Mike Smith: Championing Custom Donations

Mike Smith is a problem-solver at his core. With a knack for identifying needs and crafting innovative solutions, Mike’s entrepreneurial journey kicked off during his college years with a bold attempt to disrupt the textbook market. Despite the initial excitement surrounding his platform for student-to-student textbook sales, the venture failed to gain traction. 

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Mike made a pivotal decision to join the Navy, putting his entrepreneurial pursuits on hold. Upon concluding his military service in 2008, Mike embarked on a new chapter by founding a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating scholarships in honor of fallen military members. This endeavor aimed to support individuals pursuing higher education. However, navigating the transition from military service to civilian life posed its own set of challenges, highlighting the need for a more cohesive integration of skills and experiences. In short, while his specialty in the Navy didn’t directly apply to his goals in the private sector, the service did teach him about accountability and execution, skills that have benefited him as a founder. 

“I wouldn’t say ideas are cheap, but execution is everything. Having a great idea will get you nowhere if you never act. If you’re excited about this new product or idea, you’re the person with the passion to get it done. Take that passion and do something with it. But also keep in mind that to actually build a company and make that idea come to reality, in addition to passion, you’re also going to need a ton of perseverance and endurance.”

Integrating his web development expertise with his musical interests, in his spare time, Mike ventured into the realms of computer science, development, and digital music creation with a social 4-track mixer. He also created a centralized platform for musicians to showcase their talents and connect with local gig opportunities. 

Mike’s trajectory took a significant turn while heading up web operations for The Association of Former Students of Texas A&M. There, he jumped in to figure out how to grow a digital system, and how to get people to donate money through a website. He was immersed in all aspects of the massive higher ed nonprofit realm: directories, events, ordering class rings, etc. Intuitively, he identified a glaring disparity between traditional fundraising methods and the evolving technological landscape. A gaping chasm existed between the people raising funds and the web tools needed to enhance their fundraising strategies. Inspired to bridge this gap, Mike embarked on a mission to create a platform that would empower fundraisers with innately user-friendly tools while ensuring a seamless donation experience for donors.

Thus, Custom Donations was born in 2017. At its core, Custom Donations seeks to change the fundraising landscape by offering personalized giving solutions that prioritize donor engagement and ease of use. He spent his nights and weekends for years building the application, bringing together two very different worlds: web development and fundraising. After investigating how best to effectively take money through a website, creating one-click solutions, and providing custom solutions for organizations that do not have custom budgets, in 2020, Mike was finally prepared to step away from his full-time role and focus fully on Custom Donations. This is a question founders pose often: how do you know when to make the jump? For him, he just knew it was time to invest all of his energies into this endeavor.

COVID brought both advantages and disadvantages for Mike. You can imagine, like all of us, the bad. But, for a digital company, COVID forced all of us to live our lives more online than ever before. For nonprofits, the traditional funding events dried up and donors were forced to go online. Custom Donations’ secret sauce is personalized giving. They provide a custom, secure giving flow that is easy for nonprofits to manage on their own, an attractive solution for organizations that were having to shift their fundraising efforts.

This past year has been spent staging and setting up a strategy for growth. It’s not just creating the product that is challenging but figuring out how to scale. When Mike found out about the NextGEN Accelerator program, it didn’t matter to him that it was located in Greenville, SC while his family lived in Florence, SC. As a solopreneur, Mike did not have the network of support in Florence and he was at a point where he knew he could not grow his business without considerable support. So he made the drive to Greenville every week for 10 weeks. The Accelerator not only provided an array of connections but it also forced him to take a step back from the day-to-day operations and focus on the 5-year plan AND how to get there. 

After the first week, he knew he wanted to move to Greenville so he could be in that environment and surrounded by mentors and like-minded founders. He just had to convince his wife… Fortunately, with extended family residing near Greenville, it only took a few months of cajoling for the Smiths to move to Greenville. Closer to family but also close to a supportive entrepreneur ecosystem. And, in a city that defines work-life balance. He knew he could have moved to tech hubs San Francisco or Austin but wanted to be in a place that is good for everyone.

Post-Accelerator, Mike continues to have conversations with other program grads and mentors when he needs advice or recommendations from legal to tech support. It’s been key to meet people in preparation for the next step in his business. He knows relationship-building is also key to success.

“For first-time founders, so much of what you see showcased in the startup world may not be the best path forward for your company: This idealized path of pitching an idea and immediately getting funding and becoming a unicorn. The best funding is a customer. Build your product. Find product-market fit. If you take on funding before your product has traction or you figure out what customers are willing to pay for, you’ll likely run into problems.” 

Mike is vocal online about bootstrapping. He knows the most prudent path for him is to wait to get funding until there is no other way to move forward. Mike’s biggest challenge these days is how long everything takes. “Patience. Patience is the most challenging thing. Everything takes twice as long as you expect. Losses follow big wins, the lows squash the highs, and while it can be lonely, you have to persevere. Continue to move goal posts. Keep going after each small win. You have to keep moving forward. Focus on what you are doing right, and don’t dwell on the bad stuff, and keep pursuing your vision.” 

