Diverse companies getting boost from KYN accelerator
Let's be realistic. There's never a good time to spill coffee on yourself.
To do it just before making the most important business pitch of your life, though, is beyond bad timing.
That's the situation Zach Lever found himself in as he and his partner, Lee McAlilly, were waiting to pitch Original Fuzz, which sells products for guitar players. They were among One Spark creators trying to secure a spot in the KYN business accelerator financially supported by Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan.
Even his competitors waiting at EverBank Field that April day were stressed out, said Lever, a lawyer by trade but musician at heart.
As he and McAlilly walked into the room to talk about their Original Fuzz business, the smell of the coffee he spilled on himself, and the spot it left behind on his freshly starched white shirt, were unmistakable.
"My next invention will be a coffee lid that doesn't fall off," Lever told the panel.
And if the pitch started badly, they thought it ended even worse.
"They didn't ask a single question," McAlilly said. "We thought we had blown it."
A few months later, they learned they made it to the next round, and were eventually one of four startups chosen for the inaugural class of KYN.
The benefits of KYN
Each of the businesses got seed money and $50,000 in design, development and launch resources, according to KYN's website. They also have access to mentors in many areas, including design, fundraising, sales and marketing.
Elton Rivas, a founding partner, said the accelerator has a 10-to-1 mentor-creator ratio — one of several factors he said sets KYN apart from other accelerators. (KYN is a play on the word kin, as in family.)
Another is the variety of companies KYN is backing in the 16-week session. "We've seen so many accelerator programs only focused on technology. We wanted to fit better with what fits Jacksonville," he said.
The variety among the four businesses shows that:
• Original Fuzz sells guitar straps, gear bags and cables.
• Artific Games creates graphics, sound and animations for digital games.
• Menuat sells all-digital menus for restaurants and bars.
• Pure Treats is a healthy-food development company.
They work out of the same office Downtown in the Hutchinson-Suddath Building. One wall of the Bay Street office is a hand-drawn calendar where each company tracks its progress each week on "Waffle Wedneday."
At the end of the four-month session, the businesses will show their work to potential investors.
Rivas said he was "not overly surprised but pretty excited about the growth some of the teams are seeing."
"Honestly speaking, all four have a great shot at becoming sustainable companies," he said.
Lever and McAlilly met in 2001 while attending Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. They became roommates and bandmates for the next several years. Eventually, McAlilly went to New York and Lever entered law school at the University of Florida.
In 2009, Lever traveled to Peru, where he saw artisans making unique hand-woven belts that he thought would be great guitar straps.
He said he "sat on the idea for a while" but two years ago, he and McAlilly started their business to sell the bags, cables and straps. One of their straps is named in honor of Kurt Vile, who has received critical reception in his solo career as Kurt Vile and the Violators.
They plan to create gear for other musicians, perhaps saxophonists next.
By the way, the name of the company comes from two places: Original for the original patterns of the Peruvian straps and "fuzz" from the distortion made famous by Jimi Hendrix.
What they learned
Less than halfway through their time at the incubator, Lever and McAlilly say the experience has helped them focus and clarify their mission.
In addition, the exposure to the mentors has been invaluable. For McAlilly, the most help came from those who talked accounting and cash flow. For Lever it was the public relations and trademarks folks.
In addition to website sales, their products are in stores in several cities, including Jacksonville, Nashville, Chicago, Atlanta and Miami. They hope to soon be in 20 stores, which was their goal when they started KYN.
Early success already has come to Original Fuzz, whose first presale of Peruvian straps sold out in just 25 days.
KYN is taking applications for the second class of startups to work at the accelerator. Rivas said there's no set number on how many will be selected.
It's about what the startups have to offer and their chances at becoming sustainable businesses.
The second class will benefit from lessons KYN leaders have learned so far, including having businesses do more pre-work before they start the program.
Rivas also learned how connected and committed the mentors are. "They are engaged and the networks they provided are just fantastic," he said. "I'm surprised at the favors they're able to call in."
The deadline to apply for the KYN spring class is 11:59 a.m. Nov. 30. The class will run Jan. 13-May 2.
For information, visit kyn.is.
Though it's not definite, Rivas said he expects KYN alumni will come back and share some of the lessons they've learned.
Both Lever and McAlilly said they would be interested in doing so.
Maybe even about the value of a good coffee cup lid.