Woodside Distributors Crowned Champion of U-M Startup Competition

The University of Michigan concluded its spring business competition, called The Startup, last week, and, after a four-month pitching process, Woodside Distributors was crowned the champion.

Hosted by U-M’s Center for Entrepreneurship, the competition began in January with 21 teams. From that initial field, a panel of local investors—the Mercury Fund’s Adrian Fortino, Jake Cohen of Detroit Venture Partners, Invest Detroit’s Adrian Ohmer, and Evan Ufer of Plymouth Ventures—chose 16 startups to spend a couple of months mentoring.

The 16 startups pitched the panel three more times in semi-final rounds, where the audience also voted for its favorite, until the field was narrowed to three teams, Neurable, AOE Medical, and Woodside Distributors. At the finale, Woodside walked away with the $15,000 grand prize.

“Students learn entrepreneurship by doing it,” said Matt Gibson, the Center for Entrepreneurship’s director of undergraduate programs, in an e-mail. “The Startup is one of these important opportunities where students who truly want to start a venture get to work with experienced mentors who accelerate the students’ progress as entrepreneurs.”

The focus of The Startup, now in its second year, is intense mentorship and feedback. U-M spokesperson Sarah Bachleda said competition organizers kept hearing from student startups that they needed more one-on-one guidance from credible entrepreneurial experts. “They’re looking for connections with the external startup community,” she said.

With that in mind, The Startup was structured so that each contest judge could pick four startups they wanted to work with, thereby ensuring the mentors had skin in the game. Each round of the competition also had a different challenge for the student startups: the first round involved finding customers, the second round was dedicated to proving each company’s value proposition, and the final round saw the remaining startups pitch their full business plans.

With a month between each round, the competitors had lots of time to meet with mentors and incorporate their advice into future presentations. Teams were eliminated each round, Bachelda said, to “add motivation and gamesmanship.” Not only is The Startup meant to help advance individual student startups, she said, it’s also used as an entrepreneurial teaching tool for the campus at large.

Although Woodside Distributors, a national distributor of home improvement, sports, outdoors, automotive, and other products is a student startup, CEO Danny Sheridan said he launched the company in 2010 when he was still a student at Beachwood High School in suburban Cleveland, OH.

Amazon was just beginning its march toward e-commerce domination back in those days, and Sheridan noticed how frequently retail prices online fluctuated. He realized he could buy products cheaply off eBay and other sites and make a profit reselling them. He asked Alex Glassman, the smartest guy in his physics class and Woodside’s first official employee, for help with data analysis and pricing, and Woodside was officially up and running.

Today, Woodside has 12 employees and is turning a profit, Sheridan said. The company hasn’t had to take outside equity investment yet, though it may in the future.

Sheridan said working with mentor Adrian Fortino was his favorite part of The Startup process. “It was amazing to work with a VC who specializes in technology,” he said. “We spent a lot of time talking about how technology can save time in the future. It was nice to hear someone say what we want to do is possible.”

Woodside is planning to remain in Ann Arbor even as its fortunes improve, Sheridan said, because of the support his company has gotten from both the university and the city’s larger entrepreneurial ecosystem. “We couldn’t be where we are without the Center for Entrepreneurship and the Zell Lurie Institute,” he added. “If you’re a student interested in entrepreneurship, you have to go to U-M—it’s the best in the country. It’s amazing how accessible the resources are, and they’re available on day one.”

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