But, Mike looks back and sees that his biggest clients are still clients and have been for years. He keeps gaining and keeping big clients which is a solid validation for what he is building. 

Mike remains steadfast in his dedication to Custom Donations’ mission. From bootstrap beginnings to strategic partnerships and ongoing product development, he navigates the ever-changing entrepreneurial landscape with resilience and foresight.

Through the challenges inherent in the startup journey, we find the essence of entrepreneurship—a relentless pursuit of solutions, a commitment to continuous learning, and a steadfast belief in the transformative power of technology to drive positive change. As he continues championing Custom Donations, Mike exemplifies the spirit of innovation and resilience that defines true founders in today’s ever-evolving startup ecosystem.

SCRA announced in June 2024 that Custom Donations received a $50,000 Acceleration Grant.

Excited to Announce Accelerator Cohort 3!

NextGEN has kicked off Cohort 3 of its Accelerator program! This program aims to grow and scale some of the region’s high-potential startups by providing dedicated resources for their specific challenges. For Cohort 3, we are excited about new companies and a new format. New additions to the program include a custom curriculum designed by NextGEN, mentors/coaches for each team that meets the needs of their startup, and access to the network of resources available to them in our city. Subject matter experts, experienced founders, and local business leaders will lead the curriculum alongside Program Manager, These 5 companies and program leaders will work alongside each other to build a growth plan to take their startups to the next level with sessions dedicated to product market fit, sales and marketing, hiring to scale, funding, and more.

The program kicked off on Wednesday, May 22 with a happy hour at Pangaea Brewing and the first class began June 3, 2024.

“I’ve been a part of multiple programs and while those were all good in their own respect, this program was much more impactful. I guess that’s clear since I’m moving my family and business here [from Florence, SC]. But, there was really no hesitation on my part because we founders need a network of support and without a doubt this is where I need to be.” – Mike Smith, Custom Donations, Cohort 1 Graduate

The program culminates on stage at the Next Venture Summit on September 18, 2024 where the cohort companies will share their pitches.

Meet Cohort 3:

  • Drobot – Founder, Stinj Van de Velde –  Drobot has created a robot for warehouses that interacts with humans and works based on GPS and devices workers can put in their pockets. Robots can pull pallets, get X from Employee A, and more. Currently piloting, they are aiming to manufacture the final product in 2024. 
  • Lark PM – Founder, Eric Fragoso: Fragoso created software for the construction company he owns to be able to quickly price out a job and generate a list of materials needed. He is launching the MVP and looking to expand the reach through the Accelerator program.
  • Knotty Paws – Founder, Wei Wei Huang:  A 2024 finalist of the Hill Institute’s GVL Starts program, Huang has created a company that makes sustainable dog rope toys with a focus on B2B growth. 90% of Knotty Paws’ customers are in SC and they are looking to expand to other states. Knotty Pas has over 60 versions of their toys.
  • SplitEV – Founder, Abi Odugbesan: SplitEV wants to be the Airbnb of EV Charging. Customers can list their personal EV chargers on this platform and users pay a fee to have access to the entire network of chargers. SplitEV has launched its MVP and has 198 locations across the US, a pilot with Alabama Power, a Pilot w/ National Franchise, and 115 drivers. SplitEV was in Techstars Alabama Energy Tech Accelerator and is relocating to Greenville, SC.
  • Zest Vodka – Founder, Justin Buchanan – Currently, Zest Vodka has a lemon-flavored vodka product and is launching a lime flavor in 2024. They are currently in over 150+ stores in SC and Florida. Buchanan relocated here from Charleston and manufactures locally at Six and Twenty Distillery. He and his partners started off with a Rum Brand that they also still run. 

“I’m thrilled to join the NextGEN Startup Accelerator as it offers an invaluable opportunity for Susu Lend, a fintech dedicated to serving the credit invisible. Connecting with local support and resources is incredibly important during our pilot program launch. This local engagement fuels my excitement and allows us to deeply connect with the community we aim to serve, strengthening our foundational launch.” – Pedro Escobar, Susu Lend, Cohort 2 graduate

The companies in Cohort 1 saw a direct impact from participation in the NextGEN Accelerator. Three companies, Pixlmob, WAVS, and Vicinity, all received funding from Founderville.vc which was announced on stage at the 2023 NEXT Venture Summit. Custom Donations from Cohort 1 received funding from SCRA in 2024. From Cohort 2, Rebel Rabbit and Incora Health have also received funding in 2024.

Cohort members and their journeys will be featured across NextGEN’s social media during their time in the program. To learn more about these companies, visit https://www.instagram.com/nextgengvl/.

