Some 167 entrepreneurs and their founding teams first entered WashU Olin’s BIG IdeaBounce® pitch contest, powered by Poets&Quants. Representing more than 55 universities, those teams came from all over the world, including India, Nigeria, Ghana, Belgium, Spain, England, and Canada.
The judges then narrowed the competition down to three finalists: OnDeck Fisheries, launched by a team from the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business; PedalCell, whose co-founders met in 2015 as college freshmen. And MiDoc led by Dr. Linda Wu, who is earning her MBA at Washington University’s Olin School, along with two other partners who are attempting to capitalize on the growing trend in telemedicine.
All three teams traveled to St. Louis to compete for the $50,000 top prize. All three teams left with prize money, however. And one team that did not present won Poets&Quants’ Audience Favorite Prize: Budeli, a property tech amenity that provides free food delivery for tenants in higher end residential apartments.
After delivering pitches to a panel of three judges and answering a barrage of questions, the winner is Pedal Cell, a bicycle power source that mounts in minutes on nearly all bike designs. The product, made in Chicago, has shipped to 30+ countries and is available at pedalcell.com and its global dealer network.
And The Winner Of WashU Olin’s BIG IdeaBounce Is…PedalCell
Their business idea was pitched by CEO Adam Hokin, 25, who graduated from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business in 2019 along with CTO Vishaal Mali, 24, who invented the company’s core intellectual property and is a graduate of Northwestern University’s McCormick Engineering School in computer and electrical engineering, and David Harper, 23, who also earned his degree in mechanical engineering from Northwestern and handles marketing for the firm.
They faced three judges: Maxine Clark, the Founder and former CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop; Akeem Shannon, CEO and Founder of Flipstik, and John A. Byrne, the founder of C-Change Media, which includes Poets&Quants, and the former Executive Editor of Businessweek magazine and former Editor-in-Chief of Fast Company.
All three co-founders knocked it out of the park. The judges unanimously agreed that their presentation skills were articulate and thoughtful. More than that, PedalCell had already successfully brought a viable, patented product to market, a feat that greatly impressed the panel of judges, along with the startup’s clear mission to give people one less excuse for not riding a bicycle.
In an interview with Poets&Quants, the co-founders reflected on their entrepreneurial journey thus far and explained what they intend to do with the prize money. “Really, it started freshman year of college,” says Hokin. “We went to the University of Michigan. We were all casual leisure bikers and we wanted to find a way to get more people onto bikes. It’s actually a better thing for the environment. It decongests cities.
PedalCell’s Goal: ‘Getting More Butts Onto Bikes’
“And we thought, okay, what was the problem that’s preventing people from getting onto a bike? A lot of it was safety, connectivity, and creating the whole idea of someone having a better experience while they’re riding. And we realized creating a power source so people could power their essentials safety and connected devices while they ride was really taking that barrier away. It could ultimately get more butts onto bikes and out of cars.”
Of the three co-founders, only one–Hokin–went to business school as an undergraduate, and he went to an entirely different university–the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business–than his two co-founders, who went to Northwestern University. Mali says the group found each other in a “serendipitous” way. “I met Adam first through a friend of a friend who said, ‘Hey, I have a friend who’s at Michigan,'” recalls Mali. “‘He’s super into entrepreneurship. You have to connect with him.’ I think you can add a lot of value. And funny enough, our company name was something different. Our first meeting with Adam, I don’t remember if it was in person or over Zoom, he brought a whole folder and said, ‘You need to change your name to Pedal Cell, and here’s why.’ So, I think it was sort of meant to be after that. And then David and I were really good friends at Northwestern, both engineers, who spent a lot of time together, and it just naturally made sense for us to work together and team up with Adam. And here we are today. So, a little bit of luck and a little bit of serendipity, but I guess it kind of all worked out.”
Adds Hokin: “I’m actually a year older than these guys in school. So when I met Vishaal initially, he was actually a senior in high school. And so I remember distinctly the first conversation. He’s like, ‘Yeah, you know, we’re working on some stuff.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, show me.’ And he pans the camera. He’s in his garage blowing up batteries. So you know, that was a fun first experience.”
Michigan and Northwestern Played Key Roles In Incubating The Startup
And while it may seem odd that Harper is in charge of marketing, even though he has a degree in engineering, he is a natural marketer. “Once we got the initial product done, a lot of what a company becomes is just about growing it and making sure it gets out and gets exposed,” says Harper. “And I’d always been interested in entrepreneurship. My dream since I was a kid was to be an inventor before I had really thought of the word entrepreneurship. And so I’d worked with a couple of different small businesses. I had a little tutoring business and I was good at math. So, I taught calculus when I was 15 and 16, and I put some online ads up and had a good bit of experience with Google AdWords and some of these different platforms.
