Mike Gibbons took the stage and started his pitch. "These photo buttons," he said, pinning one to his lapel, "are going to be the new fundraising tool."
His company, Buttons of Hope, sells custom buttons meant to support loved ones in charity events, sports teams, searches for missing persons and other causes. Buttons of Hope was one of 15 finalists Thursday in UNC-Charlotte's Five Ventures competition, a battle between early-stage businesses across the Southeast for thousands of dollars in coaching - and a chance to get in front of potential investors.
"It's like holding up my baby - is my baby pretty?" Gibbons said during a break. "But I think I've got a pretty baby."
The company was born about five years ago after Gibbons and his wife signed up for a charity bicycle ride. Gibbons dedicated the ride to a cousin fighting cancer.
Soon after, he had the idea of putting a face on his fundraising, by making a button with his cousin's photo.
The concept became Buttons of Hope.
Gibbons, 47, a real estate agent and former salesman, poured about $50,000 into the company, buying equipment and developing a Web site where customers can upload a photo, add text and buy one or more buttons.
He built an office in his south Charlotte garage, where he prints the photos and makes the buttons, each by hand, before stuffing them in padded envelopes and mailing them.
His buttons have paid tribute to Brandon Elam, a teen who died of cancer, Cynthia Furr and her 2-year-old daughter, who died in a wreck last week, and others.
Last year, Buttons of Hope sold 6,000 and donated thousands more, Gibbons said.
To grow further, Gibbons needs about $250,000, he said. He needs employees, a bigger office and charity partners. He wants to produce a million a year.
Gibbons applied for Five Ventures in March. He was chosen from about 50 applicants as a semifinalist and, later, a finalist. He competed against two other retail companies and was judged by investors, researchers and others.
"Everyone liked the altruistic nature of what Michael Gibbons was doing," said organizer Ken Paulus, assistant director for business and entrepreneurial development at UNC-Charlotte.
The finalists Thursday ranged from technology startups to a company that sought to transfer spiders' silk production genes into silkworms to create fiber for body armor. That company, Entogenetics, includes several Duke University students on its roster. Finalists also included Cary-based Alaeras, which is developing a nasal vaccine, and Ligamar of Chapel Hill, a biomaterials company.
The retail category included T1 Visions Inc., which delivers a multimedia experience to restaurant patrons, and TrakLok Corp., which sells locks and GPS trackers for shipping containers.
Gibbons was nervous about the task: convincing a fictional mega-retailer, "Tall Mart," to order his product. He worried that Buttons of Hope didn't fit in retail.
When it was his turn, he told the judges the buttons helped people raise more money for their causes. He told Tall Mart executives to "think small" and buy buttons for employees.
"I can see the headlines now in the Wall Street Journal," Gibbons said. "Tall Mart, putting a face on corporate giving."
Shortly after 4 p.m., the results were in. Entogenetics won in the student and nonprofit category. Paulus announced the first retail runner-up: T1 Visions.
"And the winner," he said, "is TrakLok Corp."
Gibbons said later he knew the Tall Mart pitch had been a stretch.
He wondered whether the judges understood his idea, saying it would have made more sense to address nonprofit groups.
Still, contest organizers said it was likely that investors would approach some of the finalists for a possible partnership.
"I'm going to keep chugging away," Gibbons said.