About NextGEN

NextGEN is a non-profit entrepreneurial support organization that attracts and helps grow high-impact, knowledge-based companies by developing the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Greenville, SC and connecting entrepreneurs to it. Our mission is to identify, engage, and provide support for high-growth entrepreneurs and their teams as they build scaling, investor-ready companies through programming, connections and support whether just starting out or well on their way.

For more information, visit www.nextgengvl.org

Pedro Escobar: The American Dream meets Fintech

pedro escobarPedro Escobar’s journey is more than just a story of professional success; it’s a deeply personal account that intertwines his roots, challenges, and pursuit of the American Dream. Born in Brooklyn to Honduran immigrant parents with limited education, Pedro’s story begins with a modest upbringing. His parents, with no education beyond grade school, worked as a janitor and housekeeper during Pedro’s early years modeling a work ethic Pedro exudes today.

What is a Susu?

The Susu Lend story starts with a practical need: Pedro’s family needed to purchase a new refrigerator. Denied a loan at a local Sears, Pedro’s father reached out to their community and formed a susu, a lending community common in African and Hispanic cultures. A susu involves an informal savings club where members take turns contributing, a practice often used by those considered “unbanked” or “credit-invisible” in the traditional banking system.

“Unbanked” or “credit-invisible” refers to individuals or entities facing challenges accessing conventional banking services. Pedro empathizes with these individuals, understanding they are hardworking people deserving of opportunities for a better life. This empathy led to the creation of Susu Lend, driven by Pedro’s desire to assist individuals in accessing financial opportunities, whether for starting a business or meeting basic needs.

Pedro’s father’s first Susu venture was successful, leading to more, and eventually, the establishment of Wendy’s Grocery Store in New Jersey. Despite the family having to sell the store, Pedro credits his parents for instilling resilience and persistence in him. Eventually, his parents moved to Greenville, SC, and have since invested in real estate in the Upstate. 

From IT to Business School, Surviving 2008

Pedro began his IT career in 2003. The challenges of the ’08-’10 recession led to losing his corporate IT job. In 2010, Pedro and his family moved to Greenville, SC, following in his parents’ footsteps. This move proved successful for Pedro’s career and his wife and children, who graduated from Clemson University. After successfully launching an IT consulting business in Greenville, Pedro returned to school and graduated with a degree in IT Business Management from Western Governors University in 2021. He kept the momentum going by enrolling in business school to focus on launching his next venture. 

While pursuing an MBA at Cornell, Pedro turned his vision for Susu Lend into reality through a class project bringing in founders with varied backgrounds in finance, banking, and data science. Today, Susu Lend is a thriving company that completed its first cash beta. Pedro is working on a digital MVP with plans to launch the app in 2024. Recognizing the complexity of finance and legalities, Pedro diligently seeks advisors and investors to ensure compliance.

Accelerating Business in Cohort 2

In 2023, Pedro completed the NEXT Accelerator program as part of cohort 2. His story, empathy, and kindness made an impact on the entire group. His parents, who inspired him so much throughout his life, were able to come to his final presentation. 

“The NEXT Accelerator was more than a typical startup program; it was a gateway to a thriving community of innovators, mentors, and experts. As the founder and CEO of Susu Lend, a fintech startup aimed at empowering the unbanked and credit invisible, I found unparalleled support and guidance here. The program managers and staff’s dedication and expertise were instrumental in refining our pitch, making it resonate more strongly with our audience. NEXT didn’t just help us grow; it connected us with mentors and partners who shared our vision. Any entrepreneur in Greenville looking for a supportive, dynamic environment would find NEXT an invaluable resource.” Pedro Escobar

Pedro is committed to addressing the trust deficit in his first target market by focusing on his roots. He understands the skepticism within communities, particularly toward institutions and banks, and believes that building trust is paramount for sustainable growth.

Bridging Cultural Gaps

Maintaining a strong connection to his Hispanic roots, Pedro envisions Susu Lend bridging cultural gaps. He acknowledges the challenges immigrants face and aims to fast-track financial stability, especially within the Hispanic community. Pedro’s personal touch extends to Susu Lend’s operations, where he incorporates cultural nuances into AI-driven decision-making. He imagines what AI can do with the cultural data he is collecting and how it can benefit other industries and companies in the future.

As Pedro continues raising funds and engaging research experts for Susu Lend, his journey is a source of inspiration. A living embodiment of the American dream, Pedro overcame challenges and actively empowered others through financial education. His involvement in the Hispanic Alliance and mentoring youth through the SDA program reflects his commitment to the community and nurturing future entrepreneurs. Pedro’s story, filled with personal details, stands as a beacon of hope for aspiring entrepreneurs facing adversity and striving to positively impact their communities.

 

 

Accelerating Success: Checking in on Cohort 1 graduates

Where are they now?

As we reflect on the journey of our inaugural accelerator cohort, it’s thrilling to witness the remarkable strides made by these ambitious ventures. Let’s take a closer look at where they are now and the milestones they’ve achieved.

