From top-shelf custom cabinetry to emergency tarping services to an innovative campus mapping platform, the top three choices from the 2022 MTSU Business Plan Competition Final made compelling pitches for why their businesses were poised to succeed and should win the top prize.
And in the end, they were all winners, along with the three other honorable mention finalists. All received a portion of more than $25,000 in cash prizes for their efforts to research, develop and present well-crafted business plans to an engaged volunteer panel of career professionals itching to give them words of wisdom and constructive feedback.
Presented by the Pam Wright Chair of Entrepreneurship, MTSU’s Department of Management within the Jennings A. Jones College of Business hosts the annual competition to provide business students and others with an opportunity to learn the ins and outs of developing a business plan while receiving feedback and advice from already established entrepreneurs and other business professionals.
Before MTSU’s spring semester concluded, six student-led business proposals were presented to a 10-judge panel gathered inside the Academic Classroom Building in what has evolved into an environment similar to popular syndicated reality TV program “Shark Tank,” where wealthy investors listen to business pitches from entrepreneurs before deciding whether to invest in their company.
Competition organizer and management professor Joshua Aaron, holder of the Wright Chair of Entrepreneurship, said the annual competition has doubled its prize money in recent years thanks to donors. And not only did the competition have a record 58 submissions this year, but the quality of the entries was such that organizers had trouble narrowing down which proposals would advance, he said.
“This was our first in person Business Plan Competition in three years after canceling in 2020 and going virtual in 2021. The students responded with the best set of presentations we have ever seen,” Aaron said. “The finals are a culmination of months of work from initial submission in late February to elevator pitches in March to final presentations in April. It is clear to me that the competition is garnering more attention all across campus, with a record number of submissions, and in the community, with a record number of judges.
“The future is bright with these students learning from and collaborating with our amazing judges to launch the successful businesses of tomorrow.”
This year, Buntin Custom LLC, a custom cabinetry business located in Hendersonville, Tennessee, emerged as the grand prize winner following a detailed PowerPoint presentation — from assets and expenses to expansion projections to SWOT analysis — from MTSU graduate student Jessie Buntin, a U.S. Army veteran.
As co-owner and account manager, Buntin calmly rattled off the details about the business she and husband Jacob started at the beginning of this year from their Sumner County home.
“I’m very overwhelmed,” she said following the awards presentation in which she and her husband received a plaque and an $8,000 cash prize as overall winner. “I have so much faith in my husband’s product, and now I’m building a lot of confidence in my business skills.”
Pursuing a Master of Science in Management and Organizational Leadership, Buntin said she’ll graduate after a study abroad excursion over the summer in which she’ll be studying influence marketing in Sweden, Finland and Estonia. She’s glad she has the business plan competition experience to carry with her.
“It really made me put my ducks in a row and research,” she said of the process, adding that she took multiple online courses on topics such as business taxes and business plan development through the MTSU-headquartered Tennessee Small Business Development Center.
“I’m an online learner, so their on-demand classes were extremely helpful to me because I was able to do it at my own pace, speed and hour of day,” she said.
Runner-up in the competition was Billy Fryar, a senior entrepreneurship major from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and his company 911 Tarp, which provides emergency tarp services to protect homeowners’ property following damaging storms. He received a $6,000 prize.
Third-place winner and $4,000 prize winner was MapSchool, a web mapping platform for educational institutions that allows students to explore campuses in a 360-degree interactive environment. It is the brainchild of graduating senior Pavel Sazonov, an information systems major from Spring Hill, Tennessee, who partnered with graduate student Conner McAnally, an information systems major from Smyrna, Tennessee.
Three honorable mention recognitions and $2,000 prizes went to The Social Consultants, a boutique social media agency created by student Alexandria Leverette that offers social media management and coaching to business owners; student Hannah Beyler’s The Us Agency, a nonprofit media consulting agency that helps nonprofit organizations through a suite of services; and New Berlin Ventures LLC, a Nashville-based mobile food company that features a Berliner doner kebab and is led by student Braden Welborn and partners Tyson and Lucas Sharpe.
