Entrepreneurs get a start in Central Oregon

Oregon State University — Cascades student, Brian Novick, standing, who is part of a group called Eco Eats, delivers a pitch to a group of judges, during the Innovation PitchFest in the Graduate Research Center in Bend on Tuesday.(Andy Tullis/Bulletin photo)

Inspiration struck Will Harlan while he was traveling from San Francisco to London. He desperately needed sleep, and his head kept bobbing.

Taking his Patagonia jacket, he tied his head to the seat and covered his eyes with the body of the jacket. Now he’s producing SeatDreamzzz, a sleeping mask that attaches to an airplane seat.

“It does look kind of dorky,” said the 30-year-old Harlan. “But at the end of the day, you don’t really care what you look like from the outside if you get a good sleep.”

Harlan recently told his story to a room full of entrepreneurs at a pub talk put on by Economic Development for Central Oregon. His pitch was smooth and went from his personal story to facts and figures about travel and finished up with a solid ask: a mentor and leads on a manufacturer.

Growing as a good entrepreneur starts with developing a good pitch, said Amy Watson, Oregon State University-­Cascades marketing professor.

Support for the pitch can come from a variety of places in Central Oregon. There are monthly pub talks, independent pitch coaches and several sources of seed funding.

The support network is responding to a population that forms new businesses at a rapid pace. Bend had one business registration for every 28 residents in 2017, according to data provided by Eager Law, which produces a monthly entrepreneur report.

New businesses less than a year old added 846 jobs over an eight-year period, from 2010 to last summer, said Damon Runberg, state of Oregon Employment Department regional economist. These new businesses’ employment growth is comparable to Boise, Idaho, but slower than Salem and Eugene, Runberg said.

“It is fantastic to see that new businesses are contributors to the rapid employment growth we have seen the past several years,” Runberg said.

“Our growth in new business employment is amongst the fastest in the Pacific Northwest over the past seven years.

“We’re an attractive place to start a business, and the data reflects that.”

At EDCO, Brian Vierra, a venture catalyst, works with entrepreneurs to hone pitches that vary in length from 11 seconds to 30 minutes. At monthly pub talks, about 250 people come to hear the pitches of a couple of entrepreneurs.

It’s a popular event in a place where people attempt to carve out work to match their lifestyle, Vierra said.

“I think Bend has an interesting culture,” Vierra said. “There’s a lot more early stage activity than in most any town I can think of that is the same size. It’s a craft culture. The mindset is to start something new.”

Getting results

Since Harlan’s pitch, he has been able to contract with a San Diego manufacturer who committed to make 5,000 products for him over the next six months that he will pay for in advance. In the meantime, he will keep his day job and sell Seat Dreamzzz direct to consumers from his website, he said. Harlan said he has sold about 300 of the travel sleep masks to customers in 20 different countries around the globe.

“One thing I’ve learned with this is that you need a lot of irons in the fire at all times,” said Harlan. “I really believe in the product, and my conviction draws people in.”

A good pitch should fill a niche, Watson said. There’s also an element of story telling that is involved to captivate the audience, she said.

“A good pitch leaves the audience thinking, ‘This is so obvious, I can’t believe it’s never been done before,’ and makes them want to be the partner that helps bring it to market,” Watson said.

Pam Stevenson, a Bend startup strategist and pitch coach who also works at the Small Business Development Center at Central Oregon Community College, said a good team is essential for a good startup. And a good pitch should be no more than about 10 minutes long.

“The goal of a good pitch is to communicate an idea and garner excitement in a potential investor,” Stevenson said. “The No. 1 pitfall is that there’s a lack of clarity. Often the entrepreneur is rambling on about their product and not showing what the business opportunity is.

“It’s about the market, the revenue model and the team.”

The art of the pitch is also being taught at OSU-Cascades.

At a recent pitch fest on Tuesday for entrepreneur undergraduate students, a panel of six judges gauged the value of eight pitches for products that included a training suit for female swimmers and a radio tracker for backcountry hikers.

“Some of our students have a passion for entrepreneurship and plan to open their own companies,” said Kim Vierra, an OSU-Cascades instructor. “It was a success. I wanted them to experience what it feels like to be an entrepreneur. An important part of that is pitching in front of an audience.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2117, sroig@bendbulletin.com

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