  • Bottle Titan:
    • Team Structure: New team in place with a software engineer, logistics engineer, patent writer, electrical engineer, and a previous professor at Clemson with expertise in patent writing.
    • Collaboration: Undertook a project with another cohort grad
  • Custom Donations:
    • Strategic Partnership: Established a joint venture with another company in their space
    • Next Steps: Ongoing progress and updates are expected, making it worthwhile to stay tuned for further developments
    • New Look: Worked with local company, Designli, a connection from the Accelerator program, to redesign product 
  • RAAMP:
    • Sales Impact: Showcased tangible sales improvements directly attributed to the accelerator program
    • Team Development: Expanded their team to support increased business demands
    • Support: Joined the VMS mentor program 
  • Ruffian Software (TechID Manager):
    • Investment: Received investment from SCRA and engaged in discussions with other potential investors
    • Team Expansion: Made strategic hires to fuel the company’s growth
    • Growth: Continued with the VMS mentor program 
  • TestedHQ:
    • Funding: Secured $300,000 from SCRA
    • Strategic Shift: Maintained headcount stability while strategically altering their revenue model. The focus is shifting towards a majority subscription-based model next year, emphasizing recurring revenue
    • Operational Enhancements: Dedicated efforts to improve internal efficiency, establishing repeatable and scalable processes
    • Mentorship: Joined the VMS mentor program 
  • Pixlmob:
    • Strategic Focus: Transitioned towards a more focused product approach, with an emphasis on a specific niche within the industry
    • Talent Acquisition: Added two new hires and currently seeking additional talent
    • Funding News: Received funding from Founderville; gave impressive report to investors at end of the year 2023 holiday party 
  • skillsgapp:
    • Recognition: Participated in Furman University Hill Institute Bootcamp; and was named one of the 10 Most Exciting Startups in the region at the #StartupGVL Night at the Drive
    • Future Prospects: Currently exploring additional accelerator programs and funding opportunities
    • Suite Stuff: Actively adding more games to their suite of games
    • Fun news: Co-founder, Tina Zwolinski traveled to Ireland in the fall of 2023 to speak on a panel at Saastock
    • Check out Tina’s full founder feature! 
  • Vicinity:
    • Team Growth: Welcomed a new co-founder, a strong market leader, reinforcing the leadership team
    • Support: Participated in the Furman University Hill Institute Bootcamp, assigned a team of students to complete a project
    • Funding news: SCRA and Founderville funding announced; and announced updates at the Founderville holiday party, updating investors
    • Good PR: Trueline case study was a tangible example of what they do by helping another business come onto the landscape 
  • WAVS Custom:
    • Progress: Successfully closed a funding round, including a significant contribution of $200,000 from SCRA
    • Growth: Expanded their team with two new hires, reinforcing their commitment to advancing WAVS’s innovative vision
    • Fun news: Recently exhibited at CES in Las Vegas and looking forward to launching new products (currently top secret – keep an eye out for the news); and gave inspiring update to investors at Founderville holiday social
    • Homerun: Was named one of the 10 Most Exciting Startups in the region at the #StartupGVL Night at the Drive
    • Read more about founder Ric Hoke

 

Update 2/13/2024 – we’re excited to announce that Mapsheet.com has sold! This is exciting news for founder, Willz Tolbert. We know it was a lot of hard work getting the company to this point.

The accomplishments of our first accelerator cohort are a testament to the dedication, innovation, and resilience of these ventures. We eagerly anticipate witnessing their continued growth and success in the evolving landscape of entrepreneurship. Stay tuned for more updates on their remarkable journeys!

 

Tina Zwolinski of skillsgapp: tackling workforce & economic development with video games

Tina Zwolinski’s dedication to workforce development has its roots in her career beginnings at the Greenville Chamber of Commerce. During her time on the marketing team, she witnessed the transition to manufacturing in South Carolina and the establishment of BMW in the Upstate. Her work in economic development exposed the importance of cultivating a sustainable workforce to meet industry’s needs, and underscored the impact workforce has on attracting new companies and in building thriving communities.

Tackling Economic Development & Workplace Challenges

skillsgapp, Tina Zwolinski, skillionaire games, startups
skillsgapp was named one of the 10 Most Exciting Startups in 2023 at the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Night at the Drive

In 1997, Tina founded ZWO, a branding and marketing firm headquartered in downtown Greenville. Tina’s focus on relationship-building, forged during her Chamber tenure, became the cornerstone of her career. The firm tackled challenges in economic development and workforce across the US and within multiple industries. ZWO also focused on marketing to youth– both nonprofit and for-profit global brands. It was the combination of this work that exposed the gap, the skills gap, where youth and industry were not communicating effectively, jobs were going unfilled and youth were unaware of the opportunities after high school graduation for postsecondary pathways or jobs right around them, specifically in underserved communities.  

