Small Business Matters: HIplan 2020: Hawaii Island’s Entrepreneurial Competition

  • Amanda Gilroy of Mermaid Mushrooms. (Courtesy Photo)

COVID has interrupted much of the island’s and the world’s economic activity. What it has not interrupted was this years’ fifth annual HIplan Business Plan Competition, finals of which were held virtually on Oct 24. HIplan’s goal is to help stimulate the development of an entrepreneurial ecosystem on Hawaii Island. It does this, in part, through sponsoring an annual Business Plan Competition, where 35 entrepreneurs this year were judged on their ability to communicate their business plans in various ways: in writing in round one, and then verbally in rounds two and three, taking the finalists down to a group of eight.

The purpose of the competition is to encourage would-be and current business owners to develop viable business plans. Jim Wyban, HIplan’s founder says, “The process really is what’s special. Contestants learn how to organize their thoughts into a coherent business plan, with a lot of feedback from us. Then, in practice sessions, they learn how to communicate clearly. I’ve seen people go from barely able to talk about their businesses, to get up there and give a two-minute pitch that just knocks your socks off.”

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HIplan offers a $25,000 Grand Prize and a Student Prize of a year’s free tuition at Hawaii Community College. This year’s winner was a double (make that a triple!) dipper. Kailua-Kona’s Amanda Gilroy, the owner of Mermaid Mushrooms, had the distinction of submitting not only the first student entry ever to advance past round one of the competition but went on to win the Student Prize along with the Grand Prize. Congratulations Amanda!

Amanda’s business model is based on her observation of the lack of variety in local mushroom availability. She saw a niche there and developed a process for specialty mushroom cultivation using agricultural waste as a growing medium. “The competition was a lot more involved than I had thought,” she says. “And I learned a lot more about the different angles to my business. I had to look at my business in a completely different way and did a deep dive into it in a way I hadn’t done before.”

Island Harvest, another finalist company, operates macadamia and ulu orchards in Kohala. Co-owner Andrew Trump and his family are developing the company towards the next step in ensuring sustainability in the state’s macadamia and ulu industries. They are starting a tree nursery to supply consistent macadamia and ulu replacement stock, something urgently needed for the state’s aging orchards. In HIplan, Andrew found “an opportunity to test our business plan against others; to refine it and practice our pitch.” HIplan also gave him the chance to get a read on the “entrepreneurial spirit around the Big Island. It was encouraging to see the diversity and the passion of owners moving forward in these trying times.”

Innovation is apparent in the other HIplan finalists’ business models as well. Hilo Food Hub, owned by Zachary Larsen, is developing affordable commercial kitchen and business incubator space; Michael Weis’ Novapath Bio, is manufacturing an innovative, natural, nutraceutical joint formula; Tea Hawaii &Company, owned by Eva Lee, is expanding its local tea production into powdered and bagged product formats; Krisha Zane’s Ku-a-Kanaka, is involved in interactive, online Hawaiian language and culture courses; and Ohana Goods, owned by Brooklyn Dippo, is developing creative studio services specializing in video, podcast and photo production.

Finally, to round out the innovation theme, repeat HIplan finalist Mattie Mae Larson’s company, Upcycle Hawaii, started in Hilo in 2018, re-purposes discarded plastics into creative gift and jewelry items. Mattie says she is “somebody who grew a hobby into a business” and got into HIplan “as it was going to force me to write a business plan, something I hadn’t done before. It also created my relationship with the Small Business Development Center staff, who have helped me out in my business.”

“My number one advice for any entrepreneur is to do something you are 1000% passionate about because it is so not easy,” says Mattie. “It has to be something you’re inspired by, it has to be who you are because you have to overcome a lot of obstacles, but you have to start somewhere.”

Andrew adds adaptability to this view: “It’s important to be able to continue to adapt and develop your business throughout its life, going through the competition and getting feedback on your ideas is a very valuable resource.”

Circling back to Amanda, her advice is to realize, “it will take longer to develop a business than you expect. It will be harder, and it will take more money, but as long as you are doing what you love, it doesn’t matter.”

So passion, adaptability, and perseverance. Helped along by a dose of HIplan. Congratulations to all the HIplan finalists!

Dennis Boyd

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Director, West Hawai‘i Small Business Development Center

Hawai‘i SBDC Network is funded in part through Cooperative Agreement No # SBAHQ-13-B-0048/0001 with the U.S. Small Business Administration and the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. All opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SBA.