With an entrepreneurial spirit and a passion for supporting locally sourced artisans, Donald Pendagast transitioned the business concept he created while earning his Master of Business Administration at the University of Connecticut into Curated CT. MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with Donald about his experience launching a startup in Hartford and the importance of supporting local businesses.
NAN PRICE: Have you always been entrepreneurial?
DONALD PENDAGAST: A lot of my career has been about creating new products and services and bringing them to market. For the longest time, I described myself as a “wannapreneur” because I’m one of those people who’s has so many different ideas.
NAN: So, you’ve had a lot of “intrepreneur” experience. Did that help encourage you to launch your own business?
DONALD: Absolutely. To your point, a lot of my experience comes from the ideation and cultivation of ideas and then putting the resources behind them to bring them to fruition.
About eight years ago, I came across the Lean Startup method and began to realize I could implement some of that methodology—smaller pieces, less investment, more learning.
The idea for Curated CT came from being in Hartford and trying to figure out how to help small businesses find their next customer. Originally, we brainstormed some ideas and were going about it from a completely different angle—more data and a more app-like technology with system tracking. It became clear there was a “chicken and the egg” challenge. We really needed to have the proof statements and the trust of the small business owners to buy into that idea.
With Curated CT, we realized we don’t need all of that. We don’t need to prove business loyalty. It’s already there. Curated CT is about supporting small businesses directly through buying their products, which they’re already selling. So, we’ve approaching a small local business owner about buying 50 units a month of their product—and they’re into that.
And, on the flip side, potential customers are itching for this sort of thing. People like me who want to support and buy local and know where your purchases come from and how they’re made. I think Curated CT is that mechanism where you can do that.
NAN: You developed the business concept while you were at UConn.
DONALD: Right. Curated CT was born out of the full-time MBA program at UConn and heavily supported through the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CCEI) and folks like CCEI Director Jennifer Murphy, who are just amazing.
In April 2019, I participated in a pitch event there, where I received $1,000. That summer, I went through an abbreviated accelerator program that was 100% focused on customer discovery and trying to understand small business needs.
At that point, Curated CT made a big shift from talking to small business owners to actually thinking about our customers. It became more clear that the risks involved in actually piloting the product were relatively low. At first, I thought COVID-19 would put the business idea on hold. But the more I thought about it and the more feedback I received, what I was hearing was: This is actually a great thing for COVID-19.
I’m grateful for the encouragement and support from my friends. One summer day, I was sitting in Bushnell Park with some friends I’d made at grad school at UConn who they told me: You’ve got to start this thing and we’re going to help. The idea for Curated CT went from zero to 60 in a manner of moments. I formally filed the business in August.
NAN: In addition to UConn, what other local resources have you tapped into?
DONALD: The networking piece has been terrific. That’s how you and I met, through our mutual friend Victoria Parisi, who has a lot of entrepreneurial experience. And, through you, I met with and formally joined the Hartford Chamber of Commerce, which has been an incredible opportunity leading to even more conversations. I’ve been meeting different people who want to engage with Curated CT as customers and connecting with other business owners.
Our businesses don’t exist without the artisans and makers and growers and doers out there. And there’s so much I don’t even know about, which is what makes these connections so exciting. Working with the Chamber is a long-term relationship. I joined through the promotional membership, but I’m definitely going to renew in January 2021.
Also, I was recently accepted in the reSET Impact Accelerator 2021 cohort, which kicks off in January. I’m looking forward to the structure it will provide to help us understand ways to deliver more “local moments” to our customers while engaging with and giving back to our communities.
In terms of collaboration, Annisa Teich from The Small Business Collective and West Hartford Coworking reached out wanting to know how we could collaborate with some the businesses they support. So, I’ve been looking at different ways to tie services into our offerings and create other interesting experiences that aren’t just consumable. For example, a friend of mine opened Body of Needs spa in Middletown and we talked about the idea of having a curated spa day.
NAN: So, there’s a lot of opportunity.
DONALD: It’s exiting! Collaboration is available on so many levels. Many services in our community are run or through direct partnerships with nonprofits, like Interval House, for example. So, there’s opportunity to feature those nonprofits and give back directly through sales from Curated CT or simply by encouraging people to consider making donations to these organizations.
The more people I meet—whether through networking or mutual friends—the more I see the Curated CT concept being embraced, which is very validating. I’m making new friends and excited about all the potential collaboration. On every level, launching this startup has been an amazing opportunity.