Keep an Eye on KeyStart

by Randon Gettys, Startup Peoria
Photography by Tory Dahlhoff

Three minutes goes by really fast. This is, of course, a loaded statement; anyone who has ever been underwater for a bit longer than desired could make a compelling point in opposition. But when a person is explaining something new—something that he or she has created—three minutes goes by really fast.

That is what we are asking people to do with KeyStart, a business idea submission and pitch competition administered by the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council’s (GPEDC) Startup Peoria program. KeyStart awards a $5,000 investment to one new business idea per bimonthly program cycle. The purpose is to provide entrepreneurs with fast access to capital in order to turn ideas into real companies.

What Is KeyStart?
A two-part program, KeyStart is both a business idea submission competition and a live pitch competition. Anyone can apply online with their new business or business idea. From the pool of applicants, four finalists are chosen by a selection committee. And then comes the fun part.

Every two months, GPEDC puts on an event not unlike ABC’s Shark Tank—though I hesitate to use that analogy. (As one real-life investor put it, Shark Tank is to investing what WWE wrestling is to the Olympic sport. But the setup and interaction is similar.)

Three mic’d-up judges sit at a table with paper and pen, preparing questions that arise during each three-minute presentation. Facing them, at the front of the room, is an antique shipping pallet that serves as a tiny stage for presenters, flanked by a 60-inch digital monitor for slide decks. All of that is framed by an 8’ x 8’ backdrop with the logos of the program sponsors.

Serving as emcee at KeyStart is one of the many duties of my position that gives me great joy. I use the opportunity to talk about Startup Peoria and its programs; plus, I get to express myself as I move the event along.

I then introduce each finalist, who has a mere three minutes to explain his or her entire business model to the judges. After those three minutes, the judges take turns asking difficult questions of the presenter, who must answer them on the spot. The quality of these answers can be the difference between winning and not winning. But the non-winners gain value, too. Not only do they leave with constructive feedback on their business or idea, they are welcome to apply to future KeyStarts to show the judges what they’ve learned. Speaking of learning, KeyStart has a startup story of its own.

Filling the Gaps
Startup Peoria is always looking for gaps in the startup ecosystem of Greater Peoria. When we find a gap and decide we have the capacity to address it in a meaningful way, we look for a model, so as not to recreate the wheel. In the case of KeyStart, it was Startup Peoria cofounders Jake Hamann and Amy Lambert who identified the need for such a program, and they found Start Garden, a program in Grand Rapids that awarded $5,000 each week to a new business or business idea by way of popular online vote.

Start Garden differed from KeyStart in that it launched with a multimillion-dollar venture capital fund; the purpose of the weekly awards was to create a pipeline for future deal flow for the larger fund. The goals for KeyStart were more modest, and the fact was, we did not have millions of dollars to spread like grass seed.

So, with high hopes, we embarked on a private campaign to find funding for a year’s worth, or $60,000, of monthly KeyStarts. We were grateful to the organizations and institutions who let us make our case, but one by one, they told us no. And then an angel came.

Sort of. It was an angel, but an angel of a different sort. In early 2015, Peoria-based angel investment firm Attollo stepped up to fund $30,000 worth of KeyStarts on the condition that Startup Peoria would take care of the program design and execution. We obliged.

During the planning process, there was much discussion about whether our assumption that Greater Peoria could support our original goal of 10 quality applicants per month would hold up. We learned quickly that a monthly program cycle was too rapid, so we adjusted it to bimonthly, and I am proud to report that we executed four successful KeyStart competitions in 2015. The winners so far include:

  • Shelf—a mobile software application that employs near-field communication technology to add a digital learning experience to static exhibits;
  • Alluvian—sustainably produced natural men’s grooming products;
  • Virtual Halo—a personal safety app for Apple Watch; and
  • Device Tree—a mobile device protection service that fills the market gap between carrier insurance and device repair shops.

Looking Ahead
As we reevaluate the KeyStart program, we do so according to a set of goals set before the program launched, combined with what we have learned by doing four of them. Aside from the obvious goals of providing small amounts of capital to launch new companies, we set out to expose the community to early-stage equity investing, to draw previously unknown entrepreneurs and investors into the Greater Peoria startup community, and to hold a regular public pitch event for community engagement. While we are achieving those goals to a satisfactory extent, there is much room for improvement.

We enter 2016 with commitments for two more KeyStart investments. This is one of Startup Peoria’s cornerstone programs, and my hope is that it grows into something bigger and better than it is today.

I have some wild ideas—and some of them might even be good—so keep an eye on KeyStart, and please consider yourself invited to attend an upcoming event. The details and application materials can be found at startuppeoria.com. Thanks for reading, but I think my three minutes is up... That went by really fast. iBi

Past sponsors for KeyStart include First Mid-Illinois Bank & Trust, Attollo, DJ4U and OneFire.

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