Jenny Sheets’ business idea flowed naturally from a decade of teaching students the fundamentals of writing.
She realized that teaching grammar and spelling wasn’t enough, and felt called to make a change.
Her idea motivated her to enter the John Ruffatto Business Startup Challenge, a competition for University of Montana students with entrepreneurial ideas.
Sheets presented Story Squares, a web-based application designed to guide individual users, schools and businesses through their writing using manageable squares, similar to sticky notes, that can be moved for easy editing and revising.
“I love writing, but it’s so much more than writing,” she said. “It’s communication and I think people need to learn how to communicate better. Everyone has a story to tell, they just need the tools to tell it.”
The Story Squares software is set to launch later this year, and will target high school juniors and seniors, guiding them through the college application process.
After she finishes her master’s degree in creative writing at UM, Sheets hopes to expand its use to all grade levels, businesses and personal uses.
Right now, six other states, including Montana, are interested in using Story Squares. She credits the Ruffatto competition for helping with her find success after winning the top prize.
The competition is sponsored by UM’s College of Business and Blackstone Launchpad.
She received coaching and guidance from Blackstone Launchpad director Paul Gladen and others, and still gets advice after almost a year since winning the 2018 competition.
“The amount of experience that these people have and their willingness to give back is incredible,” she said.
The John Ruffatto Business Startup Challenge encourages students to pursue an entrepreneurial ideas to determine if it has a viable market in Montana. The student creates a business plan, a pitch deck, and presents the package to 50 judges, who provide feedback.
The grand prize is $15,000 and can be used to launch the business.
Gladen said the challenge provides a way for students to have the opportunity to start a business in Montana, which encourages young entrepreneurs to stay in the state and benefit the local economy.
“There’s sort of a diverse, collaborative community spirit in Montana that I think stimulates a lot of new and different ideas,” he said.
Tom Snyder, the founder of Five on Black, a Brazilian Grill in downtown Missoula, won the startup challenge in 2011, opening his first restaurant on Higgins Avenue in 2013.
After six years, he’s planning to expand to Great Falls, Billings and Colorado – and has a second location up and running on Missoula’s south side.
The idea came to him as a college student studying finance. He wanted to explore an easy, fast and convenient way to provide healthy food that was different. For Snyder, Brazilian food was the answer.
“My wife and I ordered every cookbook we could find on Brazil and we started experimenting with recipes, playing around with the food, and we fell in love with it,” Snyder said. “It started out with, here’s a niche that needs to be filled and here’s cuisine that hasn’t been tapped into yet, and along the way, we found food that we absolutely love.
In 2011, the challenge focused primarily on a student’s business plan. Snyder won first place. As a 21-year-old, he never thought his idea would be good enough to pursue. The challenge built his confidence.
“That gave me a really good framework to just begin the process because sometimes beginning is the hardest thing,” Snyder said.
Since then, he has participated as a judge in the challenge for four years, and loves learning about other ideas and how Montana has grown to support small business.
Chilton skis, a Montana startup that creates skis from repurposed trees, began through the challenge as well, and Snyder bought a pair of skis shortly after it launched.
It’s all about taking the first step with an idea you’re passionate about, he said.
“If you have even an ounce of passion for creating your own business and the idea that you’re fostering, I think you owe it to yourself to at least see it through,” Snyder said. “And by seeing it through, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should open it, but you’re going to see through the idea and the feasibility of the idea. You owe it to yourself to decide whether this is something that can actually work or not.”
Entering its 30th year, the John Ruffatto Startup Business Challenge will accept up to 12 teams to participate in the competition on March 8, 2019. Details about submissions can be found on the Blackstone Launchpad website.