Around 2018, the inspiration to address this challenge took hold, and the concept for skillsgapp began evolving after working closely with Gen Z. Faced firsthand with the challenges her adoptive son encountered while navigating the educational and career landscape as an English as a second language student in high school, Tina recognized the need for a more effective approach. After leading ZWO for 23 years and expanding the firm to three locations, including a West Coast and Central American office, Tina transitioned from ZWO to launch skillsgapp in 2020 with cofounder Cynthia Jenkins (who also worked with ZWO), driven by a determination to create a better solution for individuals facing similar challenges.

The hurdles, particularly for those with English as a second language or from underserved communities, create barriers to progress, hindering access and pushing students into low-wage job cycles after high school graduation. Recognizing that 50% of high schoolers face such challenges, skillsgapp’s Skillionaire Games aims to break this cycle while supporting industry with a more vetted pool of early career talent to recruit from to meet their unfilled job needs. 

“The skills gap challenge is not a lack of talent but rather a lack of engaging career and pathway awareness earlier and barrier-free access into the career opportunities.” – Tina Z.

Tina recognized the need to communicate with youth (ages 13-22+) on their terms, using tools and language that resonate with them. Gen Z is on their phones 7+ hours a day, 97% of Gen Z has access to smartphones and gaming is their #1 form of entertainment. Skillionaire Games’ free-to-play virtual environments mirror real-world jobs in the in-demand industries of advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity, life science, healthcare, etc., providing an engaging space for youth to explore industries, understand job requirements, and make informed career decisions without barriers or bias.

Let’s Talk Gaming

skillsgapp is a two-sided model focused on growing players and in growing their paying partnerships with companies and colleges that can promote their brands and opportunities in-game and even recruit the players to fill their seats and jobs. They are innovating early talent recruitment. Ideally, players will have learned through “hands-on virtual experiences” what their new job entails becoming a more qualified individual leading to better retention for companies. They currently have their life science, cybersecurity, soft skills, and healthcare games live with advanced manufacturing deploying Spring of 2024. Skillsgapp faces hurdles common to startups, including speed to market, player acquisition, and shifting industry mindsets. 

They’re early to the game although they have already had some big wins with receiving five global awards including Facebook Gaming’s People Choice Award in 2022 and EdTech Digest’s Top 100 Companies in Workforce and Education in 2023. Other notable traction includes the successful deployment of games into four regional markets, 25,000 players, growing revenue and renewals from paying partners, a national deployment partnership with American Student Assistance in the Fall of 2023 and the games have just begun. You can find their games on the App Store or Google Play under Skillionaire Games or at skillionairegames.com.

Unable to attend the Accelerator Showcase in person, Tina found a way to virtually present

Throughout this journey, Tina Zwolinski has drawn guidance from programs like NEXT VMS and the Accelerator cohort. The networks formed within these programs have become invaluable resources, offering diverse perspectives and expertise that contribute to skillsgapp’s ongoing growth. In January of 2024, Tina was selected to participate in the national Youth Skills First Cohort with Jobs for the Future (JFF), a national nonprofit that drives transformation of the U.S. education and workforce systems to achieve equitable economic advancement for all. After an extensive interview process, six companies were selected to participate from over 500 applicants.

As skillsgapp continues to evolve and the Skillionaire’s movement begins to grow, Tina Zwolinski envisions exciting partnerships and case studies that showcase the platform’s transformative impact on lives of players and the company and college partners. With a dedicated team with lived experience, passion for the mission, and the support of a robust network, Tina Zwolinski’s skillsgapp stands poised to nurture careers from early vision to global impact.

 

2023 Countdown to the Holidays Recap

ICYMI, we counted down to the holidays on social media – let’s recap:

In 2023… we added 12 new mentors and 12 new mentees to our Venture Mentor Services program. One of our signature programs, it has been around since 2015 and has almost 50 mentors working alongside 30 companies.

11 startup companies collaborated with university students from Clemson University’s Venture Consulting Class and the Furman Hill Institute Summer Bootcamp. We are grateful for our university partnerships and look forward to growing them in 2024. Thanks to Bricolage Dynamics, Custom Donations, Food Coach, Incora Health, Instaheat, Matty.ai, Myn.Health, TestedHQ, skillsgapp, Surcee, and Vicinity Capital for participating and providing these students with some great work experience!

We executed 10 Founders Forums covering a wide range of topics from Angel Investing to Storytelling! Thanks to all who attended and look for more in 2024.

There were 9 innings in the first game of the #StartupGVL Innovation & Entrepreneurship Night at the Drive. We’re already planning for next year – get ready!

We held our 8th NEXT Venture Summit. The shining star this year was our first-ever Investor Match Day which connected 24 investors with 47 founders followed by an incredible welcome reception. Day 2 was the Summit which highlighted the 10 Most Exciting Startups in the region and hosted 300 guests.

