Something Ventured

Stephen Aarstol '99 (MBA)


For a while there, it looked like an entrepreneur’s dream had turned into a nightmare. It started off well enough: Stephan Aarstol, ’99 (MBA), the founder and CEO of Tower Paddle Boards, strode confidently into a plush boardroom setting, wearing beach duds and accompanied by an eye-catching, bikini-clad blonde.

Selected to pitch his 3-month-old start-up company to a panel of investors on the ABC reality show, “Shark Tank,” Aarstol himself quickly tanked, forgetting his presentation and fumbling around helplessly for several long moments. One “shark” called him “the worst presenter” she’d ever seen.

But Aarstol bounced back to win the confidence and cash of billionaire Mark Cuban. Now the two are business partners, navigating their way to success in an exploding new market.

What convinced business-savvy Cuban to look beyond a botched pitch? Aarstol describes his “secret sauce” as a blend of Internet marketing expertise centered on advanced search engine optimization skills, combined with his MBA education in new venture management at USD.

“You’ve got to have a really good product and the best value proposition out there,” he says. “And then you’ve got to make what you’ve created findable online.”

His experience might prove helpful to four USD students selected as finalists in a campus-wide business competition, who recently shared an opportunity similar to Aarstol’s “Shark Tank” immersion.

Venture Vetting (aka V2) is a unique entrepreneurial challenge designed and organized by USD Management Professor Michael Lawless, who set out to transform the traditional university business plan competition into a more realistic experience.

“Investors almost never, ever look at a business plan up front,” Lawless explains. “They listen to a pitch for five, 10, maybe 15 minutes. If they like it, they’ll ask for another meeting, and maybe somewhere down the line they’ll look at a business plan.”

V2 competitors distill their business concepts into slide shows, which four finalists present to a panel of actual angel investors, as opposed to judges — another distinguishing characteristic of V2. Although no V2 entrant actually gives up company ownership in return for funding, any finalist could walk away with part or all of a $15,000 prize donated by university supporters.

“We model what real angel investors might do,” Lawless says. “It’s not a tournament. There’s not just one winner. Investors can individually decide to fund one or more participants, or to put their money together as a group.”

This year’s panel of investors spread the cash around a bit, awarding the biggest share of the pot, $7,500, to Approach Mobile, a mobile application development business; $5,500 to Bottle Talk, a wine info service accessible by phone scans of bottle labels; and $1,000 each to the remaining two finalists.

Investor panel members were Andy Laats, co-founder of Nixon, an Encinitas-based sports watch and accessories firm; Kathleen Dakota Parker, an independent investor and founder of Parker Communications; and Hans Petersen ’98 (MBA), CEO of the Endeka Group, a wireless Internet provider, and a member of Tech Coast Angels, a well-known San Diego-based investors group.

Although most V2 entrants are either undergraduate business majors or MBA candidates, this year’s event was open to all USD students.

“Before, this competition was very limited and focused,” Lawless says. “But we obviously recognize that not all business ideas come from business students, so we decided to throw it open to the whole campus. Our vision is to establish a market and have anyone who wants to participate give it a shot.”

Students responded. In fact, an international relations major came up with the Bottle Talk concept.

Finalist and prizewinner Max Ball of the Approach Mobile team found the V2 competition “a lot of fun.” It helped that Ball, who graduated in May, went in with an advantage. While others brought concepts to the table, he and a friend had already launched their business and achieved early success.

So far, their company story is the stuff of Internet start-up legend.

“First we built a website in my friend’s dorm room,” Ball says. “Then we started advertising on Google. A company in Los Angeles saw us and loved what we were doing. We hit it off and set up a partnership. In the first couple of months, we provided them about $15,000 in new client business, and they were hooked.”

By offshoring the software development to a second partner firm in India, Ball says, Approach Mobile can offer low prices and high value in a flourishing market.

No doubt about it, the future for this newly minted USD alum looks bright. Perhaps Mark Cuban would be interested. — Sandra Millers Younger

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