Business Plan Challenge

2014 Community Track winners have listened, improved, expanded

Valerie Schimel created Munchkin Fun, a site that hooks up busy moms' with kids' classes and events.
Valerie Schimel created Munchkin Fun, a site that hooks up busy moms' with kids' classes and events. Miami Herald staff

1st Place and Challenge Champion: Munchkin Fun

When first place winner Munchkin Fun won the Business Plan Challenge in May, founder Valerie Schimel had two websites — a place to book events, classes and camps for kids as well as a free calendar site.

But later in the year, it became clear to Schimel and her growing team that the key to increasing revenue opportunities was to combine and conquer.

“We’re evolving with our readers,” said Schimel, who has a background in journalism. “We’ve combined our calendar and booking sites into one family-friendly powerhouse. We now give parents one place to find, RSVP and book free and paid events, classes, camps and activities of all types, rather than just book classes. In combining our sites, we’ve increased our reach and revenue opportunities.”

In the past six months, Munchkin Fun has rebranded, launched a new website, introduced new RSVP and submission functionality and started a business complement to its twice-weekly newsletter to parents. It now sends weekly industry tips and news to more than 500 small business owners, marketing team members and PR agencies every week.

About 400 businesses are part of Munchkin Fun’s listings, and about 130 take part in Munchkin Fun’s convenient booking services, in which parents pay a $2 fee. The company also offers businesses that want to reach the parent market a variety of advertising packages for its website and newsletters. “We are really focused on building a community,” Schimel said. “We encourage businesses to submit their listings on Munchkinfun.com. It’s free.”

Munchkin Fun, which also was named Challenge Champion for its overall ranking in the contest, is now a team of five. Besides CEO Schimel, there is a VP of development who manages parent outreach; a VP of business development who manages relationships with businesses and community organizations; a VP of operations who handles back-end work and an advertising sales director.

Now with more than 15,000 subscribers in Miami-Dade, “we’re expanding to Broward and Palm Beach in Q1 and are very excited to bring Munchkin Fun on the road,” said Schimel. Munchkin Fun went live in Broward Jan. 1, and 1,500 parents have subscribed so far.

Lessons learned? “Stay flexible. In pivoting our business model, we had to be open to change, listening to advice we got and not staying too attached to the original idea,” Schimel said. “We also learned a lot about data and using it the right way.”

Schimel’s advice to this year’s Business Plan Challenge contestants: “Be honest and thoughtful. Think hard about what your audience really wants and needs, rather than what product/service/company you’d like to build.”

2nd Place and People’s Pick: Fitting Room Social

When the votes were cast, fashion startup Fitting Room Social was the People’s Pick. Judges liked it too, ranking it No. 2 in a competitive group of finalists.

Fitting Room Social, led by CEO Brad Liff, set out to create a comfortable online shopping experience for clothing that answers the question, “but will it fit me?”

The company launched its iOS app early last year, integrated its product with a retail client, and raised some capital, said Liff, who co-founded the company with Brandon Perlman and works with a development team at Rokk3r Labs, a cobuilding company in Miami Beach.

“Our biggest challenge is and probably always will be user experience,” said Liff, who said the idea for Fitting Room Social was inspired by his wife. “We’re solving a problem that is experienced very broadly by millions of consumers but each person experiences it with a unique personal perspective. Our challenge is to create a platform that checks all of the psychological and practical boxes so that a diverse set of consumers can feel more comfortable shopping for clothing online.”

Fitting Room Social is raising $500,000 to fund its growth. The company recently doubled its development team at Rokk3r, and it’s planning to release the next version of its iOS app early the year; an Android version is in the roadmap. “And we’ll continue our business development efforts with retailers,” said Liff, who previously worked in the financial services. “We just continue to execute our plan every day.”

Sometimes learning what doesn’t work is as important a milestone as finding out that something worked out really well, noted Liff, who said the team conducted focus groups, group research and one-on-one usability studies.

“The things we found don’t work are gimmicks — body scanners, putting consumers through long quizzes or making them jump through a lot of hoops,” Liff said. “They want it easy and fun. If you want to drive adoption of a fit application, you have to get those user experience things right.”

His advice to contestants: “Competitions like this are a wonderful opportunity to step back and evaluate your progress to date and plan for the future. Remember that winning or losing is less important than using this opportunity to make yourself and your company better. But if you do win, be prepared for the lady at Publix to look at you funny when you ask to buy 45 copies of the Herald.”

3rd Place: AthleticSelect

Entrepreneurship is often described as a marathon, and AthleticSelect is just getting started, powered by the passionate team’s strength, training and strategic approach.

AthleticSelect wants to create a marketplace that will connect aspiring athletes with former collegiate and professional athletes working as private sports coaches. “Our passion for our customers and the problem we are trying to solve will fuel our efforts in 2015,” said CEO Travis Smith.

Since winning third place in the Business Plan Challenge, the team successfully recruited about 10 football and basketball coaches and validated market demand. The coaches are already earning income, and AthleticSelect plans to accept at least 50 coaches in five sports by mid-year, Smith said.

While working with the coaches offline, AthleticSelect began building its platform late last year, hired a lead developer and hopes to launch a beta test in South Florida this spring. “We’re really changing lives, helping private coaches and aspiring athletes,” said Smith, who played football for UM. “The platform will allow us to scale.”

Longer term, the team plans to roll out the service to other cities. AthleticSelect is a four-person team now and is looking to add a field agent to support the coaches.

Smith acknowledged bootstrapping has been tough. “Raising startup seed capital is still our No. 1 challenge as investors in our region still don’t have an appetite for investing in pre-revenue startups... But we feel confident that in early 2015 we will hit our goal of $250,000.”

Smith’s advice to the next group of competitors: “Building a start-up is a marathon and will challenge you daily. Make sure that whatever problem you are trying to solve you are passionate about it. When constructing your business plan, the passion for your business should jump off the page. … Also, make sure your financials are validated with true market research and in line with reasonable growth rates year over year.”

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