The Pitch: Start-Up Businesses Make Their Case For Funds

By Tim Omarzu Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.

Kelli Munczenski will stand before a crowd of potential investors one week from tonight and ask for $250,000 to fund her startup business -- which she launched after a sewer pipe broke in her backyard a year and a half ago.

That broken sewer pipe -- and the headache involved in finding someone to fix it -- inspired Munczenski to quit her day job as an assistant vice president at Robert Half Finance and Accounting in downtown Chattanooga and launch Sawdust+ Sod, a web-based business that she says will "democratize" home improvement and help connect people with local contractors.

"No question, the home improvement process is a nightmare. It takes forever to cull through thousands of options, get quotes, schedule the work, etc.," said Munczenski, who believes her website, sawdustandsod.com, and app will help fix that.

Munczenski will be among entrepreneurs from 11 companies who will give a five-minute sales pitch at Pitch Night held by the Company Lab (Co.Lab) that starts at 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 27 on the fifth floor of the Edney Building at 11th and Market streets.

All the participants graduated from Co.Lab's fall accelerator, a "100-day program for entrepreneurs who are fully focused on scaling their startup."

"Scaling" means taking the service to a wider audience. Munczenski says her business will scale.

At first, she plans to roll out Sawdust+Sod in the greater Chattanooga. Her sole employee, Taylor Davidson, has contacted about 100 Chattanooga-area contractors who can do everything from emergency plumbing repairs to painting, foundation work, HVAC, flooring, landscaping, handyman work and more. As Sawdust+Sod expands, it would hire people in other markets to line up contractors, as Davidson has done here.

Sawdust+Sod's software will integrate with social networks, such as Facebook, Munczenski said. So if a homeowner is curious about a contractor, she said. "you'll see if anybody in your networks hired him -- we basically automate word of mouth." It doesn't cost anything for contractors to get on Sawdust+Sod, and it's free for people to use the site to look for contractors.

Sawdust+Sod will make money when people use the site to hire a contractor. Sawdust+Sod will get a percentage, from a maximum of 20 percent for an emergency repair to a smaller percentage for a smaller job. Sawdust+Sod should start making money right away, Munczenski said, if the 100 contractors who've been lined up find work through the website.

"They would only have to book two jobs a week through our website for us to make $1 million in revenue," Munczenski said. Munczenski says she didn't know anything about home repair or Internet commerce when she decided to pursue her startup idea.

But technical skills aren't all it takes to be an entrepreneur, according to Alex Lavidge, the entrepreneur in residence at Co.Lab who oversees its accelerator program. People who launch startups, he said, fall into three archetypes: entrepreneurs who see the big picture, businesspeople who understand business processes and technicians who can do such tasks as coding.

"She went through a very painful home repair experience and said, 'Something's got to be done about this,'" Lavidge said.

He expects 200 to 300 people will come to Pitch Night, which is free and features refreshments, an open bar and a chance to mingle before and afterward with the 11 entrepreneurs. Pitch Night had been scheduled for today, but Co.Lab decided to postpone it for a week due to the threat of inclement weather.

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