SunDown Group is the parent organization that operates SunDown RunDown, business pitch events for entrepreneurs assembled and hosted at venues in six Ohio cities. According to those who run its earliest chapters, the events are helping to fill a gap in their respective markets.
“There is limited opportunity for entrepreneurs to be able to expose their ideas to people and seek help,” says Bob Cohen, Mansfield and Canton Chapter coordinator. “Something like this just provides an additional venue for people to get the resources and connections they need. I think it’s filled a need in the ecosystem.”
Paul Proffitt, the Columbus Chapter coordinator and SunDown RunDown founder, says he had an idea to host a pitch event at a bar in the evening, a time that was convenient for busy professionals. Entrepreneurs are given five minutes to pitch their idea in front of a live audience, which itself gets five minutes to ask questions of the entrepreneurs who are hoping to get the resources they need to get their ideas off the ground.
The people who pitch have different requests, Proffitt says, which can range from validation to access to a first customer, a mentor or talent.
It only took two Columbus events before the idea was discovered and moved to Akron, and its expansion to six cities in a little more than three years occurred organically.
“Everything that we have done, every program that we have stood up, every chapter that has been created has really come from the community — dedicated volunteers, like Bob and Linda (Hale, Akron Chapter coordinator), who have raised their hands and said, ‘We like this program. We think there is value. We’d like to bring it to our neighborhood,’” he says.
Unique entrepreneurs, unique requests
At each chapter, audiences and entrepreneurs differ. For instance, in Cohen’s chapters in Mansfield and Canton, he’s had entrepreneurs who wanted to source all their materials in the vicinity and they were looking to work with area manufacturers and assemblers. Some are looking for trial users to test products and provide feedback, while others are looking to hire professionals.
In Hale’s Akron chapter, she says most who make a pitch are looking for connections.
“They really look forward to that networking time after the event so they can meet one-on-one with different people in the audience who oftentimes meet with them during the week or the next,” Hale says.
The audiences differ slightly between the chapters as well. In Akron, Hale says many of the attendees are from the University of Akron and Kent State University, with a few representatives from Small Business Association affiliates like Akron SCORE or other accelerators.
In Mansfield, events draw more from the business community — other entrepreneurs, bankers, business representatives — Cohen says.
“In Canton, we have a pretty significant investment crowd that comes to this,” he says. “There is an angel investment group in Canton called the Impact Angel Fund and they almost always make sure they have three or four or five of their members that come to this and introduce themselves as investors.”
In Columbus, Proffitt says hosting the events across the street from The Ohio State University means many who attend and participate are students and faculty, but there are also small business owners who are in various stages of business. Members of groups such as The Commissary, Small Business Majority and the Columbus Idea Foundry also attend the event.
“We do a lot of different types of activities with those organizations, so we get a lot of cross pollination with our members,” Proffitt says.
Broadening its portfolio
In addition to its pitch events, SunDown offers an eight-series course called Business Building Basics that offers an entrepreneurship certificate after completion. It also operates an Ask An Expert network, which is a free program that connects entrepreneurs to industry experts for consultations.
The organization has a number of programs that help startups access capital. For instance, SunDown is a Kiva Trustee, which allows it to help voucher people seeking a Kiva loan; it’s a member of Funding Circle, another crowdsourced loan program; and it’s a member of WeFunder, which is an equity crowdfunding platform.
On the philanthropic side is the SunDown Foundation, a 501(c)(3) that is used as a funding source or a fiduciary agent.
“Just this past year we were a fiduciary agent for the Lumos business accelerator program here in Columbus,” Proffitt says. “We helped them with their first cohort of 12 startups that went to their accelerator program.”
Proffitt says SunDown takes no credit for any of the entrepreneurs’ successes.
“It is truly the entrepreneur that makes the pitch event what they want to make out of it,” he says.
Occasionally entrepreneurs who have pitched at a SunDown event thank him for creating the venue that helped them on their way, or at least get their pitch down for other presentations.
“We are here to serve the broader entrepreneurial community,” Proffitt says. “It’s really up to the community to see us as viable and to invest in Sundown and to keep us on the path that we are going. Our growth is determined by the community and what they want to do.”