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A UNCW graduate is coming back to his alma matter with a $50,000 grant and a growing new business–led by a gigantic cryptozoological creature–to tell local entrepreneurs about.
Thirty-year-old Justin Beard is the founder of SnapYeti, a website that hosts themed photo contests created by individual businesses, which award the best entries.
The simple, two-way concept: everyday people stand to win prizes for their photos; the businesses offering those prizes–usually in the form of their products or services–win awareness, and potential customers.
Beard will appear at the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) on Friday for a noon bring-your-own-lunch talk alongside executives from NC IDEA, a nonprofit promoting innovative business in North Carolina. It recently awarded SnapYeti $50,000 in a highly competitive grant program; it was one of only five startups, out of 117 statewide that applied, to win funding this cycle. NC IDEA officials will be on hand to discuss their next grant cycle and how area entrepreneurs may apply.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether SnapYeti’s namesake creature was planning an appearance. Indeed, Beard owns a full-on Yeti suit, and judging by the photos on snapyeti.com, he’s worn it out many a time for promotional shots. In an interview, he called it the perfect symbol for a business based on perspective and expression.
“A Yeti is a very elusive creature, and only a Yeti would be able to show us their world, the way they see it,” he explained. “Everybody’s unique, everybody sees the world differently. SnapYeti is a place where people can actually be rewarded for sharing the world the way they see it.”
NC IDEA calls SnapYeti “the first photo contest marketplace where businesses can create a free photo contest that reaches new and current audiences on any mobile, tablet or desktop device, while also enabling businesses to create a sales channel via their contest.”
Beard’s company is only four months old, but participation is burgeoning in its hosted contests. They’re called Snapfests, and as of this past Friday there were 17 of them underway in eight possible categories.
Under the “animals” category was a Snapfest called “Pug Life,” which had 16 days to go and 319 submitted photos of adorable pugs wearing ridiculous costumes, gawking at treats, and staring at cameras with those trademark, bug-eyed, surprised-at-everything expressions. The individual pug pics are competing against one another for votes, or “admires,” which usually come from the friends and family of whoever enters a photo. Those with the most admires will become finalists, and the company that created the contest will choose the overall winner.
For the “Pug Life” Snapfest, the winner will get a three-month subscription to a service called Bugsy’s Box, which mails subscribers an assemblage of dog treats, toys and related items monthly.
“That wrinkly face, the curled tailed, those button ears,” the page pitches. The pugs represent one of the most active of SnapYeti’s current Snapfests.
Another one, “Best iPhonography,” seeks stellar iPhone pics and will send the winner a custom iPhone photo-case from a company called MyCustomCase.
“Ultimate Yoga Pose,” a Snapfest put on by a company called Yoginology, will give its best entrant a yoga-mat tote bag.
“For businesses, it’s amazing,” Beard said, noting a billion photographs being shared around the world daily. “How do businesses connect? What we’ve done is we’ve created a tool through these photo contests which basically incentivizes these customers or potential customers to actually promote these products and services to friends and family” by sharing the Snapfest with them.
“It kind of creates a viral brand awareness,” he continued, noting that for every photo uploaded, SnapYeti gets about 22 page views and about three new people creating accounts so they can vote for photos.
Prospective photo-voters, or “admirers,” must sign up for the site, and can do so, for free, with an email address or Facebook account.
Beard said SnapYeti will use its new $50,000 from NC IDEA to roll out some moneymaking strategies. Up to this point, the company has been “pre-revenue.”
He noted the site allows companies to set up Snapfests at no cost. But if a company wanted to do some additional promotion–for one, by offering a coupon or bonus to everyone who “admires” a photo on one of its contests–there would be a charge.
Customer acquisition is also part of the plan, Beard said.
So far, he said, the startup has collected users at a fast clip, starting out the month with 5,200 and, as of this past Friday, passing 11,000.
Beard said he’s glad to be the guest for this coming Friday’s lunch at CIE, which opened last September at 803 S. College Road, next to UNCW’s main campus. It offers innovative local startups–those so new they’re barely past the “napkin stage”–a low-cost place to grow, with experts on hand for mentoring and access to a venture capital fund. Insiders know it as a “business accelerator.”
Fourteen local startups are aboard CIE currently; the idea is to give them the tools they need to outgrow the facility relatively quickly and become successful employers here in Wilmington.
“I really wish we had that when I was in school,” Beard, who received a marketing degree from UNCW in 2005, said of the CIE. “Because maybe I could have caught on to entrepreneurism [at the time], or if I had an idea I would have had a place to bounce ideas off of.”
SnapYeti is currently based in the Triangle.
“Honestly,” Beard said of CIE, “if that place was there when I was in school, I wouldn’t have gone to Raleigh to start my last startup.”
Jim Roberts, executive director of the CIE, said that speaks right into the facility’s purpose.
“That is exactly why the CIE was created by [UNCW Chancellor Gary Miller and staff], as a priority to keep the best and brightest in Wilmington,” Roberts said in an email, “to either have a place for students/graduates who are entrepreneurs or graduates who want to work for sexy startups.”
More information about NC IDEA’s last grant cycle and winners is available here. The group says it has awarded more than $3.1 million, to more than 80 companies across the state, since its 2006 inception.
To RSVP for Friday’s lunchtime event, click here.