Winning the 2001 USF Business Plan Competition was exciting for Tyler Bennett and teammate Felix Schupp. Their business plan for PhysicianPal Inc., a business services provider for physicians and surgery centers, won them that year's first prize of $1,000.
The whole competition and aftermath was a learning experience for the pair. While winning gave Bennett, 34, and Schupp, 29, great exposure, the connections they made helped them navigate the brutal VC environment of 2001. "We ended up getting additional feedback from one of the judges, who [became] our friend afterward," says Bennett. While the VCs liked their plan, they weren't readily dishing out money during that time, a fact reinforced by their new friend and former judge. So the business partners went forward, building the company on their own to get to the stage where they had a proven product with proven customers.
The competition itself, notes Bennett, was a good jumping-off point to get PhysicianPal where it is today. With deals currently in the works, the San Francisco company could gross as much as $1 million in sales this year. Looking back, Bennett says, "It definitely got us motivated. A month later, we incorporated and started working on software development. It validated what we were doing."
Whether it's through a university or a local business initiative, a business plan competition can be just the inspiring forum entrepreneurs need to launch their ideas into the stratosphere. From the seed money to the indispensable business and venture contacts, participants in such events often come away with a renewed vigor for entrepreneurship. "Entrepreneurship, in whatever form, is alive and well," says Cannice. "It's nice to see we have a lot of passionate engineers and scientists and cooks and chefs and artists. It's exciting to see everyone come together. But what it boils down to is: Who's really excited about what they're doing? Who's willing to take the time to build an organization that can do something that's not just neat, but [also] something that can actually make money and do well under competition?"
The SBA has gotten into the business plan revelry, launching its first-ever youth entrepreneur business plan competition. Originally conceived as part of the organization's 50th anniversary celebration, it was created to breed an increased focus on young entrepreneurs. Held during the SBA's May 2004 conference, SBA Expo '04, and organized by the SBA and the National Entrepreneurship Association, the competition accepted business plans from entrepreneurs enrolled in colleges and universities.
Fifty finalists were asked to compete at the Orlando, Florida, event; plans ranged from an urban greeting card company to an international cell phone rental company to the winning plan--a travel and concierge company. The winning team and runners-up were recognized by the SBA at an evening reception and also received prizes from contest cosponsors such as Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Office Depot.
The veteran entrepreneurs in attendance were impressed. "They really appreciated the opportunity to meet with young, bright minds that are going into the challenging and compelling world of entrepreneurship," says Jack Bienko, deputy associate administrator for strategic alliances at the SBA. "We expect that there were some friendships and mentoring relationships struck during the conference."
The SBA intends to continue the program and is planning for next year's competition; details hadn't been set at press time. Go to www.sba.gov for more information.