Just keep swimming

5 startups pitch at Houston's first Dolphin Tank event

Five female startup founders presented at Houston's first Dolphin Tank pitch event. Getty Images

As intimidating as Shark Tank sounds, pitching your company to a group of investors or fellow entrepreneurs can be a very helpful activity. Feedback is crucial for growth and future success.

That's why Amy Millman co-founded Springboard Enterprises and, eventually, launched a female-focused, friendly pitch program called the Dolphin Tank. On October 8, Houston had its first opportunity to host its own Dolphin Tank at Rice Universities LILIE Lab with local women-led startups.

"Entrepreneurship is not a spectator sport," Millman says at the event. "The more people participate in helping companies, the more successful they will be."

Here are the five inaugural Houston Dolphin Tank presenters and the feedback they received from the event.

LAMIK Beauty

Kim Roxie was in makeup sales, and she was frustrated. She wanted to help each of her customers find their perfect makeup match, but it was just impossible. She decided that if the existing makeup brands weren't creating inclusive products, she was going to do it herself.

She founded LAMIK Beauty, which Roxie tells the crowd stands for "Love And Makeup In Kindness." Once she decided she was going to make her own cosmetics line, she began what ended up being eye opening research.

"I started to look at the ingredients inside makeup, and I was pissed off," she says. She wanted her makeup line to have way less of the synthetic ingredients and chemicals other brands have.

She went to New York and met a chemist who had just retied from Estée Lauder and really got the ball rolling on LAMIK. Now, she has some influencers and celebrities wearing her makeup, but wants to serve the underserved. She is looking for $500,000 in investment and plans to do $1.5 million in revenue for her first year of business.

"Women of color spend 80 percent more on cosmetics, but only get 10 percent of the retail shelf space," Roxie says. "That's horrible."

The panelists and the crowd gave their own feedback, and one audience member reminded Roxie that clean products are having a moment, citing another Houston-founded skincare line, Drink Elephant, being acquired recently for $845 million.

Devali

A worker dies of toxic exposure or a heat-related incident in the workplace every 30 seconds somewhere in the world, according to a report from the United Nations, and debilitating injuries happen every three seconds, says Irene Brinker, CEO and founder of Devali.

Through partnerships, Brinker has created a sock and boot-based technology that is capable of detecting early signs of heat stroke, hypothermia, dehydration, and fatigue, as well as gas exposure.

Brinker expresses how new her venture is, and is primarily looking for introductions and potential pilot partnerships.

The feedback Brinker got from the panelists was to reorganize her presentation to talk more about her product and herself upfront. And, something a lot of women struggle with, to not apologize or say "sorry" so offhandedly.

Skin Probiotics

As great and life saving as modern medicine is, some medicines, processed foods, and new age practices affect the chemical balance of our skin. Ellie Hang Trinh discovered the power of probiotics for her kids' digestive system, and then learned of the positive effect they have on skin too. She created Skin Probiotics to sell topical products to treat skin issues.

"We're helping people with dermatitis, which affects about 81 million people in the United States currently, and 20 percent of that is children under the age of 6," Trinh says.

Trinh's plant-based products are safe for children — even newborns. She offers clients a 30-day money back guarantee, which she says she's only had two customers return the product due to allergies.

The feedback Trinh got from the crowd is to focus a bit on the science behind her product, and commended the personal story she has that lead her to her product.

TaxTaker

There are millions of dollars in tax credits that startups and small businesses are missing out of. The process of getting this money back is confusing, clunky, and impossible to navigate for a small staff focused so hard on growing their company and product.

It's estimated that 90 percent of companies aren't taking advantage of these rebates, says Ari Palmer, founder and CEO of Austin-based TaxTaker. Palmer's business is focused on automating this process to make it easier for entrepreneurs.

"You can kind of think of it as a TurboTax for this matter," Palmer says. "We came out of pilot testing in June, and in the first 120 days, we captured $1 million back for startups, and we are generating revenue."

Palmer is looking to raise $500,000 to expand on some product integrations.

The Dolphin Tank feedback was positive but encouraged her to go into a little bit more detail about the solution she's providing and quantify the money and time she's saving for startups.

Organized SHIFT

Landi Spearman knows stress. A former consultant, she had a busy job and even some personal issues that led her to pushing down her stress and emotions. It was extremely unhealthy. Spearman founded Organized SHIFT to help people in that same situation get out if it.

