Sometimes, raising capital means capitalizing on what’s in front of you. It’s called bootstrapping, and that’s the approach two University at Buffalo students have taken as they grow their unique startup.
Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter can help, but Bernard Cohen and Joseph Ricciardi – the brains behind a golf-inspired game called Chip-Down – have gotten a bigger boost by also taking advantage of the numerous pitch competitions available at UB.
“That has been the biggest driving factor to our success so far,” says Cohen, Chip-Down’s CEO.
Cohen and Chip-Down Chief Operating Officer Ricciardi, both 22, love to play golf, but they admit their skills aren’t the best. That’s how they came up with Chip-Down, a portable game billed as “golf for the non-golfer.” It’s designed to be played anywhere, by anyone.
Players take turns using a specially designed golf club to chip a birdie from a chipping mat into the assembled target, positioned midway between the two mats. Similar to Kan-Jam, another locally invented and wildly popular backyard game, there are two ways to win Chip-Down: be the first team to score 21 points, or chip the birdie into the center hole for an automatic win.
Cohen and Ricciardi are both in the fifth year of the mechanical engineering/MBA program at UB. Cohen is originally from Goshen, N.Y., while Ricciardi is an Albany native. To date, they have won $27,000 in pitch competitions.
“We’re always looking for different pitch competitions. They’re a great way for new businesses to secure funding,” Cohen said. “It costs you nothing other than your time, and you can get a huge payout from it.”
Their first success came last spring, when they placed second among 33 teams and won $10,000 in the Henry A. Panasci Jr. Technology Entrepreneurship Competition, which is run annually by UB’s School of Management.
Next, they won $15,000 after pitching Chip-Down at the end of Yong Li’s Entrepreneur Lab course, also offered through UB’s School of Management.
“Both of those competitions were within one month of each other,” Ricciardi said. “That kick started us for this past summer. We were able to get our manufacturing going, file for a patent, and just get the business growing.”
Adds Cohen: “The fact that we were able to utilize the resources at UB was so helpful. People don’t realize what they can do when they’re in school and what they have access to. It’s a matter of being aware of what’s available and staying connected.”
Cohen and Ricciardi kept the momentum going this fall with a successful Kickstarter campaign that helped them raise more capital. They hit their $12,000 goal within six days before the campaign leveled off. Chip-Down raised $14,051 through Kickstarter. The Chip-Down co-founders sought out the crowdfunding and startup expertise of 19 IDEAS’ Dan Gigante and Thimble’s Oscar Pedroso for their Kickstarter campaign, which concluded Oct. 14.
“They were both really helpful throughout the whole Kickstarter process,” said Cohen. “We’re excited to use the money to move the business forward. We learned a ton about marketing our product and getting the name out there.
In addition to helping startups corral much-needed capital, Kickstarter often can also generate valuable social media buzz. While that didn’t happen to the extent Cohen and Ricciardi had hoped for, the campaign did help them better connect with potential customers.
Two different social media content companies approached Chip-Down about purchasing paid posts, but those run $10,000. “A lot of startups that get viral campaigns also have additional capital they can invest into marketing, so they can get paid buys on social media,” Ricciardi explained.
Cohen and Ricciardi gained another valuable experience a few weeks ago when they traveled to New York City to attend the Blackstone LaunchPad Techstars Training Camp. Blackstone LaunchPad is a campus-based entrepreneurship program available at colleges and universities around the country, including UB.
“The biggest thing we learned at the camp was something we haven’t been doing, and that’s defining our market and figuring out exactly who we’re supposed to be targeting,” says Cohen. They’ll be focusing on collecting that data over the next few months.
And they’ll continue working to garner more interest in Chip-Down through pitch competitions.
Both readily admit they still have a lot to figure out. But they’ve also learned some valuable lessons that they’re happy to share with other aspiring entrepreneurs.
Says Cohen: “Listen to everything people have to say. Get feedback and suggestions. You don’t have to take it all, but just listen. It might completely change your business, and it might change your life. You never know when someone will give you an opportunity.”
Adds Ricciardi: “Confidence. If you don’t have it, it will be tough to get people interested.”