By Shawn Chitnis
DENVER (CBS4) – A competition among Colorado veterans running their own startup companies awarded the winner $25,000 this week as part of an effort to get more members of the military to become entrepreneurs in the Rocky Mountain region.
“I founded Barn Owl to help ranchers and farmers to monitor remote assets,” said Josh Phifer, founder & CEO of Barn Owl, the winning company. “I grew up on a ranch right on the Wyoming-Nebraska border so I understand the problem of driving around for many hours to check on assets.”
The business offers cameras that can send photos and videos to an app on a cellular connection. It helps people living and working in remote areas where options are limited for this type of system. Phifer says he focused on offering a reliable and affordable service based on his experience working on the family ranch.
“We focus on connectivity in remote areas,” he said. “You can’t use Wi-Fi, there’s no infrastructure for wires, it’s the middle of nowhere.”
The company is two years old and he has used the past year on selling the cameras to customers. A veteran of the Air Force, he was active duty for 12 years and continues to serve in Reserve Command.
“As a military veteran, starting a tech company, you’re starting on the ground level,” said Phifer. “You’re network is not really built around building a tech company.”
He was one of five finalists in the Rocky Mountain Veteran Pitch Competition. The Downtown Denver Partnership founded Rocky Mountain Veterans and supports The Commons of Champa, which hosted the event on Monday. It is part of the organization’s mission to advance the rate of entrepreneurship in the region among military veterans.
“It’s very important to us right now,” he said. “We’re a bootstrap startup so $25,000 goes a long way.”
The Commons funded the grant with support form the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foudnation, and other corporate sponsors. The five finalists had to make their pitches on Monday night to a panel of judges representing investors, business owners and other corporate leaders.
Phifer and the other finalists made it to the last round of the competition after making it to the semi-final round among 25 contenders. He learned about the opportunity from a mentor, who recommended he enter the contest.
“When you come out of the military, you don’t have a business background,” he said. “It’s really intimidating.”
Veterans have a better track record of starting businesses compared to non-veterans, according to Phifer. But he says it is a difficult transition for a group of military servicemen and women used to a steady income and following protocol. They bring several advantages as well. Grit and persistence plus experience on a team in high stress scenarios all benefit veterans in the business world.
Barn Owl is helping family ranchers reduce their monitoring labor by 60 percent, which can mean $20,000 a year, according to Phifer.
“Growing up in that, I understand the problem of never seeing friends and family,” he said. “Because you have to be doing things like checking on water, checking on livestock, checking on gates.”
His surveillance system is helping ranchers in Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas and Nebraska. Families that are often responsible for 20 to 30 square miles of land. But he says some commercial operations as large as 100 square miles also use the product.
He plans to use the money to help cover the marketing expense needed to introduce his business to more customers. Phifer says it is not just for ranchers but also hunters and remote construction sites.
Named after the animal known for its night vision and excellent hearing, he says Barn Owl is a tribute to his time in the Air Force flying the Raptor and the Eagle aircraft.
The product is weatherproof and can be left untouched for up to a year without the owner having to check on it. He’s grateful for the feedback from customers showing the difference it is making in their weekly routine.
“It’s changing their lives, they now have time for their family on Sundays,” said Phifer.