‘Everybody … has been a winner’
Buntin said she was encouraged to enter the Business Plan Competition by her human resources course professor, Kristie Abston, for extra credit.
“So I was like, ‘Why not?’ I’m so glad that she offered that because this Business Plan Competition really did force me to think in an organized way and to look deeper into the details of our business that I would have procrastinated from doing otherwise,” she said.
Buntin said their cabinetry company is working on its first kitchen installation, which should be completed by June, and is also in the process of building a shop on the couple’s Hendersonville property, thus allowing them to grow their clientele and eventually hire more employees.
Second-place winner Fryar shared that the genesis for his business followed a serious wreck about three years ago that left him physically unable to continue in his roofing business, giving him “an opportunity to retool what I was going to do for the next 30 years.”
Already familiar with disaster mitigation work due to his roofing experience, Fryar said it was during a deployment to the St. Charles, Louisiana, area following a hurricane in 2020 that God showed him his new business concept, including the name and logo he now uses.
“I took off and ran with it. A matter of fact, I grabbed the domain (911tarp.com) about 3 a.m. in the morning and was absolutely floored that it was available,” he said.
Fryar said he’s been “a serial entrepreneur” his whole life, but he didn’t have any formal training and was impressed that MTSU offered a degree track that involved entrepreneurship.
“Focus, organization, really fine-tuning a lot of things,” he said of competition takeaways. “The social media aspect of it has eluded me to say the least. But it’s just shortening that learning curve.”
“Everybody who has participated in this has been a winner,” he continued, noting that his high school-aged son helped him with earlier stages of the competition but was unable to attend the finale because of exams.
Judges: ‘These people are amazing’
Donor and entrepreneur Chuck McDowell, an alumnus who also served as a judge, was all smiles following the finals. Currently founder and CEO of Wesley Financial Group LLC, McDowell quipped that he didn’t take his time at MTSU seriously enough all those many years ago but made important connections with classmates and friends he made along the way.
And he learned since those days that a natural part of entrepreneurial success is failure.
“When some young entrepreneur asks me what’s the key to success, I tell them, ‘Fail often and fast, because you only have to be right one time to change your life and the world,” he said. “That’s the cool thing about this, is that everybody who spoke to day will be successful as long as they have the courage to keep getting back up.”
Like “Shark Tank,” some of the volunteer judges for the MTSU competition express investment interest after hearing some of the impressive student proposals. Others are excited for the opportunity to engage with the next generations of successful entrepreneurs.
Competition judge and alumna Erica Rains founded and owns Nashville-based The Chef and I restaurant, which also has an Orlando, Florida, location, as well as event venues and catering divisions in both cities. Her business is 15 years old.
“As a former Blue Raider, it makes me very inspired to know this institution continues to provide the world with some of the brightest minds that are going into business for themselves as entrepreneurs. It makes me really proud and really excited,” said Rains, who previously served as a keynote speaker in 2018 during MTSU’s Global Entrepreneurship Week activities.
“It also lights a fire under people like me who’ve been in business for 25 years. I’m motivated by it, too. These people are amazing,” said Rains, adding that enjoyed the interaction that judges had with the students and each other.
“It’s really hard to judge because everyone is good. Everyone has a done a great job to get to this point. It was not easy for them. … Everyone here to me is a winner.”
Added Rains: “Being back here has actually inspired me to make a plan and get my MBA,” she said.
Like Rains, fellow judge and alumna Lori Williams, a controller with Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corp. and member of the Rutherford Cable women’s professional development organization, was also wowed by the presentations.
“What a great group of passionate leaders,” she said. “It’s very inspiring what these entrepreneurs are putting together.”
A first-time judge, Williams said it was difficult trying to determine a winner out of so many impressive business proposals — “They really all deserve to win.” — but was impressed that MTSU students have the opportunity to participate in such a real-world competition.
“You’re teaching the next generation, and you’re giving them the tools they need to succeed,” she said.
