I’m in Austin TX today looking forward to two full days judging the University of Texas’ Venture Labs business plan competition, which is something like a grand finale, bringing together 36 teams that have won other competitions.
This is the original Moot Corp, started in 1984, the first MBA-level business plan contest that I ever heard of. I’m happy to be here for the fourth year in a row. I’ve read some really good business plans, and I’m looking forward to seeing the teams pitch and take questions. And tomorrow we have a special Palo Alto Software challenge, and then the finals. I expect to be posting about this event next week.
In the meantime, some good posts from earlier this week:
The Osama Raid Live Tweets: This one is off my normal track, but I found it fascinating, something like watching history as it actually happens, in a Twitter sort of way. Damon Clinkscales published a series of tweets from Sohaib Athar, in Pakistan, tweeting about the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden.
A cool infographic called Startups Exposed. I’m like infographics a lot these days, this is a cool new trend. And there’s interesting data in this one, although – I’d take it all as food for thought, not as gospel truth.
My favorite moment in a arecent business plan contest: The entrepreneurs put up a projected income slide. One of the judges commented that what was on the slide was different from what he saw in the business plan. The entrepreneur immediately answered “no, of course not, that was an earlier iteration.”
This was during the finals of the University of Texas’ Moot Corp business plan competition last Saturday. I judged the first round Friday, watched the finals Saturday, and ended up in awe at the level of competence and competition.
That favorite moment wasn’t part of the flawless finals session of the winner. It was in the finals, though, as a Carnegie Mellon team presented a technology to monitor glucose levels using contact lenses. What I liked about that quick answer was the underlying assumption that plans change. New information matters. There was no reason to keep the numbers from last week after new information this week suggested they should change.
If the projections today don’t match those from two weeks ago, no apology is necessary.
The winner, BiologicsMD, also won the Rice University competition a few weeks ago. If you get a chance to see the video of their performance, both with their pitch and their business and their answers to judges’ question, take it. That’s the best I’ve ever seen. The company, one of two finalists from the University of Arkansas, has developed a new medicine to treat osteoporosis. It included a PhD researcher, an MD researcher, and two business executives. The panel of judges, three of the four of them with backgrounds related to medical technology and FDA approval and such, asked an amazing array of detailed industry-specific questions. And they were presented with an even more amazing array of straight-on answers. That was as good as it gets.
I’ve noted this trend in previous posts here, and it happened again at Moot Corp: more companies with more viable plans, relatively fewer Web applications and software companies, and more companies out to change the world with medical solutions, medical technology, clean energy, and so on. The four finalists this year included, besides the treatment for osteoporosis and the glucose level monitor, a team intending to cut costs of solar panel manufacturing, and a team with a new way to inject medicines.
Other interesting notes: the semi-finals round of 10 teams included teams from five different nations; the University of Arkansas had two teams among the four finalists; and the Moot Corp, the first and best known of all of these MBA-level business plan competitions, is going to change its name to Venture Labs Investment Competition next year. Too bad: I like the name it’s carried since 1984. But that’s just me. And, on the other hand, plans change.
It’s time to note a major change. Just a few years ago business plan contests were an academic oddity, a dress-up exercise at a few business grad schools. Suddenly, or so it seems, they’re pretty much for real. Some very powerful new businesses are appearing at business plan contests, winning significant money, attracting investors, getting funded, and turning into real businesses.
For milestones, try this: last weekend Rice University hosted the first business plan contest to offer $1 million in total prize money. This is a serious event now. If you’re at all curious about how strong some of these businesses are, read Lora Kolodny’s ‘I Want This Drug on the Market by the Time I Need It!’ on her You’re the Boss Blog at the NYTimes.com.
How important are these contests? How real? Well Lora wasn’t the only journalist at Rice last weekend. Fortune and CNN are covering that contest in detail. Expect to see some of these major contests in the Wall Street Journal.