Our signature Launchpad event awarded 7 ventures with service packages ranging from marketing to financial support. Thanks to our partners who provided packages: Elliott Davis, DFS Creative Concepts, Find Great People, SCRA, Slant, and Wych PA provided packages to AR Funding, Avallano, BottleTitan, Builder Rocket, Incora Health, Metatomic Inc, and Stay Modal.

 

6,000+ of you subscribe to our community newsletter. Not on our the list? You can sign up for our newsletter by going to the footer of this website. It’s full of exciting #StartupGVL news, events, and more!

NEXT presented to 5 different visiting cities from Arizona to Belgium about economic development and the startup ecosystem!

NEXT couldn’t do ALL it does without the Fab 4 – our team. And, thanks to everyone from our sponsors, mentors, and ecosystem partners who help us.

We have 3 amazing organizational sponsors. We could not do our work without the support of the City of Greenville, Greenville County, and the Greenville Chamber of Commerce. 

2 cohorts, equaling 18 companies, graduated from our Accelerator program. Congrats again to Bottle Titan, Bricolage Dynamics, Carbon Cents, Custom Donations, Digital Site Box, Incora Health, Performance Enhanced Delivery, Mapsheet, MyUI.ai, Pixlmob, RAAMP, Rebel Rabbit, Ruffian Software, skillsgapp, Susu Lend, TestedHQ, Vicinity, and WAVS Custom. 

We finally counted down to celebrate 1 kick@ss #StartupGVL Ecosystem! Let’s continue to grow and build and scale businesses in this city we love.

 

 

2023 Year in Review

As we reflect on this past year (how is it already 2024?!), NEXT focused on our main goals: support the broader #StartupGVL community, engage high-growth entrepreneurs, and measure the impact of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Our vision is of a robust community that provides entrepreneurs with the resources they need to scale a business in this amazing city we love. (ICYMI, check out our countdown to the holidays!)

Let’s look back on some snapshots of how we did this in 2023:

NEW Programs we have launched

  • Accelerator Program – Graduated 2 cohorts of 18 companies
  • Growth Labs – 2 focused on Design Thinking & No Code Solutions

NEXT Events

  • 10 Founders Forums – ranging from storytelling to angel investing
  • #StartupGVL Launchpad7 startups won packages from SEO to finance help
  • NEXT Venture Summit – including the very 1st Match Day!
  • 2 Accelerator Showcases – 18 pitches and lots of great memories
  • 1 SUDs – startup drinks in the summer

1st Greenville-based Match Day @ NEXT Venture Summit

  • 24 investors met with 47 ventures speed-dating style
  • 186 curated pairings = countless conversations, connections, and at least 1 investment (so far…)

Community Events [featuring NEXT]

  • #StartupGVL Night at the Greenville Drive (where we announced the 10 Most Exciting Startups in the Region)
  • October Beer & Napkins
  • Chamber of Commerce Leadership Exchange to Nashville, TN

Other City Visits to Greenville:

  • VOKA, 14 Flemish entrepreneurs traveled to the Upstate from Belgium
  • Hattiesburg, MS
  • Paragould, AR 
  • New Braunfels, TX 

Founders – You inspire us. Every day.

Here’s to our continued success in 2024 and beyond!

Rich Johnston, Performance Enhanced Delivery: “I’ve always found a solution.”

Visual Communications to Plant Nutrition: A Unique Journey

Rich Johnston, the founder of Performance Enhanced Delivery (PED), brings a unique blend of creativity, business acumen, curiosity, and a deep passion for agriculture to the table. Literally, the NEXT Accelerator Cohort table. 

Hailing from Pennsylvania, Rich initially pursued graphic design at Pittsburgh Tech starting his career in the world of marketing before the internet era, honing both traditional and modern strategies. His journey took an unexpected turn when he found himself working for a rink facility management company in Michigan doing branding and marketing. Fun fact: Rich got to drive the Zamboni. This diverse background in graphics, marketing, and facility management set the stage for Rich’s eventual foray into agriculture.

From Penn State to Mango Farms: Nurturing a Passion for Agriculture

Back in Pennsylvania, Rich established his own branding agency. One of his potential clients was Penn State, a land grant university with a strong focus on agricultural programs. The university counter-offered; offering Rich a job instead of an account. This led to a unique position in outreach marketing and communications at Penn State where Rich worked in a visual communications role supporting online education, continuing education and cooperative extension initiatives that offer children programs like 4H, sports camps, continuing education, etc. This is when Rich’s advertising and agriculture experience converged.

