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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Having diversity of thought among the leadership team is usually regarded as a positive, Houston researchers found that conflict can cause more harm than good. Photo via Getty Images

For the past 40 years, management researchers have assumed that diversity of opinion about company strategy, even when it causes conflict among senior managers, leads to higher-quality strategic decisions and improved firm performance.

It turns out there isn’t evidence to support that belief.

Rice Business Professor Daan Van Knippenberg has spent his career studying topics related to team performance, decision making, diversity and conflict. When a research team led by Codou Samba, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, approached him with an offer to test longstanding assumptions about conflict related to company strategy in senior management teams, he jumped at the opportunity.

In his experience, the business case for diversity is strong, but it comes with caveats. “Diversity of perspectives can lead to better solutions to complex problems, but only when team members are open-minded enough to listen carefully to each other and really integrate another point of view into their decision-making process,” he says. This does not seem to apply to differences in opinion about what company strategy should be.

When managers dig in their heels and refuse to consider and integrate other perspectives, that two-way door of communication slams shut and conflict ensues. “The popular idea that conflict is actually good for firms went against all my knowledge,” says Van Knippenberg. “It’s annoying that this idea has floated around in my field for so long when the evidence really points the other way.”

The team led by Samba, which also included C. Chet Miller, a professor at the University of Houston, conducted a quantitative summary and integration of 78 papers that provide data about strategic dissent — a term used to describe diverging opinions about strategic goals and objectives on senior management teams — and its influence on strategic decision making and firm performance.

Every paper that made a prediction about strategic dissent (only a few did not) posited that strategic dissent leads to better outcomes for firms.

In their paper, “The impact of strategic dissent on organizational outcomes: A meta-analytic integration,” the research team used a deep well of empirical data to demonstrate that the opposite is true. Turning common wisdom on its head, they found that strategic dissent among senior managers actually leads to lower-quality decisions and impaired firm performance.

The authors identify two major reasons for the negative impact of strategic dissent on firm outcomes.

First, strategic dissent causes relational breakdown among senior managers. “If managers walk away from a team meeting thinking they just had a conflict instead of a productive discussion, the outcome is rarely positive,” says Van Knippenberg. The two sides retreat into their respective corners, believing the other side to be wrong and closing their minds to further information.

Second, strategic dissent leads to less relevant information being exchanged among managers. Inevitably, this blockage impairs the decision-making process. If a marketing director and an operations director are at odds, for example, they are less likely to share the marketing- or operations-specific information that is needed to make an optimal team decision.

Teams can benefit from diversity of thought, but it is not always clear what conditions need to be in place for that to happen on senior management teams that disagree about the firm’s strategic direction. CEOs — the leaders of senior management teams — would do well to realize that it takes an effortful investment to foster open-minded discussions of diverging views on the organization’s strategy, to create an environment that encourages members to express dissenting perspectives while absorbing the perspectives of others, and to prevent vested interest and power dynamics from determining the outcomes of such discussions.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was based on research from Daan Van Knippenberg, the Houston Endowed Professor of Management at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University, C. Chet Miller, the C.T. Bauer Professor of Organizational Studies at C. T. Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston, and Codou Samba, an assistant professor at Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

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