Top photo: Nick Jeffcoat, left, and Jonah Rotholz
Last April, amidst the glow of cameras, teleprompters and various screens, Nick Jeffcoat and Jonah Rotholz pitched their startup business, parAnimo, to a panel of experts and spectators at The Proving Ground, the Darla Moore School of Business’ entrepreneurial ventures pitch competition. The annual event was held virtually, and the two College of Information and Communications students won $17,500 in the Maxient track — its undergraduate division.
When Rotholz (’20 information science) and Jeffcoat (’20 advertising) applied to the competition, they penned the business plan just one word short of the page limit — the idea had been in the back of their heads for a while, and it drew on both of their majors.
“Our business is essentially the combination of all the different skills the college provides,” Jeffcoat says.
A seasoned solar industry door-to-door salesperson, Rotholz found his job repetitive, especially the arduous process of locating customers. He recognized the potential in renewable energy, but “even the biggest guys haven’t figured this out,” he says.
Inspiration came when Rotholz interned in the CIC’s Social Media Insights Lab. There, he used artificial intelligence technology-powered software to generate, visualize and interpret data on everything from consumer sentiment to crisis response. The system prompted him to think about a more feasible solution for solar sales — identifying prospective clients using data.
That’s when Rotholz went to Jeffcoat for help. “Halfway through his description I pulled up the information and showed it to him, because what Jonah wanted was something I knew how to get,” Jeffcoat says.
Microsoft Excel math accompanied Jeffcoat for some sleepless nights after applying for The Proving Ground. “It’s officially now no longer math but magic,” Jeffcoat says. “We are taking Excel and doing things with it that no sane man would do.”
Magic must come from somewhere. His freshman year, Jeffcoat took a three-week research class from Brent Appling, a collection assessment librarian and 2007 iSchool alumnus. He also developed these skills during an internship with the Red Cross, where he used free public data to extend the organization’s South Carolina volunteer pool.
Their roles were clear: Rotholz provided the background knowledge, and Jeffcoat figured out how to use it. With Excel, they built a relational database that collected and analyzed information through algorithms and produced lists of people who could benefit from switching to solar energy.
Their business plan impressed the experts, and as the competition’s final round approached, the duo knew they needed to prepare. Jeffcoat used the design skills honed under retired J-school senior instructor Doug Fisher to make sure the PowerPoint was “pixel perfect,” and Rotholz wrote every word and practiced until the delivery seemed natural.
With the prize funding, Rotholz and Jeffcoat founded J&R Informatics. “We are still in the sweat equity phase,” Jeffcoat says with a hopeful glimmer in his eyes. “Jonah and I are in the process of teaching each other and improving.”