Mississippi State student entrepreneurs Kaylie Mitchell, of Pascagoula, and Hagan Walker, of Columbus, demonstrate their liquid activated lighted drink infusers in Starkville on Tuesday afternoon. Photo by: Mary Alice Truitt/Dispatch Staff
July 27, 2016 10:43:21 AM
This was not what Hagan Walker and Kaylie Mitchell had in mind.
Mitchell was intent to focus on finishing her undergraduate degree in art at Mississippi State.
Walker, meanwhile, was planning to go to work for one of the world's greatest entrepreneurs. Instead, he became one himself.
Today, the two are busy putting the finishing touches on plans for a launch of a product the art major and mechanical engineer have been working on for close to a year -- a flavor-infused, lighted "cube" served in drinks. Their start-up company, Vibe, operates out of the MSU Center for Entrepreneurship and Outreach business incubator at the Thad Cochran Research Center with a single product they call "Glo."
In August, the two will launch their product at about a dozen bars and restaurants in Starkville. Mississippi State's athletics department has also ordred "Glo" units and is testing it with their athletes.
The restaurant/bar launch will coincide with a video featuring the product on The Tipsy Bartender, a YouTube channel with more than 20 million followers. Monday, the two put the finishing touches on that video, which they expect will produce more than a million views.
How it began
A year after Walker offered to "help out" with a graphic arts project Mitchell was putting together as a class assignment, the two have found themselves immersed in the myriad tasks that go along with a bona-fide start-up company that is currently valued at $1.4 million.
"No," Walker said with a chuckle. "This is not what either one of us expected."
"I was just focusing finishing my degree," added Mitchell, a Pascagoula native who will graduate in December.
By now, Walker, a Columbus native, was supposed to be in California, working for Elon Musk's Tesla Motors, where he had interned the previous summer with the understanding that a job would be waiting for him after he graduated last December.
"It's a standing offer, but after doing this, I'm not sure if I want to work for someone else," he said.
Count that among the many lessons the two have learned since Mitchell first approached Walker for help on her school project.
"Really, I wasn't even thinking about the product at all," Mitchell said. "It wasn't like I had this great idea. The purpose wasn't about the product, it was about using graphic design to market and advertise a product -- designing a logo, things like that. The product could be anything."
Mitchell's original idea was to build her graphic design project around a glowing tea-bag that lit up when the tab was pulled and the bag placed in hot water to steep.
With Walker's help, the product evolved into "Glo," which the pair considers a novelty item with a real function.
Mitchell's instructor liked the product as much as the graphic designs, though, and suggested she enter it into the university's entrepreneurial start-up competing, which was being held in four days.
That was probably the moment when a class project turned into a real start-up. "Glo" won that competition, which included $14,000 in prize money, and just recently finished fourth in a similar competition that included all 14 of the Southeastern Conference universities.
Their spur-of-the moment start-up has also captured the attention of investors -- bringing $125,000 in seed money used to design, develop, test, produce and market "Glo."
What is 'Glo?'
The product is simple in design -- a small cube base filled with flavoring and lit by an electrical circuit that is completed when it is submerged in liquid. The unit goes through a series of colors as long as there is liquid to compete the circuit. When the drink is empty, the circuit is disconnected and the light is extinguished.
The other component is a plastic shell that snaps into place and can be designed to resemble something that appeals to the vendor. The shell that will be used in the Starkville roll-out is shaped, fittingly enough, as a cowbell.
"But it can be pretty much anything, based on what the customer wants," Walker said. "I think the ideal market for it would be a cruise line. We could make the shell in the form of a ship. Or, say, Hark Rock Cafe was the customer. The shape could be a guitar."
The lights have a battery life of about eight-hours, making them reusable.
The flavor component, meanwhile, replicates the fruit flavors most commonly used in cocktails.
"The thinking is that when you go to a bar, you see all the fruit that is cut and stored at the bar to be used in drinks," Walker said. "A lot of times, the fruit just sits there, maybe for hours. It's not the most sanitary way to do it. So that's why we wanted to add the flavor. It makes the product more functional."
Along the way, Mitchell and Walker have learned much about the nuts and bolts of creating a product and starting a business -- patents, licensing, building prototypes, manufacturing agreements and scores of other lessons.
They have also learned about themselves and each other.
"Walker is not allowed to go on sales calls," Mitchell said, eliciting a affirming chuckle from Walker.
On a more positive note, Walker has learned that he has a passion for problem-solving, an inevitable reality for any entrepreneur.
"The failure rate on our first shipment was about 35 percent," Walker said, wincing at the thought. "That's unacceptable. But then you go back to work. You figure out what's wrong, how you can fix it and go from there. I found out that I liked that process. I wasn't happy about that failure rate, but when you go back to work and fix the problem, it's a great feeling."
Mitchell, meanwhile, has learned the art of time management.
"I had to," she said. "Look, I'm still trying to finish my degree. I have family four hours away that I need to see every few months. Then you add something of this scale -- you can literally work day and night and there's still so much to do -- I definitely learned about figuring out priorities."
As excited as they are about the upcoming launch and the countless hours they have devoted to the enterprise, neither expect to build their careers around "Glo."
"Ideally, we would sell it to a company and retain some interests in it," Walker said.
Mitchell and Walker pause and exchange looks.
"I don't know," he said.
Not to worry.
They have been there before.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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