Conquering the Pitch: ‘Batman and Robin’ KC Tech Duo Thwart ‘No’ on Funding Journey
It’s every entrepreneur’s dream: Finding out about a funding opportunity just days before the presentation. Working day and night to perfect the pitch. Making the presentation.
And then …
“We pitched, and we did really well,” says Juaquan Herron. “But we weren’t ready.”
It might sound like the end of a depressing movie. But it was just the beginning of the blockbuster starring Juaquan and his business partner, Rodney McDuffie II.
When entrepreneurs identify a new business need
Juaquan is a comic book creator. His first release, “The Scarlet Knight: Defender of the Block,” reflects his love of comics and honors the grandparents who raised him. To market his book, Juaquan started his own company, 2923 Comics, named after his grandparents’ old street address. And it’s dedicated to providing unique comics for people of different backgrounds.
Part of marketing his comic book is attending various shows as a vendor. But Juaquan says the return on investment has been a challenge.
“My wife Sasha is Rodney’s sister,” Juaquan says. “I’d go to these different events, and I’d be like, ‘I made $600.’ And she’d say, ‘Why do you say that? You paid $100 for hotel, $100 for the rental car, then you had printing expenses.’ Sasha was instrumental in opening my eyes—and realizing it’s a process becoming a vendor.”
That process led Juaquan to recognize that he wasn’t the only entrepreneur who didn’t have established connections but wanted to be successful at these events. That’s when he came up with the idea for The Vendors Assistant. It’s an app that helps small businesses sell at vendor events. It covers everything from finding events to booking travel and tracking expenses.
Juaquan had the idea, but something was missing.
“I was like, ‘Dude, I can’t do this on my own. I need a partner. I need someone I can trust, someone who knows exactly what they’re doing,’” he says. “That’s when I came to Rodney with the idea. He loved it.”
In the movies, a brother-in-law is often some ne’er-do-well. But Rodney isn’t that guy.
“He’s Batman, and I’m Robin,” Rodney says.
After graduating from Northwest Missouri State University, Rodney earned his master’s degree in public policy from the University of Missouri in Columbia.
“I really want to work in economic development,” Rodney says. “At the same time, my parents, who had a combined 50 years working with the federal government, were starting their own business. They opened a franchise of Floor Coverings International.
“I met with developers from the KC area, and now we help with their affordable housing units. I’m working to help increase revitalization and scale up that business.”
This desire to empower the community ties into Juaquan’s vision of empowering small business owners. The he and Rodney set out to make it happen.
Enter the mentor
In reading about a local entrepreneur, Juaquan learned about an upcoming pitch opportunity with Digital Sandbox KC. He connected with Sally Williams, lead technology counselor with Missouri Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at UMKC. She provided guidance and coaching.
“We literally met with Sally a few days before the pitch,” Juaquan says. “Rodney and I worked day and night for five days straight, going over market strategy, financial projections and practicing the pitch.”
The pitch went well, but they weren’t ready for funding. However, they were ready to learn.
“One of the great things about Juaquan and Rodney is their perseverance aligned with their willingness to take feedback and learn,” Sally says.
The eight-week ELEVATIONLAB™ TECH VENTURE course was an ideal way for the men to polish their concept and find the best way to move forward.
“It helped us develop our idea, our market strategy and our final projections,” Rodney says. “And they surround you with other tech entrepreneurs in Kansas City—people who were just in our shoes who are trying to get this grant. Every Wednesday for eight weeks—and this was during afternoon work hours—we sacrificed and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to go through this program, every week. We’re going to take time out to do it.’”
At the end of the course, Juaquan and Rodney had a better understanding of their business and what potential funders were looking for. They pitched the Sandbox a second time.
“We did worse the second time around,” Rodney says. “A lot of tech entrepreneurs need to understand it’s OK to get knocked down. It’s all about how you get back up.”
After the second pitch, Rodney and Juaquan met with Sally again.
“We really put in the effort,” Rodney says. “We surveyed over 200 vendors, asking ‘What are your problems within the event industry and how can The Vendors Assistant fix it?’”
These were months of hard work—and pep talks.
“The second pitch was so bad. I just remember telling Rodney, ‘Maybe this isn’t for us.’ I was really down on myself,” Juaquan says. “I remember him saying, ‘Bro, we can do it. … This is for us. We’ve come too far.’ Then, it was almost like an ’80s montage. We were pushing it hard, we were doing our best, studying all night, coordinating, interviewing people—and there was cheesy music in the background.”
“A lot of ‘wax on, wax off,’” Rodney concurs.
If the second pitch was “Nightmare on Elm Street,” the third pitch was “Field of Dreams.”
“It was almost like the universe opened up at that perfect time,” Juaquan says. “We were on point with our time, our financials, everything we needed. I feel like all of Sally’s training and everything we learned in Tech Venture came out at that moment.”
When the news came in that the men had secured funding from the Sandbox, Sally was almost more thrilled than they were.
“She was so excited because she felt like she won, too,” he says. “These are the people you want to work with. Everyone at SBDC wants everyone to succeed.”
Next steps after funding
Now, Rodney and Juaquan are meeting with potential developers.
“I appreciate how Digital Sandbox KC wants you to look at multiple developers—it needs to be a good marriage,” Juaquan says. “We believe in family. We want someone who believes in our app.”
“It’s not just about the development, but also how we can get to the next level so we can help other small, non-enterprise businesses,” he says.
This focus on community and entrepreneurship is reflected in the advice Rodney and Juaquan would give their fellow entrepreneurs.
“Have a clear-cut idea of what you want to get out of your idea—not just an app, but know what you want to get out of it yourself,” says Rodney. “Me and Juaquan, we are considered non-tech founders. He’s in sales and health care. I was in government and now trades and flooring. So this is a bit foreign to us. But we knew we wanted to push ourselves because this app can help a lot of small businesses.”
Juaquan also has a few recommendations for other entrepreneurs.
“Strategically plan,” he says. “Our whole app is based on planning. You have the information highway in the palm of your hand with your phone. Use that opportunity every day! Make yourself smarter. Look into industries you’re interested in.
“Also? Sacrifice. I had a Jeep that I sold so that I could be financially stable and pursue my small business. That car was my baby. But to see our hard work pay off—this will be more beneficial to me, my family and my community.”
It’s a good time to start a business
Many might assume that an economic downturn isn’t the right time to start a business, but there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary.
“If you look at other startups, a lot of them happened during the economic collapse of 2008-2009,” Rodney says. “We were inspired by that. Because of everything that’s going on, we think we can help rise above and help small business entrepreneurs.”
Juaquan and Rodney aren’t the only ones. Just like in the movies, a ragtag group of dreamers can find success—even in a pandemic. And the SBDC ELEVATIONLAB™ can help.
“I’m always happy to meet with tech startups and tech companies,” Sally says. “We work one on one with entrepreneurs. … We help along the way, and we’re still around when you’re up and going and growing.”
Sally meets with entrepreneurs by appointment. You can reach her at [email protected].
“I would be glad to help anybody,” she says. “Starting out in the TECH VENTURE class is a great way to do it—even if you’ve already started out, it’s a great class to take. Most startups, there’s a lot they haven’t done yet.”