2012 Community Track Winners

Passion, perseverance mark Business Plan Challenge winners’ year

 

Challenge Champion Blend Craft Wines takes its Winemaker Experience for cruise ships to the shore, too.

ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

You can be sure that as the ball dropped on 2012, Jeffrey Maltzman was toasting to a very good year.

His company, Blend Craft Wines, you may remember, offered a wine-making experience for cruise ships. The company took the concept well beyond simple tastings, allowing the passenger to become the winemaker and even take home a custom blend. The business plan took first place in the Community Track and garnered the most votes in the People’s Pick video contest to earn the title of Challenge Champion.

When we left off with the Coral Gables startup last May, it was running a beta program on one cruise ship on MSC. Now Blend Craft Wines is on three ships — the MSC Opera, Lirica and Poesia — and has started discussions with other cruise lines. The other big development: Its trademarked Winemaker Experience is now a permanent shoreside activity available in Napa Valley and will be offered in Summit, Colo. this summer, said Maltzman, who is also a maritime attorney and a winemaker .

Maltzman has also taken the Winemaker Experience to resorts and restaurants as events and charity fund-raisers. “One of the highlights of our first year was being invited to lead the Winemaker Experience for VIP prize winners attending the 2012 Napa Valley Film Festival,” said Maltzman.

During the first year the company also:

• Operated for several months in Europe and learned important lessons on how to market the program to a European clientele. A challenge during the company’s first year was finding experienced multi-lingual winemakers to work onboard European-based cruises, with quality French and Italian wines to replace its usual California vintages.

• Discovered that the logistics of running four different programs onboard each ship were quite challenging so “we streamlined our operation to focus on the Winemaker Experience, which was by far our largest revenue stream.”

• Refined the optimal pricing structure, which varies by ship, for its programs.

• Launched a line of premium Napa wines that are available onboard cruise ships and at select restaurants.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Maltzman said the company could have sunk.

“The custom crush company we used to make our wines went out of business without notice in the middle of the year. This forced us to find a new source of wine on short notice and also potentially could have bankrupt the company due to the large inventory of wine we had purchased but never received. Fortunately, we had paid using our company’s corporate American Express card and the American Express’ Small Business Unit ultimately backed us and reversed all charges – saving us from a potentially catastrophic loss.”

Going forward, Blend Craft Wines plans to expand to two additional cruise lines during 2013 and broaden the shoreside program as well.

All in all, “we had a very good year,” said Maltzman. “The custom crush company caused us a lot of anxiety but we came through the experience stronger and better.”

Agape Marine Ventures

Barbara Wooden’s dream is to develop an aquaculture company that would hatch, grow, process and distribute fish in an environmentally sound manner because overfishing is a serious threat to the planet. In her vision, Agape Marine Ventures would help supply the protein needed to feed the world’s hungry and satisfy U.S. consumers who are demanding healthier, eco-friendly foods.

The reality is, so far, she is swimming upstream with the development of the company.

“Things are going a lot slower than I hoped,” said Wooden, who won second place in the Business Plan Challenge Community Track. She spent a good part of the year working through government funding issues that still are not resolved. Because of this, investors are on the sidelines. “To be perfectly honest, I had expected to be further along in fund-raising,” said Wooden.

Still, she has made headway. Wooden’s plan involves hatching fish in a hatchery, then growing them to maturity in huge cages — some the size of football fields — 80 feet below the ocean surface. Those cages can cost $250,000, Wooden said, but improvements in the technology means costs are coming down and there is now an additional manufacturer in the market.

Agape Marine Ventures has added more scientific expertise. Two more marine biologists have joined the six-person team, bringing with them new connections and different specialties, said Wooden. For instance, the Delray Beach company is now working on growing feed more efficiently.

“Agape and I will continue making our way to the finish line.”

WedWu

Your wedding day can be perfect without breaking the bank — if Darren Atinsky has anything to say about it.

Atinsky’s company, WedWu, the third-place winner in the Business Plan Challenge’s Community Track, offers a platform to bid on wedding services. The Davie-based company plans to take its concept nationwide this spring.

In beta testing in 2012, WedWu booked and serviced more than 120 brides and grooms, some of them on very short notice. WedWu.com allows customers to bid for services for photography, video and DJ, all by pre-selected and fully vetted vendors. About 40 percent of customers take more than one service, said Atinsky, co-founder and CEO. “Once they get the concept they are more apt to add additional [services.] We have more than 30 events booked into this year already.”

The payoff: Brides and grooms save an average of 40 percent over traditional services, said Atinsky.

He attributes much of WedWu’s recent success to the company’s social media push — about 60 percent of business has come through Facebook and other social sites.

WedWu, which also won last year’s Business Plan Challenge/Miami Innovation Fund “Geek Tank,” attracted new investment from the Miami Innovation Fund, which came in handy for its single biggest challenge this year.

That would be the actual programming of the concept to make it a fully automated system. “The industry has always been run on the personal touch. No one has ever automated this,” Atinsky said. That work is underway.

WedWu announced in July that Shawn Kernes, the founding CTO of StubHub (acquired by eBay), joined the team as a technology advisor. It also added a chief developer, Stephen Sperry.

What’s on the near horizon for WedWu? A full launch in April, and accompanying it will be a nationwide marketing campaign to introduce WedWu.

In time, WedWu plans to add more wedding services.

“WedWu is doing to the wedding and event industry what Priceline did for travel,” said Atinsky.

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