ROCKTON — AnnDee Nimmer was near tears minutes before she was to pitch her new business, RoomTagz, to a panel of business women.
Public speaking struck the Rockton woman as a curious fear. Before 2013, she had spent 20 years speaking daily to first-graders as a teacher for the Rockton School District.
“There’s a big difference.” Nimmer said. “Those are kids and you are trying to make the learning experience enjoyable — and they don’t judge you.”
Nimmer was one of seven women Feb. 19 to pitch their businesses during a Women’s Shark Tank Competition hosted by Enactus Rockford of Rock Valley College. Enactus is a club of aspiring business students that used to be called SIFE, for Students in Free Enterprise. The group received a grant from Wal-Mart that had to be used to benefit women in business.
So Enactus set up a competition based on “Shark Tank,” a TV show that appears at 8 p.m. Fridays on ABC. Launched in 2009 by the same team that created “Survivor,” the reality show features business owners trying to persuade a panel of judges to invest in them.
The February competition appears to be the first time a local group has tried to emulate the ABC show. Nimmer shouldn’t have worried. The panel of judges chose her business concept over the other six.
Sherry Pritz, marketing coordinator of Rockford’s EIGERlab, said the fact that Nimmer had competed in the group’s FastPitch competition in 2013 helped. Nimmer was a finalist in the annual challenge where entrepreneurs have one minute to sell their idea.
“She was very polished and she talked about a lot of the places she’s gone to sell her product,” Pritz said. “Her business has a lot of potential.”
Nimmer won $1,000 for taking first place in Shark Tank, “which I definitely need,” she said, plus office space and computer time at the EIGERlab in Rockford.
She’s not sure how much she’ll use the office space. She runs her business out of her home. Instead, she said, she is more excited to be working with the Enactus students as well as the professionals at RVC’s Small Business Development Center because she needs mentors to help her find more customers.
Fifteen years ago, Nimmer said she was frustrated by how difficult it is to find specific rooms in schools because there’s usually nothing to identify them except for room numbers. She created two-sided signs she could hang from the ceiling.
Then in 2012, Nimmer was caught up in the aftermath of The Great Recession.
The Rockton School District, faced with declining enrollment and a flattening of its once rapidly increasing property tax revenues, eliminated 18 certified teaching positions and an assistant principal’s job and reduced the hours of non-certified staff to cut $1.3 million from its budget.
Nimmer was one of the teaching cuts.
With districts all over struggling with the same budget problems, Nimmer needed a new career and decided to try to turn her signs into her livelihood.
Produced by Interstate Graphics of Machesney Park, the custom signs she sells can be hung from a ceiling or attached to a wall. At first, she took out ads in teaching industry magazines. She also contracted a former student, Chris Luttig, to create a website for her. Then she attended some conferences to show off her product.
“I thought teachers were going to be my market, but I found out it was principals,” Nimmer said.
She was extremely happy with her initial year of sales.
Her first was to a principal of Indian Camp Elementary School in Pawhuska, Okla. She now has signs in 39 schools in 21 states. The potential market is huge. As of 2010, there were 132,183 public and private elementary and high schools in the United States.
“When I went to do my taxes I had $53,000 in sales,” she said. “But once I started entering my costs — how much it cost to make and ship the signs and the travel costs to the conferences — I really didn’t make anything.”
Nimmer said she was happy to go from one sale a month to one a week, “but I really need to get to one a day.
That’s where she hopes working with Enactus and the small business development center will get her. And the Shark Tank victory may pay more dividends. This past week Nimmer was contacted by an associate producer of ABC’s “Shark Tank” to discuss the possibility of her appearing on their show.
That, of course, would raise her public speaking fear to a whole new level.
“I’m scared beyond belief, but this isn’t an opportunity/invitation you say no thank you to,” she said.