Matt Boyes-Watson wins startup funds in pitch competition
WATERVILLE — At least one college student won’t have to worry about finding work after graduation this spring.
Matt Boyes-Watson, a senior at Colby College, will serve as CEO of his own company, an Internet startup called rentprefs.com, based in Boston.
Earlier this month, Boyes-Watson received $15,000 in seed money for his company during Colby College’s second annual Business Pitch Competition. At the event, Boyes-Watson competed against four other student entrepreneurs to present the best five-minute business pitch in front of judges and an audience of peers and area businesspeople.
Organizers said the annual contest is just one event in central Maine that is meant to foster a growing community of entrepreneurs. During the past two years, businesses in the area are sprouting up at a promising rate, they said.
Two years ago, Boyes-Watson, a native of Cambridge, Mass., got a Realtor’s license and entered the fast-paced apartment rental market in the greater Boston area. Soon after, he discovered a need to streamline the arduous apartment-hunting process for potential renters.
The idea grew into the website rentprefs.com, which asks renters to fill out a survey describing their ideal living quarters. The site then generates lists of apartments from area rental brokers.
“It’s a match.com for apartments,” Boyes-Watson said.
Boyes-Watson worked on the project for two years. Last summer, he launched a beta version of the site that served Cambridge, Mass. Then in March, the site expanded to include more of the metro area.
To run his business, Boyes-Watson stays at Colby just two nights a week. He leaves every Thursday after classes for Boston. Then he returns to Waterville on Tuesday morning.
Boyes-Watson submitted his business plan for consideration by a panel of judges at Colby’s Business Pitch Competition. His plan was one of five finalists chosen from a group of nine entries.
On April 12, Boyes-Watson made his presentation. Mike Duguay, co-founder of Kennebec Valley Entrepreneurial Network, said he attended both annual events. He said he has seen a lot of business pitches during the past two decades.
“Those are some of the best business proposals I have heard in my career,” he said.
Roger Woolsey, director of Colby’s Career Center, said the center provides career counseling to about 1,800 students per year and organizes programs like the Entrepreneurial Alliance, the group that hosts the annual competition.
Woolsey said the prize money is raised by alumni and parents, and the standards to achieve the prize are lofty. For starters, competitors must have a real business. All five finalists had business licenses and are either operational or close to it.
“The seed money provides winners with an opportunity to take their businesses to the next level,” he said.
The money could be used for website development, marketing or to buy materials.
Danny Garin is a junior at Colby. Last year, he and two fellow students won $10,000 for their Waterville-based business, My Fresh Maine.
“Before the competition, we were more or less an idea, and the $10,000 turned it into a business,” he said.
The students used the money to build a website, buy advertising and more. The money has lasted; a year later they still have about $1,000, which can be applied to operating costs, Garin said.
My Fresh Maine serves as a online store for fresh Maine produce and other local products. Their website processes orders for a statewide network of farmers and artisans, provides customer relations and marketing. They also provide My Fresh Maine-branded packing materials to participating farms, so producers can ship their goods directly to consumers.
Garin said he expects the business, which is somewhat seasonal, will gain momentum during the upcoming growing season. Last year, the site wen live toward the end of the growing season, but, one month after its launch, the site racked up 25,000 hits and $5,000 in sales.
Garin said he expects a boost in sales late this summer when Entrepreneur Magazine publishes a feature story about the business, slated for July.
“That will hit about 9 million eyes, which is very exciting for us,” he said with a laugh.
A new era?
Woolsey said the contest is solely for Colby students, but other events hosted by the Entrepreneurial Alliance are inclusive.
“All of the workshops are open to the entire community,” he said. “We want to educate high school students and adults on entrepreneurship.”
Duguay said the Kennebec Valley Entrepreneurial Network, which has about 100 active participants, is interested in fostering an entrepreneurial spirit throughout central Maine, including Mayflower Hill.
“We’re trying to get our more seasoned entrepreneurs to interact with students — give them a sounding board, give them mentorship to help them as they launch their companies,” he said. “We want our veteran entrepreneurs in the audience hearing these pitches, supporting them, coming up to them afterward to provide feedback or advice.”
Duguay said new businesses like My Fresh Maine and Downeast Cider — a company that produces hard cider at the Hathaway Mill — could be signs of new era.
“We’re seeing some entrepreneurial activity in central Maine that I’ve not witnessed it in the last decade or two,” he said.
He added that networking with other businesspersons can help pave the way for more startups, because cooperation could quash long-standing beliefs that central Maine is unreceptive to new ideas.
“It’s very difficult, culturally, to come out with a different idea. And, if it’s an entrepreneurial idea on top of it, the perception is the community would ridicule a new idea,” he said. “That’s no longer the case.”
Ben McCanna — 861-9239