
To learn more about Gym Supreme and to place your order for the Mega Bar, visit their Kickstarter Page to support the $12,000 goal.
And, be sure to connect with Gym Supreme on social media:
This week, participants of Fearless Founders presented on the progress of their business ideas to sponsors from Capital One. It was great to see how far they’ve come! We also had a Research and Practice Luncheon discussing the use of crowdfunding. The luncheon promoted engaged interaction between faculty, staff, angel investors and students. Check out some photos from the event on our Facebook page.