January 18, 2018

Elms Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership yields results for local businesses

Staff report

ShakeWhey’s founders (left to right): Connor Holland, Kevin Hepburn, and John Jacquinet. (IObserve photo/courtesy of Elms College)


CHICOPEE — When the College of Our Lady of the Elms launched the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership in spring 2016, it did so to fill a need in the local business community for hands-on business education.

Two recent startups that were launched through CEL workshops are ShakeWhey, a vending machine that mixes and dispenses pre- and post-workout protein shakes on demand, and Z Wraps, a reusable alternative to plastic wrap and aluminum foil.

“Economic development and entrepreneurship are a big part of making our community better, so we offer workshops and Lean LaunchPad boot camps on weekends, to help people flesh out their ideas,” said Amanda Garcia, the director of the new CEL, who is also an assistant professor of accounting at Elms College. “We also offer programming, once they flesh out that idea, to help them learn what to do next.”

(IObserve photo/courtesy of ShakeWhey)

When ShakeWhey cofounder Connor Holland participated in a Lean Startup Weekend at Elms College in June 2016, he and his partners only had what he called “a napkin of a business idea.”

Holland, Kevin Hepburn, and John Jacquinet – all 2016 college graduates and fitness enthusiasts – believed there was a market for a vending machine that mixes and dispenses pre- and post-workout protein shakes on demand.

So he explored the business idea by attending a weekend-long workshop at Elms College that was facilitated by experienced business professionals and brainstorming with other budding entrepreneurs. “I was able to see that it was actually something tangible that we could move forward with,” Holland said.

The CEL’s Startup Lean Weekend is designed to help startups and small businesses identify the specific problems their products or services can solve for customers. The workshop helps businesses fail less, save money, and discover target customers and ideal business models. It combines hands-on experience, customer interaction, and business fundamentals for entrepreneurship.

“It laid the foundation of what our business plan — that we still use today — would be,” Holland said. It also helped them establish valuable connections to businesspeople and classmates with skills they could use, such as in graphic design or videography.

“People in the classes here at Elms have helped us out tremendously,” Hepburn said. “There’s been a lot of people pushing us forward.”

It was so helpful that all three of them took two more classes through the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership. Through those classes, they were nominated for and won an Entrepreneurial Spirit award from the Grinspoon Entrepreneurship Initiative last spring and were accepted into the Valley Venture Mentor program.

Today, ShakeWhey is not only a business, but it’s booming. The partners have a vending machine operating in Healthtrax Fitness & Wellness’ East Longmeadow gym and are talking to the gym chain about adding others among their 18 locations.

In addition, “we just made a deal with Aramark, so Western New England University and Springfield College will each be receiving a machine this upcoming spring semester,” Holland said. “We also made a deal with Boston Sports Club, which operates about 30 fitness centers in the greater Boston area.”

ShakeWhey will start in Boston Sports Club’s Weyland location, but could soon move to others as well.

Michelle Zimora of Easthampton founded Z Wraps. (IObserve photo/courtesy of Elms College)

A Startup Lean Weekend workshop taught Michelle Zimora of Easthampton a singularly important lesson: that she needed to find another product.

Zimora had started making paper chandeliers and papercut shadow boxes, and was selling them at a store where she works part-time in Northampton. Customers loved them, and she wanted to turn the papercrafts into a business, but she had many questions about the world of business.

“What would my customer base be? How can I reach stores in the right way to sell these things?” she said. “Coming at business from a maker’s left-minded perspective is why a lot of makers don’t make it in business.”

A friend told Zimora about the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at Elms College, and its Lean Startup Weekend. Zimora saw the workshop as an opportunity to get some advice and guidance, and what she ultimately learned was that her products were not saleable. “I can’t make them in faster than an hour,” she said. That time delay makes them financially unfeasible to produce.

She still enjoys making the chandeliers and shadow boxes in small quantities and on commission, but she realized she needed another, more easily reproduced product. That’s how Z Wraps were born.

“Z Wraps are an alternative to plastic wrap and aluminum foil: a piece of fabric that’s coated in beeswax, jojoba oil, and tree resin,” Zimora said. “They last for six to 12 months, which is great.”

The concept itself is not unique, Zimora said, but she noticed a need in the market for a more stylish approach, which became an outlet for her natural design skills.

With Lean LaunchPad, she was able to get her business up and running quickly. “Your business model is on one page; it’s not like this 40-page document,” she said. “You can see everything right in front of you, and it’s a work in progress. You’re constantly changing it, but you don’t delete anything. You want to be able to see how it’s progressing.”

After the Startup Lean Weekend program, she signed up to take the CEL’s Lean Launchpad class, and since then, she has continued to move forward, and has even hired a fabric designer. “We’re just about done with getting our four signature patterns completed,” Zimora said. The packaging is done, and she is getting a machine that can coat the fabric.

(IObserve photo/courtesy of Z Wraps)

Her sister, who works for Roche Brothers supermarkets, showed the wrap to the supermarket’s buyer, who said, “Once you have your packaging and your UPC codes, come and talk to us,” she said.

The chain sees her product starting in their Brothers Marketplace line of stores. “If things go well there, they’re going to put me in their top-nine-performing Roche Brothers stores,” she said.

The founders of both companies said that the CEL courses’ requirement to conduct interviews with potential customers – to foster real-world interactions instead of just conducting online research – resulted in eye-opening data that was invaluable.

For ShakeWhey, Holland said the process helped them to hone in on their target demographic.

“We probably interviewed well over a hundred people,” Jacquinet said. “You’re getting real feedback instead of what you would normally guess, so that’s helpful.”

“[The face-to-face interactions] also allowed us to see what type of people were saying yes to having a shake after the gym,” Holland said. “We found millennials and people aged 20 to 35 are more inclined to want a ShakeWhey in their gym. So when we go to pitch to a gym owner, if they have a high concentration of millennials at their gym, they get a better return than someone with a more general population.”

Zimora found the same thing for Z Wraps.

“Every week you had to interview at least 10 people,” Zimora said. “Before you even create your minimum viable product, get out there and ask questions about it. The people I chose to ask questions of were people who owned or managed stores.”

What she discovered through that process was that assumptions can often be wrong.

“The point was, you really don’t know anything and you have to go out and ask questions first,” Zimora said. “You can’t just sit behind a desk and figure it all out.”