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If you don't play, you can't win

The Engineering Management program here at the University runs an annual business plan contest, and we submitted one. Since the University don’t have a full-on MBA program, and the contest is only in its third year, the winning plan earns “only” $50,000, not the $100,000 awarded by a similar contest at MIT, or the $60,000 (or so) at Harvard. For similar reasons, the competition hasn’t, historically, been quite as fierce as it is in Cambridge, but $50k is a lot of change for a cash-starved startup, and that number is apparently drawing a lot of entrants out this year. (Before you all get excited for next year, at least one member of the team must be from the University, so it’s not a wide-open contest.)

We couldn’t get any details from the program about the level of competition; sometimes they hinted that there were biotech and bioengineering entries from the medical school and/or engineering schools, and sometimes they suggested that most of the entries were from undergrads and we, as experienced graduate students, would have an edge. Maybe those are both true. As we got closer to the deadline and pushed our document through revision after revision, we stopped worrying about things like that which are fundamentally outside our control.

One of the drawbacks of these contests is that they tend to be winner-takes-all. There’s one first prize, and everyone else goes unfunded. But as it happens, the closer we got to completion, the less we thought about winning. Going through the rigor (or wringer?) of preparing the plan for close scrutiny may have forced us into clearer and more detailed thinking about exactly what we expect to get done, how much investment we’ll need, and when it will happen, than we might have done at this stage without the spur of a contest. The idea kept evolving, even after we said, “Look, we need to stick with this concept if we’re not going to be rewriting this plan every week.” We’re in a better position now, even if we don’t win. Even if I did utter the words, at least once a day, “When can we stop inventing plausible numbers and start coding?”

It was an interesting underline to all the software engineering principles I’d gone through in the fall semester: much as I think we could just sit down and code, we will have to put a lot of planning on paper before that happens, too. We’ll have to plan to ensure we have the hardware and software ready at the right times, plan to make sure we hire coders soon enough to make our schedule but not sooner than we can afford them, plan to make sure all our pieces fit together and talk to each other. And considering the changes our basic idea of just what we’re doing went through in the course of writing, if we’d just started coding, we would’ve wasted our work when we discovered we were in an entirely different market segment.

When we walked the submission-ready document (I stopped calling it “final”) over for entry, my partner said, “Now we get our lives back!” I replied, “No, it’s just a loan; we’ll have to return them in a few months.”

As it happens, that’s happening sooner rather than later; we were notified yesterday that we’re “finalists” in the competition, and we’ll need to prepare a revised plan for re-submission. We’ll also need to make a 20-minute presentation, with the other finalists, in late March, before the winner is announced. I don’t know how many finalists there are, but I suspect there are at least three and probably not many more than five.

I think the message we’re getting is, “We’re not ready to give you money yet, but keep talking.” And that’s a pretty good start.

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Will you be questioned by the judges at the presentation? If so, prepare to answer these classic questions:

1) “I see three and a half ideas in your plan.That’s two and half too many. So pick one. Right now. We’re waiting.”

2) “Is this a business, or a hobby?”

3) “Have you cashed in your IRAs and sold your cars yet? If not, why not? If you don’t believe in your plan, why should I? “

In any event, it would be wise to focus most of your attention on making your business case — that there is a market for your product. Many would-be software entrepreneurs make the mistake of attaching too much importance to their technical expertise.

Funders often respond with a the equivalent of “so what”? Think of a series of threshold tests. Their reasoning might run something like this: 1) Okay, you can probably do what you say you can do 2) Does anyone else in the world care ? How have you validated the market? 3) Okay, maybe there’s a market. Now, prove to me that your team has the business savvy to pull it off.

Dan - Thanks for the pointers. I think we’ll have some answers for those. However, while I don’t know if the judges will be questioning us at the presentation (IMO, they should be,) I do think they’re 90% likely to already have their decision in hand; I don’t think the presentation-before-awards format works otherwise.

This is really terrific news — I think you are closer than you think. And Dan’s pointers are good. Let me know if you need any more data to validate your market…

I agree with Ms. F. Regardless of your ultimate win or loss, good things are likely to come from the exposure of being named a finalist.

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