Sharks can be scary, unless you can get them to buy into your own scary idea. That’s what Wingate senior Paul Janssen did Thursday night (April 28) at the University’s Shark Tank event with his presentation of Scare Tactic, LLC, a horror-themed escape room.
The management major from Monroe laid out his well-researched business plan with a fast-moving, energetic and humor-laced pitch that had the judges nodding with approval. For his efforts, he walked away with a $2,000 check and first prize in the competition, which was hosted by the Porter B. Byrum School of Business, and held in LaVerne Banquet Hall.
“He made a great presentation; he obviously knew his market; and he approached it with creativity,” said Andrew Smart, chief executive officer of DiscoverFresh Foods. A Wingate University ’01 alumnus and trustee, Smart quizzed Janssen about upfront costs and his plan for staying ahead of the competition.
Joining Smart on the panel of “sharks” were Sylleste Davis, a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives; Shante Williams, CEO of Black Pearl Global Investments; and Wingate alumni Nicole McCracken ’04, founder and owner of KymNeco’s Salon, and Zach Machuca ’14, founder and CEO of Auto-Nurture.
A grant from the John William Pope Foundation provided Janssen and fellow award-winners their prize money. Marshville resident Christopher Weyant took second place ($1,000) with his plan for Sparkies Electric, Inc., an electrical company specializing in swimming pool motors, controls and lighting. Third place ($500) went to Garrett Waters of Shelby for his vision to bring tailorship to street clothing with Sheil Fashion and Tailorship. Norlin Ochoa, who offered up his idea for Fútbol Friends, an indoor and outdoor soccer facility and community enrichment program, took fourth place ($250). He is from Charlotte.
Other student presenters were Spencer Blair of Lake Norman, who shared Ole Sailor, a fishing lifestyle and performance-based apparel business that he has launched, and Patrick Sheppard of Monroe, who shared his vision for starting a cannabis-based business called Higher Health. All of the contestants are taking Entrepreneurship 410, a new-venture entrepreneurship class taught by adjunct faculty member Sam Spencer.
Janssen, who will graduate in December, credited Spencer with challenging him and his 13 classmates to research and flesh out their ideas and get them ready for the Shark Tank competition.
“He’s been pushing us to do this from the beginning of the semester,” said Janssen, who is originally from Frankfurt, Germany.
The young entrepreneur has also gotten support from his co-workers at Waxhaw Escape, where he has worked part-time for the past few years, honing his skills and considering ways to take the escape-room experience into new directions.
He told the judges that while he had found a few escape rooms with “weird mood lighting and a recording of someone crying in the corner,” the horror theme is virtually unclaimed territory and that scary escape rooms are often requested by customers.
He believes with $100,000 in startup funding, he could open two rooms. Laying out his group-based pricing structure, promotional plans and ideas for incorporating the sale of merchandise such as shirts and challenge coins to help “materialize memories,” Janssen made it clear that his priority would be hiring the right employees and making their work fun.
“Game-masters are the most important piece because they draw you into the experience,” he said. “I really want to create a working environment that people enjoy. I recall my bosses wanting to hire me so I could work a job that brings me joy. And if that’s a feeling or experience I could give to someone my age then I’d say I’d have accomplished something great in my life.”
Williams quizzed Janssen about how often the rooms would have to be changed to attract repeat customers; Machuca offered tips on incentivizing customers to create immediate Google reviews; and Davis asked if he had differing marketing plans for teens versus families or other segments of his market.
After the competition ended, she said it was Janssen’s quick and confident answers to questions and his salesmanship that made her a believer in the business plan, even though she admitted she had never been to an escape room.
“He was so convincing that I wanted to give him money to get this started,” she said.
Spencer said he was thrilled with all the students’ confident and passionate presentations.
“It’s a very stressful situation to stand in front of not only their peers, but also a panel of critical judges,” he said. “They handled the judge’s questions with confidence and grace. I am also very pleased with their professionalism and decorum.”
He said the Shark Tank experience will help participants build critical thinking skills and apply constructive criticism.
“The judges offered honest criticism and suggestions based on their personal experiences. The best advice the presenters could hear is from people who are actual entrepreneurs that understand the perseverance and dedication necessary to be successful,” Spencer said. “The judges did an amazing job, and I am grateful to them for taking the time out of their schedules to help our students.”
Janssen said he appreciated the opportunity to practically apply both his work and academic skills.
“I feel like these opportunities are few and far between, so even being given the chance to present in front of a large crowd is fantastic,” he said.
Sergio Castello, dean of the Byrum School of Business, said he hopes to make the Shark Tank an annual spring event at Wingate.