four companies compete as finalists in cose's business pitch competition

Editor's note: Colby Featherbottom’s took first place at last night's competition ($20,000); second place went to Brewnuts ($10,000); Content Mango and The Digital Mosaic tied for third ($5,000 each).

Have you ever wanted to play a custom guitar like Gene Simmons or Jack White play? Ryan Schoeneman wants to make that dream come true. Using custom CAD CAM software, Colby Featherbottom’s Custom Sound Machines helps customers create guitars that fit the shape, size, color, and even inlays the user dreams up.

“We make custom body shape electric guitars,” says Schoeneman. “We bring this service of customization to a price point that’s more affordable for the everyday musician.” All of his guitars range from $899 to $1,500 and are American made.

Colby Featherbottom’s is one of four finalists in the COSE Small Business Pitch Competition, which gives companies that are under two years old with less than $200,000 in revenue the chance to pitch their businesses to a panel of judges.

This is the second year COSE has held the competition, which is modeled after the popular television show Shark Tank. The competition is designed to give new businesses financial assistance and expert advice to get off the ground. The winner receives $20,000 and expert guidance. Second place nets $10,000 and third and fourth place get $5,000 each. All finalists receive a one year COSE membership.

Last year’s first place winner, Mike Stanek, runs Cleveland Cycle Tours – a 15-seat bike tour around Cleveland. A COSE board member, Stanek credits the resources he received with being able to grow his company quickly and successfully.

The final competition kicked off the 2014 COSE Small Business Convention at Kalahari Resort and Convention Center in Sandusky on Wednesday, October 22nd.

“Each of the finalists have taken some lesson from their own experience and turned it into a solution for a market that they uniquely understand,” says COSE President Steve Millard. “While our finalists aren’t all venture capital plays or rocket growth ventures … we believe these entrepreneurs have the fire in their bellies and the experience and ability to succeed.”

The Business Pitch competition began in September, when 74 applicants submitted two page executive summaries and two minute video presentations pitching their business ideas.  The field was narrowed down to 12 semi-finalists near the end of September before being whittled down to four.

Schoeneman and his three employees, who started Colby Featherbottom’s about a year ago, plan to use the winnings to develop kiosks that would stand in guitar stores. The kiosks would allow users to design their guitars, print a prototype with a 3D printer. They receive their custom designed guitar about two weeks later.

Based in Parma, Colby Featherbottom’s operates a mobile factory out of a vintage Airstream, which they acquired in trade for a guitar. Schoeneman started the company as a creative release from his job as an ecology researcher at Kent State. While the company operates on a shoestring budget and a lot of trade, Schoeneman won $3,000 through the Blackstone Launch Pad, which covered initial legal fees, trademark, and forming an LLC.

The products produce high-quality sound with a unique look. “We handle the technical details and let the customer focus on the creative process of what they want it to look like,” says Schoeneman.

The other three finalists were:

The Digital Mosaic. Natalie Bauman, a career video producer, developed an iPad app that allows people to easily record their memories and life stories and store them in the cloud. She started The Digital Mosaic as a way for seniors and people with memory problems to record those moments and memories they want to preserve. “We want to capture the memories they do have and share them with their families,” says Bauman. “And we want to help spark those moments. Many people say they want to record their life stories, but then they never do it.”

Scheduled to launch in November, customers download the free app from the Apple Store. They sign up for Bauman’s services through The Digital Mosaic website. The service includes coaching, advice from professional producers, a list of what types of questions to ask and customized photo prompts.

Topics are divided into “yesterday” (who you are and where you come from); “today” (values and beliefs); and “tomorrow” (your legacy). Bauman envisions users leaving messages and stories for their children or grandchildren, sharing their wishes for after their deaths or making sure loved ones know important events in their lives. “It’s like having a virtual producer at your shoulder,” she says.

Bauman wanted to focus on something that could be used instantly, when a loved one has a story or memory to share. “I thought there’s got to be a way to record the story at the time when it’s happening,” she says. “Not in a producer’s office or at a scheduled time.” She’s been working with the Alzheimer’s Association on the app development and plans to release an Android version as well.

