My tech background makes me skeptical of any startup that is trying to come up with a game-changing product that doesnt differentiate itself through game-changing technology.
But there are those moments when I meet an entrepreneur who I get jazzed about because theyre doing it right.
Last month, I was a judge for UNCs Carolina Challenge, a pitch contest that is arranged like a street market. Despite its setup, its legit. And last years winner got $15,000.
When I read the descriptions of the 45 presenting companies, I spotted a trend. Too many ideas were copies of models of existing companies, with the only difference being some aspect of social, ethical or green strategies.
Halfway through, I caught Winston Howes pitch for GoPhish, a company that develops computer and mobile software that protects users from phishing attacks. Phishing is email fraud that convinces users to reveal personal and confidential information, sometimes by pretending to be a reputable company. I had skipped over GoPhishs description because it read something like solving the dreaded problem of phishing attacks. Again, I wasnt impressed with the idea and thought phishing was already easily preventable.
On stage, however, Howes really showed how the software could eliminate phishing. The other judges were seeing it, too. And GoPhish handily won.
Howes, a sophomore, got involved in the Carolina Challenge when he spotted a flier tacked to a campus bulletin board. However, he developed the anti-phishing software idea while still in high school.
Howes created a fake Facebook page to see if it was possible to steal other peoples information. It was, Howes said.
I got banned from Facebook, but got back on to come up with a solution, Howes said.
GoPhish works by converting a web password into random text. If a user types in the same password again, the software encrypts it into different text thats unique from the first.
Howes, who owns the software rights, is now working on the project for UNCs Computer Science department. He brought aboard seniors Jordan Reeves and Jackson Reeves to handle the business side. The software is in the patent application process. And once the trio finalizes GoPhish, the UNC Medical School wants it. Security companies also have expressed interest, which could lead to a commercial public beta.
GoPhishs Carolina Challenge win resulted in $1,000 and a spot in the next level of competition, which takes place in February. But more than that, it brought validation, which is what every promising very early stage startup needs.
So think about that the next time youre about to tune out another elevator pitch. You might just be hearing from a kid who has a very real, very technical solution to a big problem and theyre only a dorm flier away from proving their viability.
Joe Procopio is a serial entrepreneur, writer and speaker. Follow him on Twitter @jproco.