When the dust settled on the San Joaquin Entrepreneur Challenge, two groups of Denair-based entrepreneurs stood atop the field of 65 entrants from across the Valley.
Taking home first in the “American Idol” style business plan completion – and $14,000 in cash and business services – was Amalia’s Cocina, a business founded to jar and sell natural, Mexican sauces.
“We’re really excited,” said Jamie Norwood, the youngest of five female family members who formed Amalia’s Cocina in 2005. “It was stiff competition; there wasn’t one point where we thought we were clearly going to win this.”
Second place – worth $6,000 in cash and services – went to Mussel Dogs, a fledgling venture to train dogs to sniff out invasive aquatic species, saving lakes from quagga and zebra mussels.
“I really felt good about the whole night,” said Debi DeShon, owner of Mussel Dogs. “I felt like It was really good competition and I was glad to take second place.”
The March 23 competition opened with eight finalists, who each led off the night delivering a five-minute take on why their businesses were unique. After fielding tough questions from the judges, the audience voted to narrow the field to four finalists – Amalia’s Cocina, Mussel Dogs, a premade cocktail company and a solar energy venture.
The final round saw those teams attempt to address challenging business situations, as proposed by the judges acting as each company’s board of directors.
That “board” asked DeShon, who essentially is the entire company, what she would do if the board removed her from the post of CEO. As a majority-owner, DeShon said she would trust the business savvy of the board and would step down, so long as the move would keep quality up.
“I don't know if they were expecting it,” DeShon said.
Norwood was asked how she would respond if a major retailer placed a massive order, which the company did not have the financing to complete. Norwood didn’t hesitate to laud her company’s good working relationship with its co-packer, based in Fresno, and said she would do the run without cutting corners and give Amalia’s Cocina 30 days to get the invoice in.
The quick, assured response – which possibly secured the company’s victory – was only possible because of Norwood’s familiarity with every aspect of the business, from crafting recipes to calling canneries and doing in-store tastings, she said.
“I was confident that no matter the questions, we would know the answers, because we're involved in every aspect of the product,” Norwood said.
Norwood said Amalia’s Cocina will use all of the prize money and services for marketing, holding in-store product demos as far away as Washington, placing ads in local magazines and upgrading its website.
“During the competition we constantly emphasized we're small and we don't have a lot of money for marketing,” Norwood said.
Mussel Dogs will do the same, DeShon said, having already made an appointment with a marketing firm to start sending out mailers and upgrading her website.
“Since it's such a brand new business, my biggest challenge is just getting my name out there,” DeShon said.
While there’s much work yet to be done for these young businesses, both DeShon and Norwood said the prize money and services will be a big help.
“We're just thankful that our community supports small businesses,” Norwood said.
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