‘… there’s gotta be a better way than this,’
MapSchool creator Sazonov said he came up with the idea because of the pandemic. His younger brother started MTSU amid COVID-19 safety restrictions and couldn’t experience the same in-depth, in-person orientation traditionally available to incoming students to get them acclimated to campus.
“I went with him to campus, and he got lost. He had no idea where he was on campus and where to find his classes, and I thought, ‘there’s gotta be a better way than this,” he said.
MapSchool’s initial concept developed into a tangible business idea from roughly two weeks of his work, and Sazonov thought the Business Plan Competition was a good opportunity to flesh out his idea.
Two rounds into the competition, however, Sazonov realized he needed someone more polished at making presentations — there is an elevator pitch portion of the competition — so he connected with McAnally, with whom he had taken some classes.
“I knew that as I was heading into the semifinals that I could possibly blunder this. … I’ve had classes with Connor before and I knew that Connor does well at these kinds of presentations,” said Sazonov, who pitched the partnership to McAnally in a computer lab one day. McAnally agreed a few days later.
They both have since invested dozens of hours in honing their business plan, awaiting their chance to present to awaiting judges. McAnally was pitch ready.
“We can go everywhere that Google’s cars can’t,” McAnally said, adding that the platform is meant to show students the inside of buildings and major campus walkways that can’t be reached or accessed by vehicles.
McAnally not only believes in MapSchool’s potential as a legitimate business, but also his potential to become a successful entrepreneur thanks to his classmate’s confidence to bring him on board.
“I’ve personally gained a lot. … I’ve never applied myself to much of anything, but ever since I joined the team, I’ve worked harder on this than I’ve worked at anything in my entire life,” he said. “This is really the first time that I can ever point at something and say, ‘I did this, and I am proud of this.’”
Making connections help grow business
While Beyler, founder and executive director of The Us Agency, didn’t place in the top three, she was presented a $500 prize (in addition to the $2,000 for honorable mention) for winning The Elevator Pitch portion of the competition. It’s an indicator that she effectively presents the video production, marketing, event planning services offered by the agency to help nonprofits reach a larger audience and raise more money for their causes.
A rising senior psychology and business major, the California native has been working at building her business about three years, officially registering as a company about a year and a half ago. She saw a promotion for the competition on Instagram and felt she needed to give it a shot.
“It was nerve-racking because there was a lot of preparation that went into it, and it was a lot of work, and it all kind of came down to this one moment. … I did the best that I could, and I feel good about it,” she said following her presentation.
Beyler said the overall competition and final helped her improve her already established business because “they (the judges) asked me questions that I had never been asked before or they pushed me to work on things within my business that I didn’t think about without those perspectives.”
“For me, I think it was more about the networking … I think when you find connections is when your business is really going to grow,” said Beyler, adding that she does use MTSU student interns at her company. “I’m always looking for good interns, and it looks great on a resume!”
Also, as part of the competition, long-time competition judge and donor Wil Clouse presented the Buntins with the Robert and Virgie Clouse Spirit Award and $600 prize and presented the Wil Clouse Entrepreneurial Spirit Maverick Award to Alexandria Leverette of The Social Consultants.
The competition also included several $500 prize winners. Along with Beyler, Sazonov also won a Best Elevator Pitch award for MapSchool while Fryar won the award for Best Written Plan for 911tarp.com. The Best Trade Show award went to student Kayla Devine and Sterling Evans of 50 States Diner.
Aaron gave special thanks to Pam Wright, McDowell and Clouse for their financial support of the competition and the Department of Management’s Business Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program. The department is chaired by professor Jill Austin.
Judging for the finals were: Kenya Adams, Veronica Clark, Wil Clouse, John Dilenschneider, Jamie Harrington, Kenzi Keene, Chuck McDowell, Daisy Montgomery (2021 winner), Erica Rains and Lori Williams.
For more information about the MTSU Business Plan Competition, visit https://www.mtsu.edu/wrightchair/competition.php.
— Jimmy Hart (Jimmy.Hart@mtsu.edu)