From Florida to South Carolina: Growth Scripts and Growth in Knowledge

Relocating to South Florida, Rich lived on a mango farm while running his own agency. He began collaborating with a micronutrient company, managing their brand. His mentor guided him through the intricacies of plant nutrition, and Rich became intimately educated in the challenges faced by the agriculture industry, such as citrus greening, a disease impacting citrus trees. Through working with large manufacturing products, Rich started to think about how homeowners should not have to buy massive amounts of plant nutrition (bulk-size) to care for their own plants. Rich, always a tinkerer and an inventor, started turning that problem over in his head. Rich, is not just an idea guy. He’s an inventor, very product-focused in his solutions. He likes to have something tangible at the end of the day. 

Introducing GrowScripts. With a focus on citrus care, he partnered with manufacturers to provide plant nutrition to homeowners, in personal size care kits, aiming to simplify plant care for individuals. He repackaged the products into smaller portions… And this paved the way for Rich’s exploration of his own formulas and products.

Performance Enhanced Delivery: Bridging the Gap in Plant Nutrition

Rich did not want to depend solely on manufacturers for his products. Also, Rich is the guy that nothing is ever good enough so he goes into his workshop to experiment on how to make things better. Performance Enhanced Delivery (PED) was born out of these needs, to improve the quality of his product and to diversify his product base. Eight years of persistent experimentation with coating technology resulted in a patent-pending product that enhances plant nutrition. The innovative bio-based coating allows for a delayed, slow-release of nutrients (specifically fertilizers), reducing the time spent in the field, labor costs, and environmental impact by reducing micro-plastics.

While Rich was working on his time-release coating, his family made the move to Greenville, SC. We love the story of how Rich and his wife divided their research. He took on the best place to build a business and his wife focused on the best places to raise a family. It came down to Greenville or Raleigh, and ultimately Rich could see the budding entrepreneurial community in the Upstate. You can say he wanted to add some fertilizer to our ecosystem. 😉 They made their decision and moved to Greer in just 2 weeks! We’re so glad they did. 

Rich’s “what if” attitude and dedication to understanding each plant’s unique needs have led to his breakthroughs in plant nutrition. PED’s focus on bridging the gap between conventional and regenerative/organic practices reflects Rich’s commitment to sustainable agriculture.

Next Steps and Mentorship: A Community Approach

As Rich navigates the evolving landscape of agriculture and product development, he acknowledges the importance of mentorship and community support. The NEXT Venture Mentoring Service (VMS) program has played a crucial role in connecting him with mentors and a supportive network.

Rich’s journey has been shaped by his curiosity, obsession with improvement, and the desire to create something new. As he envisions a future that combines PED with GrowScripts products, collaboration with fellow founders, and ongoing participation in the NEXT ecosystem, Rich remains committed to pushing the boundaries of agricultural innovation.

In the face of challenges and the occasional bout of imposter syndrome (don’t we all?!), Rich stands as a testament to the resilience and creativity required to make a mark in the agricultural landscape. His story exemplifies the power of community, mentorship, and a relentless pursuit of knowledge in driving innovation and success in the business world. No matter what industry we are in…

 

Putting the Rebel into Rebel Rabbit

Rebel Rabbit was born out of a need for alcohol alternatives in the space—a rebellion. Drinking alcohol is one vice where you get judged for not doing it – it can be hard to be the only one at a party or a brewery (because everything is at a brewery!) without a drink in your hand. And, people are pretty comfortable with asking why you’re not drinking. Coming at this from mental health and substance abuse backgrounds, the founders of Rebel Rabbit found themselves tired of answering all the questions and decided to do something about it! Their guiding principle is simple: “You do you.” The outcome of this rebellion is a cannabis-infused seltzer, swiftly gaining popularity nationwide, with the added perk of leaving consumers hangover-free.

Rebel Rabbit extracts the legal D9 THC compound from the cannabis plant and integrates it into an all-natural blend. Founder Billy Goldsmith crafted two strengths and three all-natural flavors to counterbalance the occasionally bitter taste of cannabis. All their seltzers are natural, low-calorie, and boast minimal sugar content.

Having recently acquired the Brewery 85 space in Greenville as part of their second company Upstate Beverage Consultants, LLC, Rebel Rabbit directly sells its products to consumers and also distributes widely. Achieving remarkable growth since its inception in 2021, the company is on track to earn its third million. Operating in a relatively new industry, Rebel Rabbit faces unique challenges but provides valuable insights to fellow founders in the adult beverage sector in Greenville. They actively contribute to a series of meetings for adult beverage company founders in Greenville through NEXT, sharing industry insights to benefit others on the entrepreneurial journey.

Upstate Beverage Consultants has a contractual agreement to do production for Rebel Rabbit as well as for other non-alcoholic beverage brands. This allows their team to control their production schedule and change directions quickly as rules and regulations shift around the hemp market. It also opens them up to having other non-intoxicating products in our portfolio.  They have plans to expand the brewery later in 2024 to up their production capacity.

