Companies get only five minutes to pitch a winning concept

Today six start-up companies will go head to head in the Launch Pad - a Dragons' Den-like competition being held at the Planet 2010 conference in Auckland.

Up for grabs is $70,000 worth of business support including IT, marketing, legal and accounting services.

The six companies will have five minutes each to pitch their ideas - live on stage in front of an audience - to a panel of judges. The winner will be announced on March 30.

Becoming a successful entrepreneur takes commitment and, of course, great ideas.

Paul Clarkin, chief technology officer of WorldxChange and one of the judges of the Launch Pad says: "There's definitely sacrifices that you've got to make. And there was a decision that I made - no kids - so I could focus on [my business]."

Clarkin says entrepreneurs need to be able to deal with their bigger competitors when they decide to take a swipe at their business.

"They need to be able to deal with the big boys coming and having a go at them," he says.

It's also about joining the dots between a great concept and a sound business plan, adds Clarkin, who spent six years in the Army before becoming involved with WorldxChange.

The Planet 2010 conference was organised by the Telecommunications Industry Group to showcase, over two days, innovations from cutting-edge companies.

"We see the Launch Pad as a way for us to find and champion New Zealand's best start-up companies, and help them grow their ideas into something spectacular," says Telecommunications Industry Group chief Rob Spray.

MEET THE CONTESTANTS
Simon Angelo, Speech School TV

Simon Angelo's entrepreneurial spirit runs deep - it's in his blood.

"At high school I got out of cross country because I was the boy selling Cokes and Moros from big buckets of ice," he says.

The 35-year-old former voice coach's latest business venture - Speech School TV - arrived on the internet in February.

It is basically an online elocution school, targeted at migrants and international students who want to shed the accents of their homelands when speaking English.

"And of course there's large numbers of those coming to New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the UK and the US," Angelo says.

He says that while working as a speech coach for 15 years, he noticed migrants were telling him how much their accent was holding them back, especially in their careers.

Users who sign up to Speech School TV have two choices for their new accent: Received Pronunciation - essentially British-based, but similar to Kiwi - and General American. They can then view a weekly educational online TV show on the website, and also download recordings and exercises.

"The most important thing is you can actually send in a recording of your speech for us to assess, so you've got that online feedback."

He says many people cannot afford a voice coach, which can cost up to $150 an hour. Conversely, a month's subscription to his website costs $35.50.

New subscribers have joined the website every week since it went live, despite the fact that Angelo hasn't yet promoted it.

"When we got our first subscriber I thought he must have come home from the pub, had too much to drink, and gone online with his credit card."

Angelo says the biggest boost for his company was being accepted into the E Centre - a business incubator at Massey University's Albany Campus - last June.

A PhD student at the university is currently investigating whether computer software can be used to assess users' speech, rather than humans.

He says the "sheer amount of work" was one of the main challenges of setting up the business.



Jason Roberts, Livelink

Jason Roberts doesn't sleep well at night - his mind is working overdrive on new ideas.

"I had to give up on my iPhone in bed because my wife got sick of being woken up by the lights coming on and the beeps going off."

He now gets up with a cup of herbal tea and jots his thoughts down on a notepad.

Roberts was at home keeping an eye on his three teenage sons when the Herald called.

It's part of the daily juggling act that allows his wife to continue her job as a social worker while he pursues his business dreams.

He admits his family are "somewhat anxious" after he threw in his day job just before Christmas, taking the plunge with his own communications company, Charge Communications, and its cornerstone product Livelink, an easy-to-use solution for multi-media email marketing.

It's not his first business. Over the years he has started several - some have worked others haven't.

He developed an SMS product for the health sector six years ago that would alert patients to doctors' appointments.

But he failed to get the software vendors behind the GP software systems interested.

"Quick simply we were too early whereas now it's commonplace."

Roberts says he is a marketing guy by instinct since childhood.

His first business venture at age 7 was dragging old bikes out of the rubbish dump, doing them up and flogging them off to other kids.

"I've probably carried on doing that in lots of different ways."





Hamish Macdonald, Lifetime Health Diary

Taking a pounding during karate training in Japan taught Hamish Macdonald his most important business lesson - what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

The serious knee injury that resulted put paid to his karate ambitions but by that stage, in his late 20s, he was devoting more time to his business career.

Now in his early 40s, Macdonald is back in Dunedin after nearly 20 years in Japan, putting the finishing touches to Lifetime Health Diary, a web-based system that allows consumers to take their health records to every practitioner they visit.

