Kai McKinney presenting at BOSS

Being fluid, nimble and open to suggestion are critical skills for any entrepreneur — just ask Kai McKinney and the rest of the team behind Helm, a startup created by a group of Ohio State students.

Helm, a web platform on which users post projects and solve problems to get hired, focuses the candidate recruitment conversation on what they are capable of, instead of basing a company’s hiring decisions on outdated metrics. The idea recently took first place in the Best of Student Startup (BOSS) competition, an event hosted through The Tim and Kathleen Keenan Center for Entrepreneurship at The Ohio State University.

The evolution of Helm — from concept to completion — was anything but linear, said McKinney, an industrial design student.

“We pivoted our idea halfway through, and we built a whole new prototype in just four days before testing it in front of more than 800 users at HackOHI/O,” he said. “It was successful because of the Keenan Center, the student organizations, Columbus startups and those on our advisory board. There is so much incredible support throughout the startup community at Ohio State and in Columbus. Everyone wants you to succeed.”

The Helm team identified a gap in tech hiring, with McKinney noting that “the process is broken. Candidates spend countless hours jumping through hoops only to never hear back, and companies face an approximately 45 percent failure rate for new hires.”

Having identified a need and, using the team’s collective knowledge and ability to design a solution framework, McKinney turned to the Keenan Center to refine and market the concept.

“We had spent a lot of time and energy researching, creating and building the best product for the tech hiring market, but we had to figure out how best to tell that story,” he said. “Jake Cohen, the program director at the Keenan Center put a lot of work into helping us refine the pitch, which was incredibly helpful.”

And successful.

The team competed at HackOHI/O, Ohio State’s annual hackathon, and later that month it won the BOSS competition. Other BOSS finalists included:

  • Delity Audio: a music equipment manufacturer whose flagship product is a music sequencer designed for maximum hands-on control and intuitive music creation
  • Outern: a web platform that allows companies to offload entry-level projects onto college students, which students can then work on remotely
  • Twirl: a social platform that provides students with the opportunity to rent or borrow articles of clothing and utilize a shared closet across campuses from a network of trusted women
  • Zealy: an experiential product that helps companies elevate the definition of employee success

“The amount of people connected to the Keenan Center has been such an excellent resource for us to get started,” said Melissa Liang, co-founder of Twirl, and an operations management student. “We’ve been able to reach out to a variety of entrepreneurs and industry professionals for feedback along the way.”

Three teams, including Helm and Twirl, went on to pitch their concepts as part of the 2019 Bert L. and Iris S. Wolstein Entrepreneurial Leadership Summit.

2019 BOSS Competition

“We wanted to let our product, validation, and growth speak for itself, and it was rewarding to share that at BOSS and at Wolstein,” McKinney said. “Being on stage to share our business was definitely a special experience.”

What’s next for Helm and Twirl?

“We’ve spent a year researching, building, failing, testing and learning to get to where we are, and winning BOSS gave us a lot of momentum. It’s really validating,” McKinney said. “We have audacious goals to acquire computer science and engineering students as users in the upcoming months. With BOSS and the Keenan Center behind us, we’ve never felt more confident.”

Said Liang: “BOSS undoubtedly changed the trajectory of our future. We are using the funds from BOSS to continue going with Twirl as long as we can. I don’t think this would have ever been more than just an idea without BOSS. Regardless if Twirl fails or succeeds, we have a much greater understanding of all the possibilities that come with entrepreneurship in the future.”

With BOSS and the Keenan Center behind us, we’ve never felt more confident.”

Kai McKinneyCo-Founder, Helm