Planning for Gold

Competition 101

The exposure and connections within the business community that business plan competitions provide are the primary draws, says Cannice, director of the USF International Business Plan Competition. Started in 2000 as a competition only for USF students, it later expanded to include national and international teams. Requiring at least one member of the team to be a graduate student, the competition offers $25,000 worth of prizes ($10,000 for first place and smaller increments for second, third and so on).

Because of its location in San Francisco, a main draw for the USF contest is the opportunity to present plans to the high-tech VCs who often serve as judges. "Each contest has its own flavor," Cannice says. "The biggest draw is not so much the money, but a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pitch their plans to VCs from Silicon Valley...to get the exposure in one weekend that most entrepreneurs will never get in a lifetime."

Though sponsored by a university, the business plan competition is not just an academic exercise by any means. "Most of [our early finalists] are trying to raise money and build a business--the 2004 winner from Wharton [MicroMRI] has just raised half a million dollars in seed capital," says Cannice.

If you're interested in participating in next year's competition, slated for March 9 to 12, 2005, the application deadline is January 25, 2005. Check out the website for more information.

The grand-prize winner of the USF competition also receives an automatic entry into the Moot Corp. Business Plan Competition at the University of Texas, Austin, and a chance to compete for $100,000 in equity investment. Known as "The Super Bowl of World Business Plan Competition," the contest first started in 1984. Formed at the request of two MBA students at the time, the Moot Corp. Competition initially intended to offer MBA candidates the same type of experience that the "moot court" experience offered law school students. Today, the event attracts graduate school teams from all over the world who pitch their business plans to prominent VCs and business leaders.

Businesses ranging from biotechnology and health to art equipment and supply have been successful at the Moot Corp. Competition in the past. The 2003 winning business plan came from the team from Kidsmart Corp., representing the University of Georgia. A smoke detector with a voice recording in it, the product is designed to wake children with the sound of their parents' voices in the event of a fire.

Still, even teams that don't go home with first prize often go on to build successful companies. "It really is an institution that's a win for everybody involved," says Gary M. Cadenhead, director of the Moot Corp. Program. "Even if a team doesn't come home with the first prize, they've improved their skills and gotten feedback from knowledgeable judges." If you're interested in participating in the Moot Corp. Competition, slated for May 4 to 7, 2005, go online for application deadlines and additional information.

Serving a different community is the Piedmont Triad Entrepreneurial Network (PTEN), formerly the Triad Entrepreneurial Initiative. Located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, it was started in 2001 to encourage entrepreneurship and economic development in the 12-county North Carolina Piedmont Triad region. PTEN sponsors business plan competitions for plans in three rounds of development. The Spark Competition is for the concept stage, offering six prizes of $1,500 each. The Verge Competition is for preliminary business plans, offering three prizes of $10,000 and three of $2,000. Finally, the Fuel Competition is for comprehensive business plans, with a grand prize of $50,000 in cash, 12 months of incubator space, and training and mentoring. (Runner-up teams vie for prizes of $20,000 and smaller increments.)

The contest is open to anyone who lives, works or attends school in the Piedmont Triad region with startup or expansion plans for businesses with high-growth potential, says Sheila Lyons, PTEN executive director. Existing businesses with headquarters in the region are also eligible to participate, as long as they fall under the revenue and employee limitations set by PTEN.

Like the university-sponsored contests, the competition offers participants an invaluable chance to get real-world feedback on their business plans from renowned experts while competing for cash prizes. "You need to get out there and make contacts," says Lyons. "You need to network. You need to talk to other entrepreneurs about what's worked and what hasn't."

The PTEN program also offers educational courses that teams can take to prepare for the competitions. And when it's all said and done, the final presentations make for an exhilarating scene. "It is such a thrill; it's just the most exciting thing to be standing there at the podium and announcing the winners," says Lyons. "The energy, the excitement . . . Even if you're not one of those top six winners, you get so caught up in it. This is a fabulous world."

Each PTEN competition stage has different application deadlines starting in the fall. Log on to www.triadlaunchpad.org for more information.

Eyes on the Prize

  • Do investigate competitions on both the local and national levels to see which ones would be a good match for your venture. Check out past winners' business plans to get a feel for not only the structure and content of plans, but also the types of businesses represented.
  • Don't overlook the business plan arena just because you're not a graduate student. Even if there isn't a contest in your area that's unaffiliated with a school, experts suggest contacting business schools and contest directors who might be able to point you in the direction of student-led teams looking for experienced businesspeople to add to their management teams.
  • Do take advantage of the pre-contest seminars and mentoring options available to enhance your business plan and improve your presentation.
  • Don't be discouraged if your business idea doesn't fall into the technology or biotech arenas. Though many business plan competitions garner a large percentage of plans from these industries, successful companies can be built in any industry, from arts and entertainment to transportation or pet care.
  • Do go into any competition expecting to be inspired. You're going to be surrounded by some of the brightest minds in the world who are steadily mounting the business revolution of tomorrow. Just soak it in.

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This article was originally published in the November 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Planning for Gold.

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