Connor Wolk’s favorite TV show is “Shark Tank,” a reality program that gives would-be entrepreneurs a shot at pitching their business ideas to a panel of billionaires — the “sharks” who could turn dreams into deals.
“I watch every episode,” says Wolk, a sophomore double major in mechanical engineering and engineering management from Chesterfield, Mo. “It’s always cool to see the different approaches to entrepreneurship.”
Wolk may not be quite ready to jump into the Shark Tank. But just a few months after starting his own business, Dual Cases LLC, he has waded into shallower waters of the startup financing world.
In September 2013, Wolk plugged his business idea — a customizable iPhone case that he intends to market to college students in Greek-letter organizations — at the Missouri Tech Expo Elevator Pitch Competition in Columbia. The event was sponsored by CLIMB (Collaboration – Leadership – Innovation for Missouri Business), a student entrepreneurship club at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Similar to the “Shark Tank” contestants, Wolk and other startup-minded college students in the competition had to quickly sell a panel on their business plan and explain why their startup is the one most worthy of investment.
“You have five minutes to pitch your idea, then two minutes for Q&A,” says Wolk.
He won second place at that event, and $750 toward his fledgling business, Dual Cases LLC. He also won second place and $1,000 at another CLIMB event, held Nov. 7. Wolk invested the winnings from both events into website development and business cards. He’s also set up a social media presence for the company on Twitter (@dualcases) and Facebook.
The idea for Dual Cases LLC was born in the summer of 2012, while Wolk was working as an intern for VMH International in his hometown of Chesterfield. He and a fellow intern, Taylor Jay, decided they could design a more stylish yet protective case for their smart phones.
“We both had iPhones, and we talked about how all the cases (on the market) added a lot of bulk,” Wolk says.
So he and Jay, also of Chesterfield and now a freshman at the University of Kansas, came up with a two-layered case design — that’s the “dual” in the name Dual Cases. Wolk’s prototype, which he uses to protect his own phone, consists of a shock-absorbent rubber inner layer and a black plastic outer layer. The case is flush with an iPhone’s screen and fits snug against the phone’s beveled corners, or chamfers.
“It’s minimalistic, but it’s also modern and cool,” he says. “We wanted to retain the beauty of the iPhone but provide two layers of protection — two layers of defense in case you drop your phone.”
But wait. There’s more. Engraved in back of Wolk’s prototype are the letters of his fraternity, Sigma Nu. He plans to market the cover to fraternities, sororities and other Greek-letter organizations, such as honor societies.
“This is a differentiating factor that has brought us to a niche market,” Wolk says. “People love to represent their fraternities and sororities. What better way than with their iPhones?”
Wolk and Jay founded Dual Cases LLC last July. Wolk is the CEO and Jay is the firm’s chief technical officer.
When not busy getting his company off the ground, he’s also the secretary of the S&T student entrepreneurship organization TIES (Technical Innovators and Entrepreneurs Society) and is active in his fraternity. Last year, he also founded a different type of venture, the S&T Photography Club.
Wolk’s company is one of four student-owned startups located in the Student Business Incubator at Missouri S&T’s Technology Development Center in Innovation Park, located east of Allgood-Bailey Stadium. TDC staff members offer guidance on licensing and other legal issues, access to potential investors, and operational support.
“I have an official business address for my business cards, access to office space, supplies, printing, computers and other support,” Wolk says.
To gain access to the Student Business Incubator, startup founders like Wolk must submit a business plan, which the TDC staff review. “They want to make sure it’s a good idea,” Wolk says. All of the companies in the incubator are expected to “graduate” into a full-fledged business within three years, he adds.
Wolk doesn’t anticipate it will take that long. He hopes to be in production with Dual Cases products by next spring.
But in the meantime, he’s looking for ways to finance the manufacturing.
Maybe it’s time to consider a jump into the Shark Tank.