Being an entrepreneur was something Macdonald was naturally drawn to.

"I always wanted to be independent. I never wanted to do the nine-to-five routine. The only nine-to-five job I had was that English teaching job when I first went to Japan."

Working for himself - he is single, with no children - means a lot more time on the job than if he was working for a company.

"You do have to sacrifice, it's all on you. If you don't make this succeed no one else is going to help you.

"Being an entrepreneur in an early stage start-up can be incredibly stressful.

"If you do have other things going on in your life you really do have to juggle them very well and you may not find it possible, a lot of people don't.

"I can't say that entrepreneurialism is for everyone. You do have to be able to take a risk and say 'it may all turn to ashes but I'm still going to get up and work the next morning anyway'."




Andrew Leighton and Martin Jorgensen, Powerband

A passion for children's fitness brought FUN2bFIT founders Andrew Leighton and Martin Jorgensen together to create Powerband - a fitness device for children that registers physical activity on a wristband linked to a virtual online world.

Powerband encourages activity in a world that has become increasingly focused on the couch.

Leighton is still working fulltime at the Victoria University Recreation Centre while FUN2bFIT goes through its final "proving" phases at the Creative HQ, a Wellington business incubator.

Becoming an entrepreneur meant he had to sacrifice some of the things most 25-year-olds would normally do with their time, he says.

"But for me the payoff is so worthwhile, my passion is so huge that I'm excited to be part of [FUN2bFIT].

"For Martin [technology innovation] has always been a passion of his so he's got to the point where he's living his dream and that's just fantastic."

Leighton said the idea for the product stemmed from his background in the fitness industry, and he hopes it will give children a new enthusiasm for exercise.

"I believe the traditional model of exercise out there is just not working, and what we're trying to do is rectify that, and work in the societal changes, to find ways that we can get kids motivated to exercise again."

The United States is the target market for their product, while New Zealand and Australia will be focused on later, says Leighton.

"One-third of Americans are either overweight or obese, and this generation who are coming through in America may be the first generation to be outlived by their parents."

FUN2bFIT is set to hit the American market within the next 12 months.






Nick Schembri and Christopher Smith, Dazzle Tickets

Twenty-one-year-old Wellingtonians Nick Schembri and Christopher Smith set up Dazzle Tickets, an online ticketing solution that will allow events to be managed from start to finish, while they were still students running events for Victoria University.

Schembri said the ticketing business was like a pyramid, with local and regional events at the bottom and stadium events at the top.

Dazzle Tickets is currently ticketing regional events, and has cost advantages for both event promoters and ticket buyers.

The company has just signed an exclusive deal with Sandwiches, a Wellington music venue, and has two more exclusive contracts on the go.

Schembri said the company was redesigning its whole system to handle larger events and global expansion.

The new, nationwide system will be launched at the end of April.

A gap in the market motivated the two friends to become entrepreneurs and enter into a business partnership.

"We love the entertainment industry and we loved putting on events for the university ... but we then thought we both had the drive and passion to do more with our lives.

"We want to get a good reputation for loyalty like we have in Wellington right now by offering a better service - an end-to-end, integrated solution."

He said event managers would be able to arrange promotional flyers, manage ticketing and send out group text messages and emails to their customers through the website, without talking to anyone.

Schembri said both he and Smith were still working part time in other jobs to support themselves.






Chris White, Big Little Bang

Chris White is earning slightly more than the dole as he works towards the year-end release of his virtual music application for kids.

Big Little Bang is an online world where primary school age children can go to create music.

White came up with the idea while working for a web content company in New York.

At the time the technology wasn't quite there to develop an online music collaboration application, so White sat back until the moment was right.

"I've taken a bit of a step down in my income but when you are a part owner of the business you don't want to be ripping yourself off."

White, 33, has worked full-time on the project since the beginning of last year when he gained some seed funding. Before that he'd financed the venture himself while working part-time.

The alpha version is currently being tested on both Kiwi and American kids. White hasn't got his own kids to test the product on - that has been put on hold until he is in a more stable financial situation.

"The biggest difference in lifestyle is you never really stop working. You can't clock off. You go to sleep with the problems and you wake up with the problems."

This is White's first start-up, but he already has some more ideas bubbling away, waiting for the right timing.

The goal with Big Little Bang is to create a profitable business in the United States before selling it to a bigger fish, said White.