If you give yoga classes in outdoor public spaces, will people pay to join? How do you develop a toy that grows up alongside a child? How much fun would smart phone users have if they could synchronize calendars with their friends? Entrepreneurs tackled these questions in the 2011 Darden Business Incubator. The program closed for the summer, but several of its entrepreneurs are open for business.
“Pop Up Yoga is ramping up! We launched our studio recently and are going to continue both pop up and studio classes throughout the fall,” said Jacqueline Wilde (MBA ’12), founder and CEO of Pop Up Yoga, a subsidiary of Groundswell, which connects individuals with a holistic approach to caring for their health. Her company launched its unique concept of offering yoga classes in open spaces around Charlottesville, Virginia.
The Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, part of the Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, supports the incubator and the special programs and resources it offers. In addition to approximately $13,000 for expenses, the participants also received free office space, access to technological expertise and free legal services thanks to a new arrangement with the U.Va. School of Law and the Woods Rogers law firm.
All combined, these tools helped the 2011 incubator participants take an “effectual approach” to building their businesses.
“So we very much ascribe to a philosophy that comes from one of our faculty members, Saras Sarasvathy. We talk about effectual entrepreneurs and part of being one is that you make the cost of failure low, you make small bets, you start with things you know and then iterate,” said Philippe Sommer, director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership.
Many of the ventures rely on the role that technology plays in the lives of consumers.
For example, TeeGee will offer growing children a stuffed animal that keeps up with their changing developmental needs. According to founder and CEO Tom Giedgowd (MBA ’12), TeeGee can tell interactive stories and play games with children using speech recognition and smart accessories.
“We are looking to raise money from friends and family investors and will be exhibiting our products at Toy Fair 2012 in New York City this February,” said Giedgowd. “The company is also partnering with the U.Va. Child Development Labs for a test pilot program using the prototypes that we developed while in the incubator.”
Giedgowd also launched an online application store.
The award-winning company Nomuda Games is taking its gaming application Reedu to the next level and working to make it available on a second mobile platform. CEO Joe Chard (MBA ’11) enlisted the help of Darden alumnus, Larry Ehrhardt (MBA ’96), founder of Ballast Lane Apps, to extend the game to Apple users.
“We’re still plugging away on developing the second episode in our Reedu series. We’re also raising seed money to fund the porting of the game over to iPhone,” Chard said. “We’re really excited about Nomuda’s future!”
SynkMonkey is a mobile application for the iPhone that allows users to easily schedule meetings and get people together via unique text messages with integrated date/time, location mapping, and calendar auto-population, among other features. Its design makes it easier for people to connect with each other. Founders Hunter Murchison (MBA ’11) and Jay Subhash (MBA ’11) also hope that businesses can use the app to connect with their customers. They completed their private beta test and their free app is now available in the iTunes app store.
Murchison never imagined that he would have this type of entrepreneurial success when he first arrived at Darden.
“I came to Darden from Wall Street and intended to have a more traditional career,” said Murchison. “However, after getting inspired by my classmates and entrepreneurial alumni, I decided that now would be the best time to take this risk and reap the rewards of my own hard work."
While some incubator companies have chosen to stay in Charlottesville, Carlos Camacho (MBA ’11), has moved his business, MakeRacket, to Austin, Texas. There, he is already working with customers to co-create his first product. His service will give bands unprecedented insight into their existing customers while making it easier for them to grow their fanbase.
“Many musicians and managers struggle to gather the critical information they need about their fans in order to run effective grass-roots and social media marketing campaigns,” said Camacho. “MakeRacket builds a suite of simple online software tools that will help musicians find and engage their fans, then use that information to make smart business decisions.”
MakeRacket will allow musicians to analyze demographic data, easily identify their best fans, then hyper-target the most relevant ones. It also will aggregate the band’s social media and marketing efforts into a single, easy-to-use dashboard, to streamline PR efforts.
Throughout the summer, incubator participants also received help from experts in areas such as marketing, project management and accounting. The final workshop — a review of one-page investor pitches — helped the entrepreneurs with their pursuit of funding.
"The structure of the Incubator and the feedback and support we were able to get from fellow incubatees proved to be very valuable as we tried to think like our potential customers," Murchison added.
In addition, participants felt honored to be a part of this year’s incubator. Described as one of the strongest groups seen to date, 12 companies were chosen from among 17 applications. This year, more entrepreneurs are expected to apply.
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