Carroll business challenge returns with five grand for local start-ups

On Aug. 15, the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce will begin accepting applications for its second annual Carroll Biz Challenge, a contest that will award $5,000 to a local business.
Applications will be accepted until Oct. 15, and on Nov. 22, five selected finalists will have the opportunity to pitch their business ideas to a panel of judges before a live audience at McDaniel College, according to Jason Stambaugh, founder and CEO of Hometown Startups, which operates the challenge in partnership with the chamber.
"The heart and soul of this thing is to create a really fun, exciting live event that showcases Carroll County's finest entrepreneurs," Stambaugh said.
Each finalist will have an opportunity to pitch their business idea to the four judges and the audience, followed by a 10 minute question and answer session with judges, Stambaugh said.
The overall experience of the live event, according to last year's winner, Sean Schmidt of Holistic Home Energy, is like being on "Shark Tank," a television show where aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to veteran businesspeople
"It was ... a combo of 'Shark Tank' and 'American Idol,' because you have the audience there," Schmidt said. "With 'Shark Tank' you have four or five judges you are pitching to; we were pitching to the judges and the audience of 100 people out there."
The judges and audience will vote on the winner of the $5,000 grand prize as well as a two prizes new this year: the $500 People's Choice Award and the Zenith Capital Holdings Big Idea award, a chance for one-on-one coaching with Zenith CEO Mike Gibble.
"There were several people who had great ideas last year but little knowledge of how to turn those ideas into great sustainable businesses," Stambaugh said. "We want to help them turn that idea into something actionable."
It's not necessary to have more than an idea when applying to the Carroll Biz Challenge, according to Stambaugh, and existing businesses are also welcome to apply, as long as they have been in business less than two years.
Schmidt, as an example, had been in the heating and air-conditioning business for years, but had recently launched Holistic Home Energy, a company that uses computer models for better energy efficiency.
"Once a home is modeled in the software, we can very accurately estimate the energy savings on any particular energy upgrade," Schmidt said.
Those pitching new ideas must also be a Carroll County resident or McDaniel student, and existing businesses must have a principal who resides in Carroll or do the majority of their business in Carroll, according to Stambaugh.
Whether pure ideas or existing companies, applicants will be vetted by the Carroll Biz Challenge advisory board, consisting of community and business leaders such as Mike McMullin, president of the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce.
According to Stambaugh, the applications will be winnowed to five finalists - and the finalists eventually judged - based on elements such as creativity, the potential market for their product or service; how well competition has been taken into account; sustainability and, new this year, impact on Carroll as a community.
"The thrust of the contest is we're looking for sustainable businesses; the best business, not just the best idea," Stambaugh said. "That's an interesting distinction to carve out. It's all in the execution. This year, we're looking not only for a good business but a good business for Carroll County."
Stambaugh will be offering a series of information session webinars and workshops for Biz Challenge applicants throughout August and September designed to help applicants through the process.
"The info session is more of a focus on the Biz Challenge process, how to submit the best application possible," Stambaugh said. "The workshop is a deeper dive into the fundamentals of the start-up business."
More information and registration for the info sessions and workshops are available at http://www.carrollbizchallenge.com, and registrants will receive a coupon for $25 off the $99 application fee for the Carroll Biz Challenge, according to Stambaugh.
According to Schmidt, while winning $5,000 certainly helped his business - he was able to pay for special employee training and certifications - the exposure he received just for being a finalist had his phone ringing off the hook.
According to McMullin, the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce is less concerned with investing in surefire winning start-ups and more interested in drawing attention to all the start-ups in Carroll.
"You've seen a lot of folks on ['American Idol'] that don't win the actual prize, but they get a record deal," McMullin said. "The ultimate goal is not to name one specific business as a winner, but to shine a light on entrepreneurs in Carroll."

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