Last year, Dalton Middle School student Tripp Phillips became something of a national celebrity when he went on the TV show "Shark Tank," where people pitch their business ideas to potential investors, and reached a deal with businessman Kevin O'Leary to buy into his company.
But just a few months before, Phillips had become famous in Dalton when he won the inaugural PitchDIA (Dalton Innovation Accelerator) contest. Some 60 entrepreneurs from Dalton and the surrounding area pitched their ideas to a group of investors and business experts. Phillips won for his Le-Glue product, a non-permanent glue that holds Legos and other building blocks together without damaging them.
Organizers of the PitchDIA contest say having their first winner go on to such success so quickly was a major accomplishment. But that doesn't mean the contest can't be improved, and that's what they are trying to do with this year's contest, which will take place on Oct. 8. The application process ended recently.
"We took a little bit of a different tack this year and engaged much more deeply with our applicants and spent a little more time with them," said Barry Slaymaker, head of strategy for Barrett Properties and one of the organizers of the PitchDIA contest. "We will bring in four or five people from our PitchDIA committee, local business people, and meet with every single viable applicant, 25 groups. They had everything from a great concept to an already operating business. We'll be meeting with them up through the third week of July. The thing we found last year is that we didn't have the depth of understanding of the business or the entrepreneur that we would have liked."
Slaymaker said most of the applicants are from Whitfield County, but some are from Chattanooga and the metro Atlanta area.
Waylon Hasty, founder and lead trainer of the Elite Lineman Training Institute in Tunnel Hill, is one of those applicants. His firm, which began operations earlier this year, trains people to work as electric linemen. He says that working with the mentors and guides provided by PitchDIA to help him hone his proposal has been very helpful.
"I had an initial interview with them that lasted about 45 minutes or an hour, and since that meeting, about every two to three weeks, we have had followup meetings," he said. "They ask a lot of marketing questions. They ask a lot of questions — give a lot of advice — on structural issues. Do you have a CPA (certified public accountant)? If so, does he do this, does he do that? The questions they are asking, and the advice they have been giving, isn't just about the contest but making sure I'm doing what I need to be doing to move from a startup to an operating business."
Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce President Rob Bradham says he is excited by the quality of this year's applicants.
"I haven't had a chance to review all of the applications yet, but the ones I have seen are good quality," he said. "Last year's event featured three high-quality, viable business ideas. I'm confident we'll do the same this year. Greater Dalton is a community built on entrepreneurship in the floorcovering industry, and I think PitchDIA shows that entrepreneurship in our community is alive and well."
Marilyn Helms, dean of Dalton State College’s Wright School of Business, is also one of the organizers of the PitchDIA contest.
"We have got a great group of applicants," she said. "This is just one way we are trying to encourage entrepreneurship. We've got the accelerator itself. We've got students from Dalton State who are interning in the accelerator, helping new and small businesses and gaining real-world experience. We are creating a culture of entrepreneurship."
The accelerator, housed in 1,800 square feet of office space in the Landmark Building in downtown Dalton, opened last year. It provides startup firms and small nonprofit organizations with office space, mentorship and support services.
Slaymaker says that later this month all 25 applicants have been invited to a "boot camp" to shape their business plan and think about all aspects of their business.
"Some won't come. Some won't need to. They are far enough along," he said. "What isn't optional is that in August they will have to submit to us a full set of pro forma financial statements and a business plan and that is what we will use to pare down from 25 to a group of semifinalists. Our target is six to eight. But if there are 10 ideas we want to see on stage, that's what we'll have."
Each of those semifinalists will be working with a mentor for the six weeks after that, a local businessperson, to perfect their pitch.
"About a week before the contest, we'll have a semifinal round, where our group plus some invited business people will pare that down to three or four finalists for the Oct. 8 competition," Slaymaker said.
The first place winner will receive $5,000 as well as office space in the Dalton Innovation Accelerator, webhosting and technology consulting services, and accounting, legal and design services. There will also be prizes for second and third place.
And could the winner go on to success on "Shark Tank" like Tripp Phillips achieved?
"None of us can predict whether 'Shark Tank' will pick up on one of our pitches this year, but I know the pitches we present will be just as high quality as last year's were," said Bradham.