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Business on the Bus

by Arlene Karidis + photos by Chris Jackson

Business Bus

Hagerstown entrepreneurs test their mettle to reap rewards at Pitch Across Maryland.

In September, a big yellow bus rolled into the parking lot near the M&T Bank in downtown Hagerstown. Throughout the day, 19 local entrepreneurs entered the vehicle, one at a time, walked to the back of the bus, and pitched their business ideas while a camera rolled, recording them.

These new business owners were participating in a statewide contest called Pitch Across Maryland. The bus stopped in every county in the state and entrepreneurs offered up their business plans. The contest was part of the Startup Maryland initiative, which consists of entrepreneurs, investors, and corporate representatives who volunteer for the sake of helping new companies access capital and make business connections.

Mary Ellen Waltemire is one of the local entrepreneurs who hopes her pitch wooed the Startup Maryland judges enough to earn the grand prize of $25,000 in working capital to pump into her new company.

This was a unique opportunity for Mary Ellen, as she is more accustomed to being on the giving end of advice than the receiving one. As the founder of One Step Closer Coaching “I am a life and leadership coach, helping organizations and individuals with personal and business goals,” she says. But as she delivered her pitch, other business gurus were supporting her.

“I had to the opportunity to talk to representatives from Washington County Department of Business Development Commission and the Small Business Administration, who were partners in Startup Maryland,” says Mary Ellen. “They coached me through, telling me what sounds good. Suggesting to me, ‘You might want to try this in your pitch.’ There was all kinds of information online, but it helped to have someone talk you through the process.”

She and the other 18 Hagerstown contestants (Hagerstown had more participants than any other Maryland county) tapped into plenty of other opportunities the day they got on the bus. Many local organizations and businesses ran free seminars on topics like financing choices, presented by M&T Bank, and starting a business plan, hosted by Frostburg State University.

“We met many great contacts at the seminars and got a lot of useful information. But the entire event was designed to give new businesses a leg up,” says Jerry Hare, owner of the newly formed O’Hare Integrated Technical Solutions Corporation, which offers information technology support to businesses.

It was those other “value added” opportunities that sold Jerry on his plan to pitch at the event. “I got to network with Mike Binko, Startup Maryland’s founder. He shared some of his experience, told me about events that were coming up, and put me in touch with amazing contacts,” he says, adding, “We networked with potential investors, met other people that are driven to help others build their business, and this experience gave us ambition to bring economic stimulus back to Hagerstown once we are in a financial position to do so.”

In his pitch, he focused on more than the basic laundry list of who his company was and what he did. “We wanted to be informative but to entertain and be personable. We described who are, a Veteran-owned tech consulting company. We poked fun at ourselves a bit, but we got the point across that we are in business to serve others, and do it well,” Jerry says.

Hagerstown organizations are taking the momentum generated from Startup Maryland even further. Working with several local partners, Washington County Department of Business Development will choose their top pitches based on presentation, but will also consider business needs, says Leslie Hart, agricultural marketing specialist.

Local winners will receive benefits like business planning and marketing consulting, and one may receive reduced rent in office space through the Department of Business Development’s partnerships with M&T Bank, local businesses, city and county government, Leslie says. “We recognized that we need to do what Startup Maryland does all the time. So we added fuel to make sure our local entrepreneurs can compete on a state level and be recognized locally. People often have a great idea and don’t know where to go. We are giving our small businesses a place to get support.”

Nicole Ingram, owner of Stacy Nicole Interior Design, leveraged her pitch to clear misconceptions about her field. She helps residential and commercial clients determine their interior design needs and walks them through the project from inception to color and furniture selection. “Many people think interior design is a luxury. I used the pitch to help consumers understand it can be a way to get fundamental furnishing, finishes and appliances in a cost- and use-efficient way.”

What Nicole discovered is that you need more than just know-how and belief in your product.  “You need to know how to speak publically. And it takes practice, which I got through this experience.” For her presentations, she focused on a specific skill set. “I know how to spend a buck, save in places that need to be saved, and splurge when there is ability to splurge.” She hopes an angel investor will visit the site where the videos are posted, see hers, and make a deal. “Or at a minimum I’d like for people to visit my web page and say, ‘I like this. Can you do that for me?’ Though what I’m really hoping for is the 25,000 grand prize,” Nicole quips.

Pierre Brown launched Hager Watches in 2009; he makes custom design watches and has his eye on what he sees as a virtually untapped market, but he is challenged as a start up. “There is opportunity to capture a large portion of the middle market by establishing our brand as the American brand. But starting an all-American manufacturing operation doesn’t happen overnight. You can have the best idea in the world with a proven concept, but you need funding.”

Pierre has been networking and pitching all along, but the bus tour was different than his previous experiences. “For the past two years I’ve been a LinkedIn member of Startup America. The [bus pitch] was different in that we could dialogue with other entrepreneurs and small business owners. It was a great experience and we are hoping it will attract a few investors who share our vision.”