The upcoming graduates of Roanoke’s startup accelerator took turns pitching their businesses to a room of investors and community leaders at the annual RAMP Demo Day this week — but they’re not finished yet.
RAMP is taking its show on the road this year, first to Pittsburgh this week and then Washington, D.C., next month.
The main goal is to get the companies in front of investors who might choose to back their businesses. But Mary Miller, director of the accelerator, said it’s also about showing off the kind of startups taking root in Southwest Virginia.
“I want the rest of the commonwealth to know we’ve got some pretty clever companies coming up here,” Miller said. “There are a lot of people in the commonwealth who think everything happens in Richmond or Washington or Hampton Roads. And that’s just not true.”
Miller pointed to companies in this year’s cohort of five startups, like Micro Harmonics Corp., which manufacturers high-tech communications devices. The company is eligible for a NASA program that will match funds raised by investors dollar-for-dollar up to $1 million.
Ticket Spicket, another participant that offers ticketing software for high schools, has doubled its number of customers this year alone. Its platform is now used by 225 organizations in 35 states.
But it wasn’t easy getting here, Miller said.
RAMP, which is a joint venture of Virginia Western Community College, the city of Roanoke and the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council, is designed to push entrepreneurs to their limits. Assumptions are challenged over the monthslong program. Entrepreneurs are matched with mentors, who often don’t say what they want to hear.
“It’s like you’re in love with having a new baby,” Miller said. “The problem is, after you’ve had a baby for two months you realize how much work they are. You still love them, but you have a different perspective.”
The founders of Prescription Soil & Plant Nutrient Management entered RAMP pretty confident they understood their industry. They had designed a soil testing service that’s quicker and more user-friendly than competitors, they say.
Homeowners mail in dirt from their garden and Prescription Soil tests it in the lab. Instead of getting back data tables full of numbers, users get a step-by-step guide for what products to add to their yard at what time of year to improve soil health.
At first, Prescription Soil was selling directly to homeowners, a business model known as business-to-consumer, or B2C.
“We didn’t know why it wasn’t getting traction,” said Bill Trifiro, the company’s chief marketing officer. “Doing customer discovery forced us to ask some awkward questions both within our own agency as well as the customer who we thought we knew.”
It turns out, the company’s assumptions were wrong.
Through the RAMP accelerator, Trifiro said they decided to drastically change the business. Instead of selling directly to consumers, the company is now selling its service to lawn and garden stores.
Customers walk into the garden center looking for advice on their lawns. Now the stores can provide the soil tests to figure out what kinds of products the homeowner needs.
The startup is in talks with a group that could potentially provide access to 800 lawn and garden centers.
Miller said Prescription Soil’s pivot demonstrates the goal of RAMP. She makes sure founders are surrounded by encouraging and smart people, with the goal of helping some of the region’s most promising startups avoid costly mistakes.
“They could have thrown millions of dollars at the B2C market and it was never going to go,” Miller said. “They would have never uncovered this pivot.”