By Tim Krohn The Free Press, Mankato, Minn.
Hannah Thompson brought her dream of becoming a personal chef.
Tiffany Zewig brought her dream of turning a social media marketing hobby into a business.
Mary Scott Riviere hopes to bring her fledgling belt business to the next level.
The three were making their pitches and seeking advice during a BizPitch event Thursday in Mankato.
"This is like the TV show 'Shark Tank' -- without the money," said Bryan Stading, executive director of the Regional Center for Entrepreneurial Facilitation, which is hosting similar events in the area through the spring.
Those with hopes of launching or expanding their business made a pitch to a panel of eight, that included Bob Gunther, a retired grocer and state representative, Jim Jensen who long owned a New Ulm clothing store, April Femrite, co-owner of Bent River Outfitters, and Phil Slingsby, retired from Scheels.
"I'm a massage therapist by day and a social media ninja by night," Zewig said.
She already uses her skills to do social media marketing but wants to turn it into a business that focuses on wellness. "I call it 'creative content distribution." It's more visual work."
Zewig says she wanted to learn whether to aim globally with her services or, as she'd like to do, look to the local area for customers.
"Everyone in the world knows us for Mayo and there's no reason we can't dominate in the holistic world, too," she said.
Thompson has her culinary degree from South Central College and is in college for her dietetics degree. She envisions a business in which she buys groceries for a client, delivers them to their home, prepares several healthy meals for them, and "cleans the kitchen, does the dishes, takes out the trash."
She said the personal chef business is brisk in the Twin Cities but knows it's less common in Mankato. "The biggest challenge I see is people may not be familiar with personal chefs. When people hear 'personal chef,' they may think that's not something they could afford."
Riviere said that when her dentist husband retired, they were looking for a new adventure. While in a seamstress shop, they saw black straps that the owner said helped give a smooth look when wearing a shirt over pants.
They took the idea and developed The Sleek Belt, a nylon webbing belt, designed with some bling and the ability to comfortably flatten the tummy while worn.
They found a small manufacturer to make the belts and have been selling them online and in a few boutique shops. Their goals are to find ways to manufacture more of them at a lower cost, stand out among competitors and get their product into more stores.
For all of the presenters, the panelists focused on how the entrepreneurs would market their products, quizzed them on how well they've calculated their pricing, questioned if they have realistically considered their overhead costs and gave them ideas on honing their business plans.
"Have you figured out a price point so that people wouldn't just decide they could go out and eat (for the same price)?" Femrite asked chef Thompson.
Another panelist noted Thompson had highlighted the convenience and healthy food her clients could get but failed to make a key point in her sales pitch.
"I think you're well qualified, but I never heard you say 'I'm a great cook,' " he said.
"Well, not that you bring it up, I am," Thompson said.
While the BizPitch series is aimed at providing concrete guidance to entrepreneurs from professionals, Stading said the program could lead to some serious money for one participant. The entrepreneur who wins after the series of BizPitch events will become an automatic semi-finalist in the Minnesota Cup competition. The winners of that event earn substantial amounts of money to move their business forward.
The events are being held in several southern Minnesota communities during the winter and winding up in April. There is another event in Mankato on April 14 and one in Waseca on Jan. 28.