"We help major retailers get their 'shift' together," Spearman says. "We make sure their mid-level managers are processing their emotions, handling complex decisions, and handle confrontations."

Organized SHIFT uses virtual reality to train and educate this key demographic. It's good for the company and good for its employees.

The panelists commending Spearman on her personal story but asked her to consider leading with her expertise and her professional background and to emphasis the money-making side of the business, since it is a B2B, for-profit company.

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Building Houston

 
 

AvidXchange executives explain why a crisis like the pandemic can provide opportunities for growth or realignment. Photo via Getty Images

From esports to telemedicine, some technologies are having a major moment during the COVID-19 crisis. As many businesses are operating remotely with work-from-home policies in place indefinitely, payments automation is another technology that's seen an opportunity amid the pandemic.

AvidXchange, which has invoice and payment processes automation software for mid-market businesses, is one of the companies in this payment automation space that's seen growth in spite of the economic downturn caused by the virus. The Charlotte, North Carolina-based company was founded in 2000 and went on to acquire Houston-founded Strongroom Solutions Inc. in 2015.

Since the acquisition, AvidXchange has quadrupled its presence in Houston and does a good deal of business locally. Equipping companies with tools for remote work is crucial — now and especially in light of Houston's propensity for challenges. Tyler Gill, vice president of sales for AvidXchange based in the Houston office and former CEO of Strongroom, joined Houston Exponential on a virtual panel to discuss this topic.

"We've had a history of disasters in Houston. Any time we can help businesses move to a more cloud-based infrastructure is going to be better," Gill says on the livestream. "I think working from home is maybe the new normal for a lot of employees — so how do we enable this?"

Gill and his colleague, Chris Elmore, senior sales performance director at AvidXchange, joined Joey Sanchez of HX for the talk about the acquisition, the pandemic, and growth for the company. If you missed it or don't have time to stream the whole conversation, here are some impactful moments of the chat.

“Economic downturns have a tendency to put a very bright light on a feature set or a product or a service that’s underperforming."

— Elmore says on how the pandemic affects innovation and startups. "My hope is that entrepreneurs will see this as a real time to get focused on their business — what's working well and what's not working well — and my hope is that they'll say, 'I need to fix that,' not 'I wish this was better,'" he says.

“For a young entrepreneur looking to build a business, make sure you’re looking for the people who are germane to your business.”

— Gill says about starting his business in Houston. At first, he was trying to find investors in oil and gas, but he found more success working with companies with a background in finance technology. "Houston has a history and density in fintech — I just had to find it."

“The fact that Strongroom owned the automated payment process in HOA that made them so attractive to AvidXchange because we didn’t.”

— Elmore says on the 2015 acquisition. He explains that AvidXchange had set up a presence in multifamily and commercial real estate, while Strongroom had a hold on homeowner's association, or HOA, business. The two companies competed for a while, and if Strongroom hadn't had their HOA specialty that made the company ideal for acquisition, Elmore says the two companies would still be competing today.

“When Strongroom was added to AvidXchange, our culture improved. By the way, we went from 40 employees to 1,000 within 14 months, and Strongroom was right at the beginning of that.”

— Elmore says on growth following the acquisition. The company now has 1,500 employees across seven offices and just closed a $128 million round of fundraising in April.

“Customers don’t care how big you get or how much money you raise from investors. They care about if your service is still doing the things they need to operate their business.”

— Gill says, reminding entrepreneurs to always prioritize and be focused on the client experience — through mergers or acquisitions, fundraising rounds, growth, etc.

“When you replace human interaction with technology, what you have to do, is to now move that person on to something more impactful and more important for the business. I don’t like tech for tech’s sake.”

— Elmore says on the importance of automation. "When you automate something, the output of automation is time," he adds.

“Houston couldn’t be a better place to build a business — I found great investors and employees here. It’s a city that’s used to risk. But it’s got to be you, the entrepreneur, that’s got something festering — that’s how you know it’s a great idea.”

— Gill says on inspiring future innovators. "What kept me motivated was I wanted to win. I felt like we had a great product, and we had a big market to serve. … I wanted to build something lasting and build a great team."

“We continue to be a great Houston story — some of my angel investors in Houston are still benefiting."

— Gill says on AvidXchange's presence in Houston. He adds that he's proud of how his former Strongroom team members have risen through the ranks of the company following the acquisition and that he sees the company, which is still privately held, moving toward IPO.

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