Last month, a member of the 2013 RevTechLabs class won SHAPE Charlotte, a business idea competition created by Charlotte Shapers. That winner won both the Grand Prize and Audience Choice awards, taking home a purse of $12,500. Katie Levans, the founder of PlateShare, is the first person to go from idea to an established organization using Charlotte startup programs. She started at the beginning of 2013 by entering Startup Weekend at the urging of her friend Scott Lundgren. He was pivotal in her decision to attend and pitch her hunger relief donation app to complete strangers. After a warm reception from that event, she joined other companies at RevTech Labs to develop her idea further. Next year, Levans will wrap up her events circuit by competing in SEED20. In the lull of the holidays I caught up with her to capture her experience so far. Katie Levans has a few tips for individuals who may be thinking about taking the same route through the startup scene.
The Properties of an Intense Year
“It has been a crazy year, but SHAPE Charlotte was a cool event,” starts Katie Levans. Many entrepreneurs go from idea to an established company every year, but Levans is the first to go through Charlotte’s structured startup programming. Startup Weekend was the first time she articulated her idea to strangers, which is a frightening experience for any person. After the 54 hour weekend, her idea became a tool that people could use to donate in small amounts to hunger relief program Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina. Each time a user pays at a restaurant they round up their purchase to the nearest dollar and that difference is donated. Originally, the idea for PlateShare came from volunteering with a non profit a couple years ago. The experience from that weekend fueled her fire for pursuing the idea further which led to her accepting the invitation into RevTech Labs.
RevTech Labs, a startup mentorship program at Packard Place, was helpful in developing the organization and increasing the size of Levan’s network. In the three months of the program, she met many people and cultivated a relationship with David Mille, who gave her “solid practical advice” for PlateShare. The program is also where she received her first major negative feedback. She was asked, “How will donors get a benefit from donating?” It was a question which she had never thought about. Levans, a person who receives satisfaction from volunteering her time, decided to create a rewards program to solve that problem for those types of users. The more an individual donates, the more perks they will receive from the restaurants they are visiting.
Levans said she felt prepared, comfortable and not overwhelmed by the process going into SHAPE Charlotte. “I took a stronger approach with my views going into that event,” she says. In RevTech, she felt she swayed too much between all the mentor advice. Quality relationships, created with mentors from RevTech Labs, deepened as she went through the competition. These are relationships that are now invaluable to her network as an entrepreneur. Acting on encouragement from Erik Rosenwood and Diek Minkhorst she applied to SHAPE Charlotte and eventually won.
Naturally throughout this year, she has created a business plan, but this process tackles the good and the bad of her ideas. At times, she felt overlooked and out of place because her idea is socially focused, but she says it has been an “incredible experience and it has got PlateShare off the ground.” From her experience, she has a few tips for others who might follow in this path.
Katie Levans’s Advice to Entrepreneurs
This process pushes a founder into a double-edged sword. “The major benefits – advice, networking and press – are also disadvantages in doing all these programs,” reveals Katie Levans. “If you hate public speaking then don’t take this route.”
The advice given to an entrepreneur provides information on developing the technology, business, strategy, marketing, team and vision of an idea. Opening an idea up to discussion pushes it through many different points of view. Levans says that is good because there are limits to one’s own capacity. “One person can’t do this by themselves,” she says. “Don’t do this if you think you have to do everything. You have to know when to swallow your own pride. You have to let others feel ownership of the idea.” It sounds like Levans has learned something experienced entrepreneurs often talk about. Silicon Valley venture capitalist Chris Dixon says good startup ideas go through the idea maze - an idea looked at from all sides. On the benefits of networking, Levans says “the one right introduction can be powerful.” Lastly, she mentions the press is good from the completion of the startup focused programs. Developers of PlateShare’s iOS and Android apps, partnerships, and users came from reading about the organization in the press.
There is a painful other side to the advice, networking and press one receives. Levans said she had “advice overload” from all the people she met. The advice is convincing and that may lead an entrepreneur into taking their idea in many directions. She said by the time she was in the process of SHAPE Charlotte, she was firm in the strategy of her idea and was not swayed from mentoring as much as she was in the beginning of the year. It was a strategy that helped her present well at the event. LendingTree founder, Doug Lebda, says “advice overload” can be solved with “skin in the game”. He claims the best advice comes from advisers who are willing to invest their time, money or talent to your startup.
The networking she received was good for her goals, but Levans expresses that she feels she may have missed opportunities. She cannot follow up on every connection she has made throughout the year and those relationships will wither over time. Lots of press can be a disadvantage especially when progress stalls and a high profile launch is met with a nonworking product. The situation happened to her earlier this year with the PlateShare launch. She also says the premature exposure can be bad if the infrastructure is not set.
In mid July, PlateShare launched during one of the busiest times for restaurants – Restaurant Week. With the completion of a successful launch, she would have many users as well as given attention to a great need in the area. However, the product for the seven-month-old organization was not ready. “I received a message at 4pm the day of launch saying the app would not be ready,” says Levans retelling that difficult experience. “That was a terrible week. I rode the inertia of media attention. At least, we were able to donate $1,000 to Second Harvest from that week.” The week before the launch date her developers said they would meet the deadline. “Failure happened, but I believe so much in this idea. This is why I am sticking with it,” asserts Levans.
Next Steps for PlateShare
In the early part of 2014, Levans will take PlateShare to one more competition and compete for capital in SEED20. That particular event is created specifically for social enterprise ideas. She is also working on redesigns of the Android and iOS apps that will be available in the early part of next year. She says she will not launch until she has tested its functionality. Currently, PlateShare’s users in Charlotte are giving an average of $10 per month and she wants to give them an easier tool to use. Levans will not go through another week of sleepless nights because of a nonfunctional product.
The next aspect of the application is the online website, which will enable restaurants to feed perks to users. This is essential because she wants to make sure that all of the donations a user gives goes directly to the recipient. Restaurants will have to pay a subscription fee in order to deliver perks to the users. The income generated from restaurants will pay for the operations of the organization. Levans’s goal is to put PlateShare in as many restaurants as possible all over the nation, but she wants to have a strong concentration of users in Charlotte first. As she scales to a national level she wants each market to have a local benefactor. She plans to do that by finding a national partner that has many local branches. For instance, Second Harvest is a local chapter of Feeding America. Another potential national partner would be Share our Strength, which is also a hunger relief effort.
Looking ahead as an entrepreneur, Levans hopes Charlotte’s startup community continues to be open and become more inviting. I mentioned to her that a few people told me they were upset about the apps not working in July. She said that was a perfect moment where those people could have come to her with potential solutions. Charlotte definitely has much more room for collaboration. Overall, I get the feeling she is excited about the potential and the direction of the startup community and the programming she was able to join.
[Lead Photo Credit: Manoj Govindan]