By Tom Still
The Wingman” is taking off. That’s the name for the sleek, technology-enhanced life vest created by a Milwaukee-area startup company, Hyde, that won the 2016 Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest.
Seven months after winning the annual contest, Hyde is selling its first ultra-thin vests through advance orders and aiming to make a splash in the larger paddle-sports retail market as the year rolls on.
“The customer reaction has been overwhelmingly positive so far,” said Pat Hughes, who co-founded Hyde with Mike Fox in 2013. “We’ve fulfilled all of our back orders.
That translates to hundreds of vests sold so far in places such as Australia, Europe, Brazil and the Caribbean, as well as the United States and Canada. Designed primarily for kayakers, stand-up paddleboats and anglers, the vest also appeals to kite-boarders and surfers due to its thin design.
Users can pull a ripcord to puncture a small carbon-dioxide canister, causing the gas to inflate a built-in bladder that makes the vest buoyant.
Part of what kept Hyde afloat was its performance in the business plan contest, which is open for entries for its 14th year through 5 p.m. Jan. 31 at www.govsbizplancontest.com
“The exposure was very helpful and continues to be,” Hughes said. “We made many significant connections that we continue to explore. … We’re an eCommerce company, so we can sell our products anywhere, but we’ve also learned there are many influential people right here in Wisconsin who can help us get where we want to go.”
Hughes said the company hopes to sell “The Wingman” through regional paddle-sports shops and through major trade shows in 2017, including a national trade event to be held in Madison in late summer.
The story of Hyde is not unique in the history of the contest. Success stories include Vector Surgical, RevolutionEHR, Fishidy, Rowheels, My Health Direct, MobCraft Beer, TAI Diagnostics, bluDiagnostics and more. They may have entered the contest at varying levels of organization – or none at all – but emerged with a plan that caught the eye of potential partners, customers and investors.
Companies that have reached the final contest rounds over time have raised about $250 million collectively from angel and venture capitalists or from merit-based grants.
The contest will again offer more than $100,000 in cash and service prizes, courtesy of its sponsors, but many past contestants say the real “prize” is the plan-writing process itself.
Here are reasons to enter:
- You can walk before you run. The first-phase entry is about 250 words (or 2,000 characters with spaces) spread among four criteria — product or service description; customer definition; market description, size and sales strategy; and competition. There’s no need to submit financials right away.
- The four contest categories are deliberately broad — advanced manufacturing, business services, information technology and life sciences. It’s rare that an entry cannot find a logical home. Hyde, for example, won the advanced manufacturing category and the grand prize.
- Entrepreneurs may enter multiple ideas, so long as each idea is separate and distinct. It is free to enter.
- All entries are accepted through www.govsbizplancontest.com. The second and third stages of the contest also take place through that website, culminating in a 15- to 20-page plan. Up to 12 finalists will present live at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference, June 6-7.
- Your chances of winning are a lot better than Powerball. If past contests are any indicator, roughly one in 14 entrants will reach the top 25. About 3,350 entries have been received over time and $2.2 million in cash and service prizes awarded.
- Contestants meet some interesting people. The 50 semifinalists will be invited to attend a half-day “boot camp” in Waukesha on March 1, where they’ll meet mentors, potential investors, successful entrepreneurs and others with startup experience.
- The judges and mentors offer years of valuable experience. At least 80 judges drawn from the finance, sales, marketing, research and technology sectors across Wisconsin will score the entries and provide feedback. Many of those judges are investors. The mentoring corps will include members of SCORE and the Center for Technology Commercialization.
- Most important, many past finalists have been successful. Past surveys indicate the company survival rate is significantly higher than the national average.
Wisconsin is sometimes dinged for its lack of business startups, and the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest is among resources committed to producing more. Resolve to start your new year by entering.