Bauman has been targeting senior living facilities, which she hopes buy the service for residents. She plans to expand into packages for personal use, families and even reunions. The stories and memories are easily downloaded to an account at The Digital Mosaic website, where users can access the videos from anywhere. “It’s so easy, even my mom can do it,” Bauman says.

Brewnuts. Owners Shelley Fasulko and John Pippin make craft beer-based donuts. Flavors change constantly, depending on what inspires Fasulko and Pippin. Newer flavors include the Hoyer the Destroyer, a donut made with Willoughby Brewing Company peanut butter cup coffee porter sauce, drizzled with Nutella and topped with crumbled bacon.

“I was tossing and turning a bit and all of a sudden the idea just flashed through my head.The idea came to Fasulko a year ago as she was trying to sleep. “I am one of those people who always has their best ideas as they’re drifting off to sleep -- my brain never seems to want to shut off,” she says. “I was tossing and turning a bit and all of a sudden the idea just flashed through my head. I sat up and bed and yelled out to John, ‘What if we made craft beer donuts?’ He kind of laughed and said, ‘okay, how would we go about doing that?’ The next day we went out and bought a deep fryer. We haven’t looked back since.”

The pair sold their first Brewnut in fall of 2013. They have a temporary shop in Tremont through the Tremont West Development Corporation Storefront Incubator Program. They supply Brewnuts to Pour Cleveland in the Fifth Street Arcades and Rising Star Coffee in Hingetown. Customers can find them at the Cleveland Flea or email or call in an order. Plans are in the works for expansion and a permanent location.

Flavors change depending on what is on tap at local breweries, but there are usually eight on the menu. Fasulko’s favorite? “That's like asking me to pick a favorite child. If I had to pick, I love our Dunkaroo. It's an old fashioned frycake that is perfect for dunking in your coffee. Or beer if you prefer.” The Dunkaroo is made with Bottlehouse Brewery's Nitro Stout brewed with Rising Star's Peacemaker blend.

While startup mode keeps Fasulko and Pippin with donuts on the brain most of the time, they often meet up with friends on Sundays for some tailgating at the Browns game. If they win the competition, there will be plenty of celebrating. “For starters, I'll celebrate with my family and friends. I always tell people, ‘we make beer donuts. We don't take ourselves too seriously, and we respect the art of having a good time,’” Fasulko says. “That said, we're bringing a cheering section to the finals. We're ready to rock!”

But seriously, the money will be put to good use, furthering both the business and a Cleveland neighborhood. “If we win, we will put the grant toward opening a permanent flagship location in a neighborhood that is in need of businesses to anchor it and develop its commercial potential.”

Consult Mango. Kevin Wang and Eric Vennaro use social media and marketing techniques to recruit international students to American college campuses. The company formed last May and has taken off.

“While attending CWRU, my co-founder Kevin and I saw that there was a huge demand for international students due to the fact that they typically pay full tuition and add a great deal of diversity to the campus,” recalls Vennaro, a computer science major.

“We also noticed how even though almost all colleges and universities want to recruit more international students, some of them had very poor recruitment strategies.” 

The concept is simple. Colleges and universities pay Consult Mango based on a commission model. “For every student we help place that matriculates, we receive 10 percent of that student’s first year of tuition,” explains Vennaro. “Schools utilize our services because we provide them more international students. Potential students use our platform because it is an easy way to find schools and apply.”

Consult Mango currently is implementing its social media marketing campaign strategies in Brazil, China and South Korea. They’ve partnered with test prep agencies like the Princeton Review, international recruiters and universities to broaden recruitment efforts.

Vennaro had never pitched a business before and was thrilled to make it to the finals. He had realistic plans for the money if Consult Mango wins. “First I will briefly celebrate, then we will use the money to help us further scale our company,” he says. “We have already hired four people part time and this prize will assist us in paying these employees and allow us to continue hiring and rapidly expand.”

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.