Brad Burke, head of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, chief host and organizer of the Rice contest, likes to point out how many of the teams entered have gone on to be successful:
More than 97 past competitors have gone on to successfully launch their business, including 33 of the 42 teams from the 2009 competition. In total, past competitors have raised more than $220 million in funding.
Moot Corp, meanwhile, the first of these competitions, started in 1984, has trouble keeping up with all of its Moot Corp success stories. Moot Corp will be taking place in Austin again this year, in early May, gathering together the winners of several dozen other competitions.
And at the University of Oregon’s annual New Venture Competition, of which I’ve been a judge 12 times, all four of the teams in my semi-finals track looked like real companies with good probability of making it in the real world. That’s impressive. I’ve seen a lot of good companies in that one before, but never before have I done a track in which all four of the four groups seemed likely to be real viable companies in the real world.
I’ve started my business plan marathon season again. Between now and the end of May, I’ll read several hundred business plans: some for my angel investment group (Willamette Angel Conference), and others for judging business plan contests at the Universities of Oregon, Texas, Rice, Princeton, and Notre Dame.
I’d like to use the famous T.S. Eliot line from The Wasteland: “April is the cruelest month.” The trouble is that I like reading business plans, so that wouldn’t fit. I posted about his last year around this time, and here I am again, reading plans.
What does seem appropriate, however, is my plea to business plan writers, wherever you are, if you’re going to produce a plan that I have to read:
Convert it to PDF please. I hate those big honking bound documents. They weigh a ton. Most of my business plan judging involves planes, hotels, and airports.
Give my aging eyes a break. Learn the definition of presbyopia and then reflect on the demographics of angel investors and business plan judges.
Make it about the business, not the science. I want to see target markets, channels, sales, costs, exit strategies, defensibility, scalability, and things like that. Unless it’s software or Web stuff, where I’m more at ease, I’m not going to read or understand your science. I’ll look at your experience and degrees and I’ll take your early sales, testimonials, and such as validating your science.
Summarize well. Make sure you hit the high points. Don’t ever let me finish a summary without knowing what you’re selling to what market, why they’ll buy it, what it does for them, how much money you think you need, how fast and to what sales level you can scale up, strengths, core competence, and a quick sense of your team.
Tell me stories. Make me understand what problems you solve, for whom, and how they find you. Make that story credible. Give me some real examples, real situations, real people, and make it believable.
Show me milestones: milestones you’ve achieved, and milestones you need to achieve.
Don’t give me dumb profits. If you’re going to generate margins at twice the average industry levels, then you better have a convincing reason for why that’s possible. When I see huge profitability, it doesn’t make me think you’re going to be amazingly profitable; it makes me think you don’t know the business you’re in.
Show me your patents if you have them but if you do, show me something about how defensible they are (if at all) and make sure your projections include legal expenses to defend them.
Show me that you know something about cash flow: inventory management if you have products, receivables and collection days.
Think of your reader. We don’t all have hundreds of plans to read, but whether it’s for angel investing or a business plan contest, we do all have a good number.
This morning I can’t resist writing about Vivek Wadhwa’s Winner’s Curse post on TechCrunch last weekend. Odd combination: it’s interesting, thoughtful, well-written, about a subject near and dear to my heart, and, at least in the title, wrong.
In the full title of his fascinating post, he says losing a business school business plan competition is better than winning. That title assertion is my only real objection. He makes several great points explaining how business plan contests can be good for people, and how the winner isn’t necessarily the best business, and how these contests should not be confused with reality. No argument from me on any of those points. However, even if it’s not much difference, even if it means very little, winning is still better than losing.
Maybe it’s just a blog post title thing: surprise gets better traffic. Contrarian gets better traffic.