Co-founders Pierce Wylie and Billy Goldsmith, both alumni of the NEXT Accelerator cohort 2, sported Rebel Rabbit gear throughout their participation, emphasizing their brand identity. Pierce presented their journey and entrepreneurial challenges at the NEXT Showcase, shedding light on the sometimes isolating path of a founder. “It’s tough being a founder and figuring all this out. So when you can share stories and hear stories of people who have been there before and they can shed light on what you’re doing through it’s great. Leadership helped connect dots and also connect to people and building relationships that will continue to show dividends.” If you attended, they were also giving out samples!

Where can you find Rebel Rabbit locally? Check out Garners, Greenville Beer Exchange, Drop In Store, Palmetto Hemp Provisions, and their website for more locations. Or, just buy it online!

Cohort 2: What are they taking away from The Accelerator? Lifelong connections and more…

We just concluded our second cohort of the NEXT Accelerator program designed to work with high-growth startup founders to supercharge their businesses. At the culmination of the program, the founders took the stage to deliver their 4-minute pitches on November 16, 2023 in front of a sizable audience of about 125 people, receiving support not only from their friends and family but also from an unexpected ally—Barbie. (You’d have to have been there!)  Part of their presentation is reflecting on what they learned through this eight-week intensive program. Let’s delve into what they learned and what they found most impactful – genuine insights from a cohort navigating the unpredictable startup world of business.

 

Strategic Focus and Storytelling Mastery:

  • The cohort 2 founders realized the importance of a clear strategy, incorporating insights from curriculum presentations and panelists into their big-picture plans. Improving storytelling skills became a game-changer especially when it came time to focus on their pitches – getting your whole story down to 4 minutes is hard!  

The Business Rollercoaster:

  • The program offered an MBA “crash course” in business, particularly sales and scaling – sans the textbooks. Participants not only sharpened their business acumen but also cultivated valuable leadership skills. It wasn’t just the presenters and panelists that provided valuable insight but each founder learned just as much from their fellow cohort founders. “As a sole founder, you kind of get caught in the hamster wheel of life. One month you may spend 4 days in finance, a few days in operations, and then you get caught in a marketing fire over there. One thing NEXT has provided on the accelerator front as well as the VMS program front is the blinders on the horse, helping to keep things steady. Also the continuity of mentorship. You can always get advice but having people that really know the story helps a lot.” Zeb Parsons, Bricolage Dynamics

Networking, Insights, and Tweaking Their Game:

  • Connections made during the program are invaluable – collaboration during the program was critical but even more so the ability to lean on their peers post-program will be incredibly beneficial. Across the board, the participants talked about being inspired by and building connections with fellow founders adding a sense of camaraderie to the process. Refining their approach and solving problems collectively were standout moments, especially during our Friday lunches! 

Sales, Customers, and Team are key:

  • Sales emerged as the heartbeat of their businesses. “I learned that sales is important and you want to have customers! You want to make money. Making money is good.” Julian Brinkley, MyUI.ai’s tongue-in-cheek lightbulb moment. Also, finding the right person to make those sales is clutch – oftentimes the founder(s) is the initial sales person but finding the right people to join the team becomes critical as companies grow.

Cutting through Chaos with Focus and Professional Connections:

  • The program helped them focus amid the chaos of entrepreneurship, providing mentorship like a GPS for their businesses. Networking opportunities acted as a gateway to the business community, offering impactful connections and insights. We look forward to continuing to connect these founders with long-term mentor relationships. 

Leveraging Networks, Cheers to Resilience:

  • Their mentors became lifelines, helping them leverage networks and fostering camaraderie with fellow entrepreneurs. Immersed in Greenville’s startup culture, they learned to pivot swiftly and build resilience. Recognizing the importance of perseverance in the face of challenges became a crucial aspect of their entrepreneurial mindset. “It’s tough being a founder and figuring all this out. So when you can share stories and hear stories of people who have been there before and they can shed light on what you’re doing through it’s great. The leadership helped connect dots and also connect to people and build relationships that will continue to show dividends.” – Pierce Wylie, Rebel Rabbit

From Where They Started to Where They’re Going:

  • We started the sessions with three main questions: what do you want, who does it serve, and how do you get it? The program catapulted them to where they needed to be and understanding the answers to these questions. 

Conclusion:

This program was more than a pit stop; it was like rocket fuel for their businesses. As they gear up for what’s next, the impact of this experience will continue to resonate in their ongoing successes. They’re not just navigating the entrepreneurial landscape; they’re owning it, one lesson at a time.

“The NEXT Accelerator was more than a typical startup program; it was a gateway to a thriving community of innovators, mentors, and experts. As the founder and CEO of Susu Lend, a fintech startup aimed at empowering the unbanked and credit invisible, I found unparalleled support and guidance here. The program managers and staff’s dedication and expertise were instrumental in refining our pitch, making it resonate more strongly with our audience. NEXT didn’t just help us grow; it connected us with mentors and partners who shared our vision. Any entrepreneur in Greenville looking for a supportive, dynamic environment would find NEXT an invaluable resource.” – Pedro Escobar, Susu Lend