If the success of the last two winners of the USF Center for Entrepreneurship's Fintech Business Plan Competition is any indication, the future may be promising for Casey Henry and South Tampa Paintball.
The 21-year-old USF finance senior's paintball field topped half a dozen other teams in the fifth annual competition, which was held at the College of Business in early April.
As a result, the only undergraduate and youngest finalist won $15,000. That's just about the exact amount Henry and her business partner, Amy Abdnour, needed to complete the $95,000 in startup capital necessary to open the field.
“It’s a lot of pressure because, right now, we’re cleaning up the land and we’re making those investments as we speak," said Henry. "We kind of jumped in the water without knowing if we’re going to float or not...so this is great, this is a weight off of my shoulders.”
Previous winners of the Competition have found success.
2011's winner, Tēburu, is an online and mobile ordering and reservation system for small to medium sized restaurants. Since their victory, partners/USF graduates Greg Ross-Munro and Leon McIntosh have signed deals with eateries with more than 50 locations around the Tampa Bay area, as well as a large, undisclosed Middle Eastern restaurant management company that has 600 locations.
And last year's victors, Audrey Buttice and Samuel DuPont, have had their Scientific League of Superheroes STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) instructional video series picked up in a number of Hillsborough County schools (as profiled on WUSF's University Beat).
Twenty-five companies signed up for this year's Competition, and a screening process weeded the field down to seven finalists: South Tampa Paintball, medical job listing website OpportunityMed.com, Tampa grocery store 1Apple, medical device distribution company Medalign LLC, medical and tattoo needle disposal business ShipSharps, solar energy system manufacturer Nautilida Solar, and Argan oil-based cosmetic maker Pretty Argan.
Each company had to be owned in part by at least one USF student and be registered as a legal entity (e.g. C Corp, S Corp, LLC, LLP) in Florida.
Presenters had between 10 and 15 minutes to present their plans to a panel of judges, who then bombarded them with a series of questions.
Perhaps the toughest judge was Scott Riley, the CEO of the competition’s title sponsor, Fintech, which provides invoice & payment solutions for alcohol distributors and retailers.
“This is their (students) first venture into really presenting their companies for some kind of financial benefit," said Riley. "And if you think our questions are hard, wait until they get in front of venture capitalists or people that are going to put seed money into these programs - they are going to get questions that are a lot tougher than we are.”
He added, "It’s kind of like raising kids, you’ve got to teach them what to expect and get them prepared for the future and that’s all part of academia, that’s all part of (the Center for Entrepreneurship), is learning what to expect to help you be successful at the next level."
In addition to the candid feedback the judges provided, the competition allowed them to also become the professional contacts the students can seek advice from in the future.
“To have a cadre of people who’ve ‘been there, done that,’ most of these guys have done that several times over (and are) very knowledgeable in different areas, whether it’s law or marketing or general entrepreneurship," said USF Assistant Professor for Entrepreneurship Sean Lux.
"So really any kind of question the students would have about starting a company, one of the judges today would be a go-to resource for them.”
And to a busy student / business person like Casey Henry, that's almost as rewarding as the cash prize.
“It’s invaluable because I’m at work every day, forty hours a week, I see the same fifteen co-workers and I have to take all my classes or I have to take night classes," she said. "At the end, I’m tired, I’m not really talking to people, I don’t have a big chance to go out and network, so this is invaluable to me.”
South Tampa Paintball is scheduled to open this summer.