It started with an idea as all things do. But when that nugget spawned yet another even stronger idea, a trio of Mississippi State University students knew they were headed for success. Their company Rocketing Systems Inc. quickly began to take off—and is still soaring.
Let’s start with that first idea, an online clothing store Calvin Waddy, Shelby Baldwin, and Brandon Johns launched to test their own skills. “It was like a case study, something easy for us to do while we were still in college,” explains Baldwin, a 2019 business marketing graduate and current CMO of Rocketing Systems. “We wanted to learn how to market and scale it using Shopify, an e-commerce platform where you build a storefront to sell products.”
After early marketing on their own, the students turned to social media. “We knew that the dollars you invest in brand ambassadors—people who represent a brand on Instagram or other outlets—get a good return on investment,” says CEO Waddy, a 2018 business administration graduate. “So we advertised for them on those same platforms.” The ads drew hundreds of potential brand ambassadors daily; over the course of the next year, their ambassador pool grew to 8,000 around the world, each touting the brand to their own followers.
The numbers tell the rest of this opening chapter: revenue was $3,000 before utilizing brand ambassadors. Once these influencers started spreading the word, figures rose to $50,000 in a month’s time.
And that could be it, the springboard to heights. But with success came headaches—managing the brand ambassadors, creating discount codes, and tracking activity across countries and time zones. To automate the management process—and regain their lives—they began creating the Buzzbassador application. Not for sale but solely for their own use.
“We didn’t realize that this application would apply to so many other online shops–and that there was such a big market for it,” says Waddy of last year’s initial release. “With conversations and encouragement from Eric Hill and Jeffrey Rupp [directors of the E-Center and College of Business Outreach respectively], we began to realize we had something special.” Special enough, as it turns out, to land the application in the Top 10 of its Shopify category after its public launch in early 2020; it’s a virtual leader of the pack and a problem-solver for a large audience.
During the journey, the E-Center has been there to listen, advise, and enable the entrepreneurs. “The E-Center is an actual incubator actively helping startups like ours,” says COO Johns, set to graduate in December with a management degree. “That was huge for us.” With an entrepreneurial history that started in the third grade, Johns chose MSU on the strength of the E-Center and its mentoring capabilities. “The E-Center allows you to have an idea and take it in front of the Peer Review Entrepreneurship Panel and other review groups. You learn to develop and pitch your idea. If it’s feasible, you get seed money to continue. There’s nothing else quite like it.”
Known as the E-Center’s VentureCatalyst™ program, the four-tier process includes pitching the business concept to gatekeeper review panels at the end of each stage; the first made up of students with successful companies (like Waddy and Baldwin) and the final evaluation by outside venture capitalists like Wade Patterson, founder of the Bulldog Angel Network.
“The Rocketing Systems’ founders are really a good team,” says Patterson. “They’re already adding things to their solution. The number of feature possibilities is infinite and I can see them going deeper into the Shopify market and also moving into Shopify competitor markets as well.”
His endorsement is backed by the Bulldog Angel Network’s initial investment into Rocketing’s 2019 pre-seed round with a $90,000 convertible note—which, despite the pandemic, has already been converted into shares this year. The Network has also invested $281,000 in Rocketing’s current seed round, opened earlier this year. At this writing, the total raised in the team’s 2020 seed round is $336,000, invested from private individuals, the North Mississippi Angel Fund, and of course, the Bulldog Angel Network. Yet more seed deals are pending from other investors throughout the region.
“These three entrepreneurs have been very coachable which is key to success,” says Patterson. “They execute knowing what the market wants and will pay for and I think they’re going to do quite well.”
So far it’s a win—and this team knows about wins. “We were over-the-moon excited about their first-place finish in the 4th annual SEC Student Pitch Competition last October,” says Hill. “They didn’t just win, the team swept every category before taking the big prize too.”
Waddy adds, “We were the first Mississippi State team to win the title, and it has connected us with people we never would have had the opportunity to meet. It was definitely a game-changer for us and gave MSU bragging rights too.”
Obviously there’s much to brag about, looking back and looking forward, stemming from their keen sense of initiative and the E-Center’s step-by-step support.
“It’s given me a chance to do what I do,” continues Waddy. “We were able to come up with ventures that would have been difficult to do without the E-Center and its ‘Never Quit’ outlook.”
So there you have it. Another in a series of successful startups incubated and mentored by the E-Center. While Rocketing Systems is rooted in Mississippi and based in Starkville, its message travels far and wide. “We like to think we’re spreading our wings,” says Baldwin. “We are international now in our customer base and network—all from starting out here. It’s exciting.”