Choosing Melisa Cowden's business plan from among 400 entries as winner of Mentor Communications Group and Entrepreneur.com's "Win Your Own Small Business Contest" might not have been the easiest choice in the world, but she sure did make it easier. "Out of all the people we talked to, she had the most enthusiasm, the most resolve in terms of her vision for what she wanted the company to be, and she did the most research," says Dan Gallo, president and CEO of Mentor Communications Group and one of the judges of the recent competition.

According to Cowden, a former first-grade teacher and mother of four, the $10,000 prize will be put to good use in starting her own business, M. C. Kid's Publishing Company. For Cowden, 37, who initially created her stories to entertain her own children, it's a natural next step to start her own business: "I've used experiences with my kids to get ideas for the stories, and I've thought about self-publishing over the years, but [it] just wasn't feasible until now," she says. "I never looked at it as a business until the contest."

As for Gallo, who started his own company in 1985 with $10,000 in borrowed capital, the contest enabled him to help another small business get started, while giving his Norwalk, Connecticut, company significant exposure. The idea for the contest came about in response to the increased entrepreneurial activity Gallo expected to occur due to the economic downturn.

In addition to the $10,000, Cowden will receive a suite of Mentor software products, which teach business owners to use popular programs like Microsoft Office, and a one-year subscription to Entrepreneur. She plans to run her business from home and personally market her books in hospitals, day-care centers, schools, libraries and bookstores, where she will read her stories to children and sell the books to parents. She also plans to write parenting books and sell other products to help boost children's self-esteem. "[The contest has] just given me a great opportunity that I might not have otherwise had," says the Denver-based entrepreneur, who already has six titles written. "I realized this is an opportunity [I couldn't] let slip by."