Recognition as UMKC’s Student Entrepreneur of the Year is a reminder that innovators often begin early, said Brad Starnes, one of Kansas City’s most-talked-about emerging young startup founders.
“When I was about 8 years old, I submitted a drawing to an engineering firm,” said the co-founder of Splitsy, a bill splitting app that launched its beta product in January. “I wanted to patent an idea for a cleaning machine that vacuumed and mopped for me because I was tired of doing it. I joke about it because there are Roomba vacuums now.”
Ever since then, Starnes, now an MBA student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, has been testing ideas. One was a platform like LinkedIn specifically for entrepreneurs; another involved a pop-up coffee table that would slide under a dorm room couch.
“A lot has to do with the fact that leading up to UMKC, I had a different life,” he said. “That life defined who I am today. The life I had in the dorms at UMKC with my roommates gave me a new way of how I think.”
Born from the dorm
Starnes’ current startup, Splitsy — led by co-founders Nolan McMichael and Joe Allen — helps users pay for any monthly recurring bills like Netflix and utility bills (electric, gas, water, and internet). Splitsy pulls funds from the user’s bank account through an ACH process.
“It is basically a virtual check,” Starnes said. “If anyone uses Venmo or Cash App, the process is similar. We reroute funds on a card. We earn cash back from those transactions, and that is how we can operate without charging them.”
Rather than the consumer using their debit card going through to pay Evergy for their electric use, for example, Splitsy pulls the funds from everyone and pays Evergy on their behalf using virtual cards.
“We charge a $2.99 service fee for high volume payments like rent, auto loans, or mortgage payments that don’t accept cards,” Starnes detailed. “We will be rolling this out soon.”
Splitsy Premium will also be rolling out soon. This will help people see budget and usage trends if they are trying to be more eco-friendly.
Track record at UMKC
The Henry W. Bloch School at UMKC’s Student Entrepreneur of the Year Award has been open to undergraduate and graduate Bloch School business students for the past 10 years.
“We make a general call for students to apply,” said Bryan C. Boots, assistant professor and managing director for venture creation at the Bloch School’s Regnier Institute, detailing the application process that put Starnes at the top. “We don’t consider starting a business to be the only way to be an entrepreneur. We also look for students who solve other problems using an entrepreneurial mindset as well.”
One unique detail about Starnes’ 2021 award: a graduate student won.
“I think it tends to be mostly because grad students are MBA students, and they have less time to work on their own projects,” Boots said.
Click here to read more about the 2020 student winner, Jonaie Johnson, founder of Interplay, one of Startland News’s 10 Kansas City Startups to Watch in 2022.
Starnes knew about the award, he said, but he wasn’t looking for more publicity at the time. His main focus was getting users on the platform.
“I happened to be in Bryan Boots’ entrepreneurship technology management class for my Master’s degree at the time,” Starnes said. “He told me he would be happy to write me a letter of recommendation.”
When Starnes first found out about his win, he had just finished a meeting with other local entrepreneurs who were sharing experiences from their businesses.
“I was working through some things I needed help with. When I got in my car, I checked my phone and saw the email,” he said. “It was very relieving to see that everything my team has been working on was being recognized.”
“The award has my name on it, and it outlines me, but it is truly a testament to the people I have behind me. Individuals like Sally Williams from UMKC have been fabulous. I was really proud of this.”
Click here to learn more about Sally Williams role helping entrepreneurs.
Boots admires Starnes’ ability to be both a proactive student and entrepreneur who uses resilience to push forward to make his products better, he said.
“I have known Brad for a couple of years because he did excellent in our E-Scholars program,” Boots said. “At the time, we had small $1,000 prizes for an end of semester competition. Brad won one of those awards. It was clear that he was on a good track as an entrepreneur. He has no ego in his business, and he always wants to do what is best.”
After getting credit: Giving it
Being selected for the award is meaningful for Splitsy, Starnes said, as the startup eyes more funding opportunities and investors.
Click here to read more about the startup’s past funding gains.
“We have had early conversations with Equifax seeing how credit can be built from shared bills,” Starnes said. “The roommates who don’t have their names on the bill can get credit for what they pay for.”
Another project they are working on is pairing with local property management companies on how they can have their service available to all their tenants.
“We are taking an approach with Kansas City marketing,” Starnes said. “We are working on some food and marketing partnerships. We’re attempting to get our customers discounts on things like ice cream for signing up.”
Both Starnes and Boots said they hope a planned recognition event for the award and other UMKC honors will be in-person next fall after being presented virtually because of COVID concerns.
“I hope we have the ceremony next year,” Boots said. “There are positives with it. People who might not have been able to come are able to join online, but It’s a big deal to honor everyone in-person.”