I’ve frequently been a judge at business school business plan contests (Moot Corp, Rice University, University of Oregon, University of Notre Dame, and others) and some non-school contests too (Forbes, for example). I think they’re great fun, great experience, a real educational opportunity, and pretty much right in line with his summary on that post:
This is not to say that the contests are bad. Instead, they educate students in entrepreneurship and motivate them to come up with interesting ideas. But for all of you out there who think a biz plan victory is a ticket to the big time, think again. And for all the engineering students who think any outcome but victory is a waste of time, you also need to think again.
He goes on to say that losing is better because winning generates praise too early in the business life cycle:
I submit that losing in a business plan contest is actually more beneficial than winning. There is a growing body of research that children who are praised too early and too easily end up under-performing peers who are not praised but are told, in constructive terms, they can do better.
I don’t buy that argument. I’ve been judging these contests for 12 years now, and I see a steady progression towards more and more real businesses, out there in the real world, rather than imaginary or hypothetical business. And in that case, as soon as the awards ceremony is over, the winners are right back out there in the real world, fighting the real battles on the front lines, with no time to bask in any glow. It’s reality for all, winners as well as runners-up and also-rans and losers.
So agreed, winning doesn’t mean much; but it’s not bad.
I’ve seen some really good winners in these contests. Look for example at Klymit, or Qcue, just to name a couple. These are companies which won business plan contests and continued growing. Wadhwa says “not a single home-run has emerged from this now-omnipresent practice.” But hey, that’s placing the bar pretty high. We’re talking about a few dozen such contests per year. Is there nothing between home run and failure?
By the way, this is the second really good post by Vivek Wadhwa about entrepreneurship on TechCrunch in barely a week or so. I posted here on the first one. Good stuff. His work is a nice addition to TechCrunch.
I was wondering with all these business plan competitions that you judge, how many winners or even non winners have you seen turn into successful companies? Are there any examples that you could give?
Yes, a lot of these companies make it. It’s more like half than the one in 10 portion you’d think from the classic assumptions.
I’ve seen lots of these companies launch and become successful, in a much higher proportion than the classic assumption of one or two of every 10.
For example, take a look at this page from the Rice Business Alliance, which has run one of the best of these contests since 2002. The graph here shows the success rate for all of the 166 ventures entered in the Rice contest from the beginning. The trend is very clear. The Rice Alliance says that since 2001 (quoting their website):
66 of our past Rice Business Plan Competition teams are successful business start-ups
192 business teams from national and international schools have participated
More than $90 million in capital raised by Rice Business Plan Competition participant companies
Although they make the raw data quite as accessible as the Rice Alliance does, the University of Texas’ Moot Corp, the oldest and most respected of these contests, has to have a similar success rate. I say that because I’m involved with both and the plans and the people are excellent in both. And Moot Corp does post a very long page full of specific successes, with a lot of details. I saw all of the companies they have there from the 2007 and 2008 contests, and I’m not at all surprised that they’ve made it.
I particularly liked cQue, which recently landed a contract with the San Francisco Giants to revolutionize ticketing technology; and Evapt, an automated billing system for software as a service; and several dozen others. They are up and running, they are raising money, they are making it.
To be fair, these two competitions tend to be the best of the best. The entrants are carefully selected. Most of them have won local or regional contests. They are grad students and people in the real world. I’m also involved in some less ambitious business plan contests, like ones for undergrads, that don’t produce a lot of real companies.
And this year I’ve added angel investment, which is a different thing entirely. Like the major academic contests, it is about business plans, ventures, presentations, questions and answers, investors’ points of view, exit strategies, and so on. Unlike the academic contests, there are no MBA requirements, and no faculty advisors.
And specifically, the angel group I’m in, the one I posted on last Thursday morning: there were five finalists that presented to the group. All five of them are very real companies already, even thought they want and in some cases need angel investment of $125K. All five will be there a year from now. The one with the lowest need and least ambitious forecast, a software company called CenterSpace, won the investment. But the four others that didn’t win, led by my personal favorite, Zapproved, have good future prospects. That was also Zaps Technologies, Wicked Quick, and Floragenex. All of these are going to survive and grow.