Enter the Thrill Mill: Startup business helper keeps on growing
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What started with five guys luring young professionals to summer block parties in 2007 has grown this year to become the latest big-money effort to fund and support the city's bubbling startup sector.
The Business Bout Competition, a startup contest introduced last year by the team responsible for Shadyside's Baller BBQ networking events, will bump up the cash payout from $5,000 in the inaugural contest to $25,000 this year, thanks to sponsorship from the Urban Redevelopment Authority's Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Entrepreneurs across all sectors ("anything from bakeries to nonprofits to high-tech," reads a description on the contest's website) with ideas or existing businesses making less than $1 million in annual revenues are eligible.
Participants must submit a two-page application explaining their business plan and discussing the team of people that will help bring the idea to fruition. Business owners must agree to keep their operations in Pittsburgh for at least a year. Submissions must be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org by 11:59 pm on Oct. 31. For complete information, visit www.thrillmill.com.
Luke Skurman, CEO of college review site College Prowler and co-founder of the Baller BBQ and Business Bout Competition, said the team was excited to see its efforts help start a business last year, but were concerned about how they could work to sustain one.
Mr. Skurman said last year's winners were able to launch FindNotice, a public notice search site, without much problem, but they could have used a little more direct help to sustain the momentum and for networking purposes.
"We gave them the money and they were excited but they really needed some structure, mentorship and continuity. They needed to be around like-minded individuals," he said. "They were self-motivated but really could have benefited more from that support and help, more so than the money."
FindNotice co-founder Brad Barbin said winning the prize allowed his team to build the necessary technology and reach out to state media organizations that publish public notices. He's certain the Baller BBQ team would have helped him out in any way possible throughout the year, except for directly giving him the $150,000 angel investment he needs to take the business to the next level.
"I could use help with the next funding round and a lot of times that's what incubators do," he said.
So less than a year after launching Business Bout, Mr. Skurman and the team began asking local business leaders to help them grow the initiative from a single contest to a startup incubator. After one anonymous investor was sold on the idea to the tune of $750,000 in September, Hustle Den was born.
Located in a 5,000-square-foot space in East Liberty, Hustle Den will provide office space, technology, mentoring and a collaborative space for 40 entrepreneurs chosen through the competition. The space opens Jan. 1.
The team has also decided to combine Baller BBQ, Business Bout and Hustle Den into a single nonprofit organization called Thrill Mill.
Team member Bobby Zappala will leave his position as an attorney with Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney to serve as CEO of Thrill Mill, and team members Kevin Heher, president of Mt. Lebanon-based Liberty Insurance; Alexander Palma, emergency room physician at West Penn Hospital; and Serge Smailbegovic, vice president of global procurement at BNY Mellon, will sit on the board of directors
Including salaries, operations and other miscellaneous costs, Mr. Skurman said the $750,000 should sustain Thrill Mill's efforts for the next three years.
As CEO, Mr. Zappala will oversee operations of all three initiatives and will work to secure funding sources. He said Thrill Mill, which will own a small portion of each company in Hustle Den, eventually will become self-sustaining once the companies begin to thrive.
"We fit in very nicely with organizations like Innovation Works, Idea Foundry and others that look for very early stage, nascent ideas and people looking for encouragement to pursue them further," he said.
On top of new initiatives, the group is also planning for an entirely re-imagined Baller BBQ for 2013, said Mr. Zappala. Part music festival and part showcase for Hustle Den entrepreneurs, Mr. Zappala said the next one will be more along the lines of Austin's South By Southwest (SXSW) music festival than the friendly neighborhood cookout. He's promising at least one major national act, in addition to several local performers.
"This is an opportunity to really get Pittsburgh in the spotlight. We want to have at least 5,000 people, and investors from the around the country and around the world," he said.
Despite the influx of new businesses, incubators and tech-driven initiatives that have sprouted throughout the city over the decade, including his own, Mr. Skurman said local stakeholders must do more to highlight the region's resources and attract the nation's dollars.
"Ten years later, we've come way farther but there's more we can do," he said. "We're still not Boulder, we're still not Austin, we're still not Seattle. We may not ever be New York or Silicon Valley, but we can be better."
First Published October 11, 2012 12:21 am