True Venture Contest Story: the Fish Tacos

The board room had maybe 15 or 20 people in it, most of us judges, some of us faculty and organizers, for a lunch meeting just before the presentations and judging started. Outside the windows, the campus of the University of Notre Dame on a gorgeous late Spring day in Indiana. Inside, boxed lunches, shaking hands, getting started. It was just after noon, and the competition — McCloskey Business Plan Competition at Notre Dame — was due to start at 1 pm.

Teams were ready and waiting. They’d been carefully selected using a process that took several months to pare them down to a few finalist teams. They had done summaries, business plans, and they were about to do their pitch presentations for the judges.

"But did you want this to be a realistic experience?" One of the judges asked. Most of the judges were members of the Irish Angels, an angel investor group. A few (including me) had other affiliations. I’m not sure which judge asked that question.

"Yes, of course," was the answer. It probably seemed like an odd question.

"Well then, what’s this about 20 minutes without interruptions to give the presentations? That’s not realistic. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an investor actually listen to a pitch without interrupting. If you want it to be realistic, let us ask our questions when they come up."

"But that’s not what we told the teams would happen. That’s not what they prepared for."

"Aha, even better," another of the judges answered.  "Let’s give them a real experience then. That’s what we want, right? Since when don’t things change at the last minute."

"And we could keep the playing field level, make that the same for all the groups," added another.

So it was decided. The rules of the game were changed. The teams were notified.

About an hour later, a team was two minutes into a presentation about taking fish taco restaurants into Baton Rouge. At the time they were common, and successful, in San Diego, but unheard of in Baton Rouge. But one of the judges interrupted.

"But do you know whether or not they like fish tacos in Baton Rouge?"

The presenter, prepared to be interrupted, said that was one of their assumptions. If they liked them in San Diego, they’d like them in Baton Rouge. No?

"Not necessarily. Have you cooked up a batch, and given them to people in Baton Rouge?"

"Well no, not …"

"Here’s what you should do. Make three or four trays full of them and go to the busiest place in Baton Rouge at lunch time on a Saturday. Give them all away. See if people like them. Oh, and by the way, be sure to check what happens in the trash cans on either side of you."

It was a good learning experience. In fact, it was the start of a great program at the Notre Dame Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship, one that has flourished since, and reaches its annual final event late next week. I think this will be the eighth year.

Yesterday I had to decline an invitation to judge the Notre Dame contest (again) later next week. I’m not able to make it from Oregon to South Bend this year to be there, although I did help with the screening last November. If you are anywhere around that area next week, I envy you; it’s an excellent event to attend. Business presentations from teams with the ideas can be fascinating. And Notre Dame does two venture contests in one: the McCloskey Business Plan Competition, for traditional entrepreneurial ventures; and the Sustainable Social Venture Competition, for ventures combining entrepreneurship with social purpose.

I wish I could be there again this year.

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