Eleven years ago Mark Lang asked me to judge the University of Oregon’s Venture Championship, an intercollegiate and (now) international venture contest. I wasn’t paying attention when I said yes. This was months in advance. When the date arrived, I arrived as asked at lunchtime on a Thursday in April and discovered, to my shock, that I’d carelessly committed myself for the rest of Thursday, all of Friday, and most of Saturday.
I called my office. "Cancel everything." I asked myself what I had done. Damn!
What had I done? It turned out, however, to be so interesting that I wouldn’t miss it. I’ve now done the Oregon contest ten times, including last month. This month I judged the University of Texas Moot Corp international intercollegiate venture competition, started in 1984, the oldest and probably best known of these competitions. I’ve also done Notre Dame’s three times, Princeton once, USF once, and Carrott Capital once. My company sponsors several of them, including prizes for written plans at most of those above.
These contests are fun. Bright ideas, bright people, good presentations, tough questions, and good answers. Ventures compete with business plans, pitch presentations, question and answer sessions, elevator speeches, and some other variations such as Oregon’s lightning round, which is 15 minutes with no props, not even a slide presentation.
For anybody with an interest in start-up business or entrepreneurship or business planning, judging one of these things is a privilege. For students, participating is a real experience.
A good percentage of the ventures shown go on to launch and in many cases commercial success. In my channel at Moot Corp we reviewed five ventures that all looked viable, all software related, from Oxford, Carnegie Mellon, University of Texas, University of Oregon, and University of Nebraska. The University of Texas entry, eVapt, didn’t even win the group but I took business cards home because my company might buy from them.
The elevator speech event gets better all the time. Contestants get 60 seconds to pitch their business with no props. Bells ring, time’s up, you’re out. Did you explain it well enough? Did the judges get it?
Many of these contests are international. Moot Corp had entrants from schools in UK, France, Australia, Canada, China, Hong Kong, and Thailand. Oregon has a Pacific Rim flavor, with entrants from Canada, Colombia, Hong Kong, and Thailand.
The Thai teams do particularly well in these contests. Thamasatt University’s team had a venture called Power Prawns that managed to manage shrimp genders to produce a huge majority of males, which are bigger and therefore more profitable. They finished second in Austin and third in Oregon. Mahidol, another Thai university, won the Oregon competition last year, and Thamasatt won it the year before that. Our company’s best written plan award went to Thamasatt this year, Mahidol last year and Thamasatt the year before, making that three years straight for the Thai teams.
More contests are appearing every year, and prize money is growing. Oregon gave $50,000 cash to the first place team this year, and Moot Corp gives $100,000, although only $25,000 is cash, the rest in services. The founders of Columbia Sportswear have donated $3.5 million to the Oregon contest, the first of such permanent funding for a venture contest, at least as far as I’ve heard.
I’ve missed the Notre Dame event for three years now because of schedule conflicts. That one is just Notre Dame, but it has entrants as undergrads, grad students, and alumni, which makes things more interesting, and most of the judges (I’ve been an exception) are members of the Irish Angels investment group and ready to invest.
A few years ago at the Notre Dame contest there was a strong entry for a cheerleader-focused gym in suburban Atlanta that needed only $45,000 to get started. It didn’t win anything but during a coffee break 9 judges got together and contributed $5,000 each to get the gym started.
One problem that comes up is built into the nature of the contest, and investing in general. There’s no good way to choose between the plan that needs $600K to launch and grow to $6 million annual sales in 3 years, and the plan that needs $15 million to grow to $150 million annually, particularly when the smaller one is more solid and more realistic, but the larger one is also good. That’s life, though, hard to avoid.
Another problem that bugs me is that all of these contests focus on start-ups that need investment, and most of them ask judges to decide based on investment opportunity from the point of view of the investor. I think that ends up undervaluing the bootstrap plan that doesn’t need investment. In the Oregon contest there was an entrant a few years ago that had a great business that could fund itself from sales and profits. They entered because they wanted the prize money, but didn’t need investment. They should have won, but didn’t.
Since then a group of organizers got together and responded to that problem by setting the investment opportunity criterion as the standard. Too bad.
And then there’s the fact that too few of these groups use Business Plan Pro, and, to be honest, most of the plans I’ve read would have been better off if they had. Their financials in particular would have benefitted from better, stronger financial modeling, and more charts. But of course I’m biased, and, hey, some of the plans they produce are really strong, software tool or not.
So in all, I’m happy with it, and I’m glad Palo Alto Software sponsors some of this. This trend is good for the students, good for the programs, fun for the judges, and good for entrepreneurship. I hope it continues.