By Sam Prickett
David Windsor has his elevator pitch ready to go.
“It’s a mobile party ready to be set up at hundreds, even thousands, of events each year,” he said, adopting the enthusiastic tone of a commercial spokesman.
That’s how Windsor, along with fellow Mountain Brook High School students William O’Leary and Beck Corley, introduced their product, the Omni-Hitch, to a panel of “sharks” – local entrepreneurs and potential investors like those in the popular reality show “Shark Tank” – at a pitch night held at the Emmet O’Neal Library earlier this month. The event was part of MBHS’ Incubatoredu class, a new program designed to teach students the basics of starting a business.
The Omni-Hitch trio is one of six groups that participated in the Feb. 4 pitch night. The group’s product is an all-in-one tailgating kit designed to fit in the bed of a pickup truck. It includes tables, a grill, a cooler, cutting boards and other essential items for hosting a game-day party. Their pitch ended up receiving the most money from the sharks: $400 to develop a prototype to gauge public interest in the product.
Each team received all the funding that they requested; the Omni-Hitch’s relatively high construction cost led the group to ask for the highest amount.
There are 22 students enrolled in the inaugural Incubatoredu class, which is divided into three- or four-student teams. Three groups are focused on mobile apps: Darts is a Pokémon Go-like app that rewards users for visiting specific local restaurants; Link connects students with peers who can tutor them; and C4 looks to connect musicians with local venues. Other teams have more tactile products, such as Lace-Mate, a device that crops shoelaces, and Over the Mountain Crates, a subscription service that offers boxes of school spirit-themed apparel and merchandise.
Mountain Brook is the only school in Alabama using the Incubatoredu curriculum, which was developed by the Barrington, Illinois-based nonprofit Uncharted Learning and is used in more than 100 schools across the country.
The program stresses “experiential learning,” with the goal of “creating a foundational experience for high school students who will study entrepreneurship and business in college as well as for those students who enter the workforce after graduating from high school,” according to its website.
Windsor said he signed up for the class because he hopes to go into marketing.
“It looked like something that would look good on the resumé but also (would) just help me have a little head start going into college,” he said. “It’s helped me figure out what I want to pursue.”
First, ID a Problem and Devise a Solution
When they signed up for the class, students were asked to “identify a problem your generation is facing and how (they) would solve that problem,” said Brooke Hawkins, a business teacher at MBHS and an instructor with the Incubatoredu program.
William O’Leary first came up with the idea for Omni-Hitch as a way to solve a problem he had experienced the previous summer: the tedium of helping his brother prepare for a tailgate party.
“He was like, ‘Yo, William, come help me lift the Yeti (cooler) into the truck, come get the Big Green Egg (grill), come get the tables,’ all this stuff,” O’Leary said. “I was like, ‘Man, that’s not very fun.’”
Before he could pitch the idea for Omni-Hitch to sharks, though, O’Leary had to sell his skeptical teammates on the product.
“I wasn’t really a firm believer in the idea,” said Windsor, ‘but once we talked to people, it actually seemed like a feasible thing. People really liked the idea of it.”
The class connected each team to “coaches” – local entrepreneurs who come to the classroom to teach the curriculum – and “mentors,” who partner with specific groups for the entire school year, “helping them get connections and providing guidance and advice along the way,” Hawkins said. “Almost all of them have been through the process of a start-up business.”
The Omni-Hitch team was partnered with Patrick Dennis, founder of the Mountain Brook-based contracting company Summit Renovation.
“He’s just been helping us along the way with everything we do,” O’Leary said. “He knows so many people in construction and marketing.”
“He’s our outreach,” added Windsor, who said that Dennis recently connected them with a welder who can help construct a prototype. “He’s pretty much bringing us all these opportunities.”
To prepare for the Feb. 4 pitch meeting, O’Leary, Windsor and Corley prepared a presentation that included the financial feasibility of the idea and explanation of their target market. But they also went a step further, building a rough, wooden prototype of the Omni-Hitch.
“We decided we wanted to build something out-of-pocket to have at the pitch just to give people an idea,” Corley said. That process, he added, gave the team “an idea of how much it costs to make one.”
With the $400 from the sharks, Windsor said, the goal is to make a more polished model, then take it to tailgates to show people.
“And then when they start requesting them, then we start mass-producing,” he said.
Final Pitch Coming Up
In May, Incubatoredu teams will compete in a final pitch event, in which they can ask for further funding to develop their project over the next school year. Windsor and Corley are both seniors and will graduate in May, but O’Leary, a junior, plans to sign up for a second year of the class to continue developing the idea. Hawkins said MBHS is considering implementing Acceleratoredu, a second-year program that will help students move their business idea further into the real world – for instance, by opening a business bank account.
“(O’Leary) will be able to take it further,” Corley said. “I feel like our business idea (is) the most feasible product. We have something to show, and moving through the curriculum really showed us that … . I think ours was kind of unique in that people get excited when we talk about what we’re trying to do. Like, it could actually happen.”
Corley, who will be attending the University of Alabama in the fall, said he plans to stay in touch with O’Leary and develop the project further. Windsor, who plans to go to college out-of-state, said he hopes to FaceTime or Skype with O’Leary to “toss in some ideas,” even if he can’t have a hands-on role.
But Hawkins thinks that a successful final pitch in May might change their minds.
“I think they’ll have a different point of view,” she said. “This is their first class. These kids haven’t really seen a success story out of Mountain Brook yet.”
If May’s pitch goes well, the Omni-Hitch team members could find themselves presenting their idea at a national conference in Berrington, Illinois.
“Every single school gets to choose their top team, and then (Uncharted Learning) chooses about eight (teams) to pitch at the national level,” Hawkins said. “We think these guys could actually have a chance.”