A University of Tennessee team recently finished second in Davidson College’s National Venture Tournament for Sustainability & Sports, winning $5,000 in capital to advance their company, GuruSkins.
GuruSkins is a crowdsourcing site connecting artists and board-sport enthusiasts through the sale of custom ski, snowboard, wakeboard, and other vinyl covers, enabling customers to protect their boards while conveying their individual styles.
GuruSkins was founded by Jake Rheude, an MBA candidate and Entrepreneur Fellow. Other members of the GuruSkins team are John Born, an MBA candidate, and Dustin Giltnane, an MBA candidate also pursing a masters in nuclear engineering.
“I read about the competition online and decided to register,” said Rheude. “I brought Dustin and John on board after the Boyd Venture Challenge, and almost by accident, they were able to help with the two areas in which we were most lacking in terms of this competition – the finance and the sustainability parts.”
The competition was held over a two day period and was laid out in a tournament format with every team pitching on the first day, after which, the judges seeded them based on their scores. On the second day of the competition, teams went head-to-head in knockout rounds. In total, there were nine for-profit teams and four non-profit teams accepted into the competition. GuruSkins competed in the for-profit tract.
Because of the nature of the competition, teams had to demonstrate both a connection to sports and a commitment to sustainability.
“Obviously we had the sports connection down, but the sustainability part still needed work,” said Giltnane. “We ended up researching recycled materials and tried to highlight the fact that by allowing users to protect and change the look of their boards, we were extending the life of skis and snowboards and keeping them out of landfills.”
That strategy was enough to get them into the competition, but they quickly discovered they were going to have to come up with a more compelling angle on sustainability if they wanted to win.
“In our first presentation it became apparent that just keeping boards out of landfills wasn’t going to be enough,” said Rheude.
“We got hit pretty hard for using vinyl – creating vinyl or recycling it releases PVC and uses dangerous chemicals. The judges challenged us to create the product without releasing PVC or using harmful chemicals,” said Giltnane.
With that feedback the group set off to quickly research alternative materials and adjust their pitch before their next presentation.
“We researched how to use a biopolymer wrap instead of vinyl and changed our pitch. We discovered that the costs are about the same and the process is similar to vinyl. It’s much safer and much more environmentally friendly,” said Giltnane.
This solution was well received by the judges. By the end of the second day of the competition, GuruSkins, initially ranked a No. 3 seed, upset the No. 2 seed to advance to the finals on Sunday. They lost in the finals to SoccerGrlProbs, a team out of Fairfield University, but not before gaining $5,000 and a lot of valuable experience.
“I think as a whole this competition was valuable not only because we got $5,000 worth of capital, but also because we got so much quality feedback. We were given numeric rankings on 9 different judging criteria after each round, so it really helped us to refine our pitch,” said Born. “We also got to interact with a panel of very successful judges after every round, and their feedback was invaluable.”
In addition to the $5,000 from the Davidson College Competition, GuruSkins also won $5,000 from the Boyd Venture Challenge earlier this year. They plan to use the bulk of their winnings on website development ahead of their anticipated September 2015 launch.
“Because of the nature of our site, we need to be able to quickly and easily accept large design files from artists,” said Rheude. “We’re looking into add-ons that would allow us to do that directly through our website. Down the line we’ll look to build a custom interface, but right now, we just need something functional to get us off the ground.”
They also plan to use part of the money to host a roundtable event at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center where they hope to get feedback and ideas from professional in the area.
“We’re trying to be really transparent in this development, because our business model relies on the interactions of others, so we want to bring those interactions into the initial development as well,” said Rheude. “At this roundtable we’ll have food and drinks and explain what we’re doing, then open it up for questions. We hope to drive discussion and get feedback and other suggestions on our idea.”
The roundtable event will be held on June 2 at 7 pm in the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center in Market Square. The GuruSkins team is seeking interested designers, SEO experts, web developers, and artists to join in the discussion. Free food and drink will be provided. For more details, visit https://knoxec.com/.