Entrepreneurs plus mentors equal success

by Susan O’Neill
FOX VALLEY—Position-Tech, a sports equipment manufacturing company created by four former Northern Illinois University students, was one of several companies featured last Thursday at an event celebrating the successes of entrepreneurs from the Fox Valley area.

The featured companies were only a small sample of the more than 25 start-ups that received business advice and mentoring through the Fox Valley Entrepreneurship Center and the Illinois Small Business Development Center in the past year.

Former Northern Illinois University football players Erek Benz and Dan Nicholson were still in school five years ago when they found themselves slipping around on the field. They did a little research and found that, although many improvements had been made to other types of football equipment, football cleats had not significantly changed since the 1920s.

After graduation, Benz decided to do something about that. He and Nicholson, together with college buddies Christian Anderson and David Pickard, developed a football cleat system that was proven to increase traction on the field by 20 percent.

The cleats are also customizable, depending on the position of the player and whether the desired advantage is agility, power, balance or speed. They patented the technology, founded the company Position-Tech, LLC, and with financing from family and friends, hit the road to sell the product.

Their cleats received high marks from NCAA and professional football players, who immediately saw the potential for a legal advantage over the competition. Their product won endorsements from some well-known players, including Chicago Bears’ wide receiver Earl Bennett, who became Position-Tech’s first company spokesperson.

The young men were also able to persuade Dick’s Sporting Goods to place the cleats on its website. After the cleats made eight times the revenue that Dick’s had projected, the sporting goods company rolled them out to 216 of its stores. Position-Tech’s current problem is obtaining the financial backing needed to keep up with the demand.

This is where serial entrepreneur Andrew Parker comes in. Parker is one of a number of successful entrepreneurs who provide mentoring and guidance to companies like Position-Tech through a partnership between the Fox Valley Entrepreneurship Center and the Illinois Small Business Development Center.

Parker and other entrepreneurs with various areas of expertise work with the founders of these start-ups, who otherwise might not be able to afford their services, to help them take their companies to the next level.

Parker said he considered it a real opportunity to work with the four former college friends.

“With early starters, it’s not about the product, it’s about the people,” he said.

The two things that attracted Parker about Position-Tech were the “cool technology” and “a CEO who listens.”

Parker said the first thing he does with his clients is a half-day strategy session to evaluate their business and determine their needs. Those needs could be to increase revenue, fix the marketing plan or work on some specific operational issues.

Parker has helped the young men rebuild their financial model from scratch. He determined that in order for their company to continue to grow, they needed an additional $1.5 million in financing. After working with them on their business pitch to investors, he went with them to their first pitch meeting. They came away from that first meeting with $250,000.

With additional advice and assistance, Benz and his team also launched an online cleat configurator web site and created a marketing strategy to penetrate the high school football market. They are positioned to expand into the Lacrosse and Rugby markets in 2014.

Another company that received critical business advice from Fox Valley entrepreneurs who have “been there,” is Benefit Performance Associates, LLC. Owners Maria Kuhn and Dr. Christina Krause had an award-winning Integrated Health Advocacy Program (IHAP) to address the health care needs of patients with multiple chronic illnesses, while significantly reducing the health care costs of employers. What they didn’t have was a clear identity and branding strategy, a dynamic sales pitch or realistic pricing that would allow them to grow.

After working with consultants from FVEC to improve their sales presentation and create a viable marketing strategy, Kuhn said they are 30 days away from signing a contract with a large benefits company in Indiana that will bring in $300,000 worth of revenue.

Illinois Small Business Development Center’s Harriet Parker could not be happier with the success of the partnership her organization has forged with the Fox Valley Entrepreneurial Center.

“There’s so much expertise out there, and the entrepreneur doesn’t have a good way to tap into that,” she said. “Our goal is to be the ultimate dot connector.”

Parker said that the mentors that sign on to the project are not in it for the money. She said many times they will work at a reduced rate or will donate their time to mentor a business.

James Brannen, who became an entrepreneur when he retired from a 25-year career in the banking business, said he is excited about the potential that exists in the Fox Valley.

“We’re trying to create a sustainable environment for businesses to grow and develop in the Fox Valley,” he said.