Far from the “Shark Tank” studios in California, a different kind of business competition plays out every year on the central Kenai Peninsula.
Like the TV show — which gives entrepreneurs a chance to pitch their million-dollar ideas to a panel of investors — Spark Soldotna has local entrepreneurs pitch their best business ideas to a slate of local judges, or “sharks.” The winner of the annual competition, now in its third year, gets $4,000 in starter funding to get their idea off the ground.
And there’s still time to enter ideas this year. The Soldotna Chamber of Commerce extended the application deadline to Monday, said Shanon Davis, executive director of the chamber.
“This is one of my favorite programs that we have,” Davis said. “It just feels so good as a chamber of commerce to be doing something that directly impacts new business.”
The money has made a big difference for Delana Green, the 2021 champion.
Green teaches music lessons from her home as Greenhouse Music, including group classes for toddlers and preschoolers.
“And now, because of the Spark scholarship, I have online, pre-recorded piano courses, for kids,” she said.
Green has been teaching music lessons since she was 19. She wanted to offer pre-recorded lessons for a long time, as a more affordable and accessible option for families. But she said before she had the extra cash, it was hard to justify taking time off from in-person lessons to build up an online curriculum.
Green entered the scholarship competition last year, on a whim. The week the application was due, she was waiting to deliver her third baby.
“I was filling it out in between contractions because I was going crazy and needed to do something,” she said.
After her baby was born, Green found out she was a finalist and was invited to present her idea to the sharks, at the Lone Moose Lodge in Soldotna.
“And my baby was there with me the whole time in her little baby carrier on my chest,” Green said. “So it felt like one of the coolest things I’ve done, probably, as a mom-business owner.”
The judges liked her idea. They picked her business from the final group of three — among them, Soldotna fishing rod company Alaska Rod Co. and pottery business Matia Co. Pottery.
“The thing it came down to for us is which one of the three — at this precise moment in time — is really able to take the scholarship and, tomorrow, take the step to get to a new level and achieve what they’re proposing,” said shark Jenny Neyman at the competition.
Green said the $4,000 winnings gave her the financial and confidence boosts to build an online piano curriculum. The money covered most of the equipment costs, including instructional books and her website.
“It made it all possible,” Green said. “The only thing that wasn’t covered was the amount of time it took. But it’s one of those things where if I have that financial investment, it makes it a lot easier to put in that time investment because it’s not a double whammy.”
Davis, with the chamber, said money for the program comes from the chamber’s annual Pie Auction fundraiser. She said the chamber raised $60,000 at the auction last month to finance Spark Soldotna and education scholarships, including a new technical education scholarship.
The chamber has a few applications so far for the 2022 competition. For the first time, Davis said the sharks will also pick second- and third-place winners to get prizes of their own. (She said those prizes are still to be determined.)
She said applicants so far include a restaurant, a photography teacher and aspiring trapline supply store, as well as a cottage fermented goods business that wants to start selling wholesale.
“I’m really excited about the diversity of what we’re seeing already,” Davis said.
When applications are all in, the sharks will pick a handful of finalists to present at the competition later this month.
Green said she’s been telling her friends to apply — especially those who are both moms and business owners.
Meadow, the baby she held at the competition in 2021, is now a one-year-old. And Green has a website full of affordable remote piano curricula that come with video lessons and exams.
“It was pretty crazy,” Green said. “I’m still kind of in disbelief, because I wouldn’t have been able to expand my business the way I did without that scholarship.”
There’s still time to submit proposals for Spark Soldotna 2022. Businesses must operate within 50 miles of Soldotna’s city limits and there’s a fee to apply — $15 for chamber members and $30 for non-members. Enter on the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce website or call the chamber directly, at (907) 262-9814. The deadline is Nov. 7 at 5 p.m.
The competition is Nov. 18, on the last day of Alaska Startup Week. Davis said they’ll start selling tickets for the event shortly.
Editor’s note: Jenny Neyman is KDLL’s general manager.