The three co-founders also credit their respective universities for helping them incubate their idea. They maintain that both schools–business and engineering–played key roles. “Northwestern and Michigan played a huge part in our development,” says Hokin. “The University of Michigan’s Ross School Business has the Zell Lurie Institute which we pretty much did all the programs. We actually won the Michigan Business Challenge Impact Track when we were in our undergrad. That was super cool. And they just really helped the business side of things. And then on Northwestern’s end, they have this great program called “The Garage” which is kind of an on-campus incubator for new ideas. And we did that accelerator one summer and they provided all those resources really for building out the product side of the business. And, you know, we were based in Chicago actually for a few years for our headquarters. And the Northwestern hub really provided those resources for us.”
How do the three co-founders handle disagreements? “Definitely there are disagreements whenever you’re developing a product,” adds Hokin. “And I think that is just due to the nature of how we all have distinctive backgrounds. You know, we each have something to add whenever we’re tackling a new problem and making a decision. Whenever we disagree with something I think one great thing about everyone is that we come to the table not trying to be emotional about it. You want to come with the facts and bring your side of the problem to light. And it’s been extremely constructive. I mean, even last night, before this competition here, we were taking a run around the campus and we were talking about our pricing and it was a very constructive conversation that we had.”
‘We’re All Quants & Poets’
Mali agrees. “I think kinda by accident, all of our overlap is so small that we respect each other’s domains,” he says. “We bring the facts to the table. We’re all quants and poets. And so you try to take both approaches. At this point, five years into this, we have trust in each other. Even if we sometimes disagree, we might say, ‘Okay, you know what, maybe David’s point is correct. He seems to know what he’s talking about. He’s proven it time and time again, but that seems like the right solution or vice versa.'”
Harper addes this insight. “I think two things have been helpful,” he maintains. “One is, we’re a co-founding team, but we all kind of crystallized what our domains are. So, if there’s a marketing decision, I can make a final decision on that. Even if there’s still disagreement. And the same with Adam on the more general business decisions and the same with Vishaal for tech. That’s been nice to have that clear. The buck ends with me. I’m responsible for this. And I think also just trusting that we’re here to get it right, not to be right. I remember one of our early meetings when we had a little bit of friction. We saw it as an opportunity to think about how we want to do these meetings. How do we want to discuss things? Let’s not let this happen by accident. Let’s think about how we get the best out of ourselves. And it’s definitely a big part, I mean, as an early company, we are a huge part of what the company is. And so figuring out how to get the very best out of ourselves, I think is a really important part of working it together.”
One of the biggest challenges faced by the founding team has been production. “With supply chain, especially now during COVID being so difficult, producing product, especially at scale, which none of us have done before, is very, very hard,” concedes Mali. “Getting parts to build product is very, very hard. And we realized quickly that if you want to make product, you need a lot of cash up-front and you don’t see that revenue for months at a time. You don’t actually see that whole cash flow dynamic play out until you’re actually doing it. That was definitely and still is a huge challenge. We’ve gotten better about it and we’re about a year into selling. So, we’ve learned some lessons, but I think that’ll always remain a challenge for us.”
What The Founders Will Do With The Prize Money
So what will the team do with the $50,000 prize money? “David will say marketing,” laughs Mali. “Adam will say business, I’ll say engineering.”
“Actually I like that,” responds Hokin. “Why don’t we go down the line, starting with marketing.”
“There are a couple of really easy applications,” says Harper. “The first is just, how do we take this money and think about getting a return on it. And the lowest hanging fruit for us is there’s some magazine placements that would just work great for us. They’re one of our best channels. And if we buy those in 12-month placements we get a 20% ad discount. So essentially a 20% decrease on our acquisition cost. So putting 10 or 12 grand down to pay for the year for all those magazines is gonna get just a good financial return for us.”
“On the business side,” adds Hokin, “one of the largest things we found since so much of our market’s overseas is our very high shipping costs. You have to deal with duties and taxes and it just takes a while. It could take up to a month sometimes to receive our product overseas. And so what we’re going to be investing this capital into as well, is working with an overseas warehouse partner and getting our own tax registration overseas, which has an upfront investment involved with it. But for a business like ours that is so internationally focused, we have to force ourselves to do that because it’s such a large part of our business.”
“To cap it off,” says Mali, “we have this product for this niche market. How do we get that bigger customer base? We talked about re-generation on e-bikes. We’ve talked about a lot of different ideas. Now I think is a really good time to start to materialize some of these ideas on prototypes and ask, ‘What’s gonna work for us? What’s not gonna work for us?’ And then work with these guys to figure out how much of a market does this product opens up. Figuring out what’s the next step forward to take that next leap in our business. I think this money will be exponentially beneficial to us because now we can kinda go from where we are and take that next leap to say, okay, what does it look like to really scale as a non-venture-funded business which is really cool.”
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