Skip to main content

MMM Students Win PitchTexas Competition at SXSW

Their startup to connect consumers to tattoo artists won $10,000

Slate co-founders Jack Bugas (left) and Alex Eng (right) are MMM '19 students.

A startup created by three Northwestern students won $10,000 at the 2019 SXSW PitchTexas Competition on March 8.

Slate connects consumers with tattoo artists through a concierge service and the startup has plans to evolve into a technology-based marketplace where consumers can find tattoo artists more easily.

Slate was initially founded by Alex Eng (MMM ‘20) who then recruited Jack Bugas (MMM ‘19) and Sheridan Clayborne, a Northwestern senior who is double majoring in computer science and economics, to become co-founders.

PitchTexas was co-hosted by SXSW and The University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business. SXSW is a media, music and technology conference that takes place over ten days in Austin, Texas every year.

In addition to the $10,000 prize, Slate benefited from exposure at the official event during SXSW's Entrepreneurship & Startups Track, where they won the People's Choice award from the audience.

We sat down with Eng and Bugas to talk about their startup, how MMM has impacted their entrepreneurship experience, and where they hope to go with this idea next.

Tell us about how the idea for Slate came about.

AE: I've been getting tattooed since I was 18 and I have about 20 tattoos now. It's something that I'm passionate about and it's something that sparks a lot of conversation. Because I have such visible tattoos, people always ask me about them. They'll come up and say "Hey I'm thinking about getting a tattoo, but I don't really know where to go." What I found is that it can be a really intimidating process for a lot of people. Last year, I came up with this idea of creating almost like a directory of high-quality tattoo shops and artists. I started to use some of the design thinking concepts that we learned in MMM to explore what it means for people to get a tattoo: what motivates them and what the various entry points are. I also looked at it from the point of view of the tattoo artists, asking what are the problems that they have in their job that we might be able to solve? I built out a prototype of Slate as an online marketplace during our Programming Design class last spring in MMM. Then I applied to Zell Fellows Program [in the Kellogg School of Management] in the fall term with the idea.

How did you go about finding co-founders for Slate?

AE: As I was looking to go deeper with the project heading into winter term, I recruited Jack to come on board. Jack joined in December and was really helping me figure out the business model and the tests that we wanted to run for the startup. As we got further along, we realized we need to build out a technology component. We were looking for advice from engineers and just talking to as many technical folks as we could possibly get in front of. I'd read an article about Sheridan from The Garage about how he had built these cool sneaker bots. I just grabbed him at a dinner at The Garage and pulled him aside and said "Hey, here's what I'm working on and I'd love to get your advice." And they always say when you ask for advice you get employees or co-founders or you get funding [laughs].

JB: Unlike Alex, I don't have any tattoos but I came out of last summer having spent the last nine months interning in venture capital and I knew that I wanted to get involved with a startup myself. The really appealing part about Slate was it's an opportunity to take my design research skills from MMM and apply them in the startup setting. What really sold me was going to the tattoo shops, talking to artists, and experiencing their world. I think one reason why we've worked so well together is I come in with an outsider perspective while Alex has a really deep knowledge from going through the process himself. I think there are a few points where I've been able to question some of the assumptions that are part of the industry.

AE: At the end of the day, we knew that this was going to be a technology-based solution and a human-based solution. That's natural when you're connecting people with people over something that we've found through our research to be an extremely emotional and very social purchase.

JB: That element of artistry and creativity is at play, too. This is a huge decision and customers are taking a big risk when they put themselves in the artist's hands. When you're going for the first time, you might not know whether or not this artist is someone you should trust. Helping give people confidence around that artistic journey has been fun.

Do you feel like there are any particular courses or skills you've learned in the MMM Program that have impacted your experience working on Slate so far?

AE: Programming Design was really helpful because I got to build out a prototype. Business Innovation Lab, Research-Design-Build, and Design Research taught us a lot about how to peel back the layers on interviews, to use ethnography, and utilize research stimuli. We've actually brought in prototypes of our ideas into tattoo shops and we were able to get really good feedback as compared to just trying to verbally explain what we were doing.

JB: I'd add that tattoos are a really visual medium. So, all of our branding [for Slate] benefited from having learned visual communications skills in MMM. That has really helped show that we're bringing the artistry and design into our startup's communication.

Tell me about your experience competing in pitch Texas during South by Southwest.

AE: We applied to PitchTexas along with over 120 other startups and we were one of 16 that advanced to the semi-finals to pitch in person. The experience was nerve-racking. The format was four semi-finalist rooms with four startups in each room. The finalists from each of those rooms went on to the final round. We made the finals which where were on stage and anyone at South by Southwest Interactive could attend it. We got second place and $10,000. There was also a People's Choice Award where everyone in the room could vote for their favorite and we won first place for that.

What are the next steps for Slate?

JB: This term, we're both in New Venture Launch [the final course in the Kellogg Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative "Discover, Test, Launch" sequence that supports MBA students who are interested in launching their own businesses]. Our main goals during that are we want to get really good at executing our core business, a high-touch concierge service connecting customers with artists. [We also want to] get good at digital marketing, moving our customers through a sales funnel. Then once we have that baseline in place, we'll test out a bunch of different variations that ultimately will allow us to settle on a tech-enabled solution that we can scale up. This summer, the three of us are planning on working on Slate full-time.

Back to top