Lessons From a Business Plan Competition

May 07, 2007

I recently had the pleasure of serving as faculty advisor for three teams of students in a statewide business plan competition called The Arkansas Governor’s Cup. There were 42 very well-coached teams that submitted plans at the undergraduate level. One of my teams didn’t make the 12-team shortlist. One was eliminated after the first round of presentations. And one team— New Horizon Biofuels— made it to the final six and ended up winning third prize. They did a fantastic job and I think it’s fair to say that entering this competition was a high point in their college careers (as it was in my teaching career!) I also think there are lessons to be learned for A/E/P and environmental firm marketers from our experience. The Governor’s Cup featured more than 30 judges and cash prizes totaling more than $104,000. The money can be used for anything— the teams are not required to start their business to get it. Each of the shortlisted teams at the undergrad level won $1,000. First prize is $20,000, second $10,000, and third is $5,000. Here’s some of what helped New Horizon Biofuels finish in third place: They had the right team members. They had the needed disciplines there as part of their management team: management, marketing, finance, accounting, and mechanical engineering. They also had a board of people from the right industries and professions, including law and accounting. They knew their business. These people learned more about biodiesel than they ever thought they would. They knew all of its pluses and minuses, how to deal with it, and how to sell it. They knew their competitors. They had all the details on their revenues, profits, operational difficulties, ownership, and more. This was incredibly helpful to them when trying to design a company that was different from the others. They rehearsed over and over. Day and night, this group came together to rehearse. That’s very difficult for people who are busy (sound like a familiar problem?), yet so necessary to work out bugs in the presentation logic, wording, and sequence. They had good nametags and handouts, and casually introduced themselves to the judges before starting. The nametags had large first names on them along with their company logo. The judges commented on how they liked that. Also, they had a nice handout showing potential ROI for investors and more. They anticipated questions. They had to give this presentation to two different judging panels and, as a result, had a wide variety of questions to anticipate and prepare for. The result was they did better in the Q&A than they did in the presentation itself. They were confident. They thought they’d win something, even if not first place, but didn’t get cocky about it. It takes the right mix of confidence and humility to be a winner in a presentation. They were willing to be coached. These people listened to every bit of advice I gave them and tried to incorporate it. And, believe me, I was brutal in my criticism of each presenter. It was no-holds-barred feedback. No one cried, no one got mad, no one got crushed— they just incorporated my advice and went on. They were committed to success. These people expected to win. They had a strong desire to beat the other schools and look good back home. And they were disappointed to not get first place, but not defeated. I reassured them that not being first in no way reflected the ultimate viability of their business. If you ever get a chance to see a college-level business plan competition, I think you’d be surprised at the quality of written plans and presentations. Some were much better than those I see for A/E and environmental firms attempting to secure multi-million dollar projects. Who says there aren’t smart, motivated, driven-to-success young people out there? Originally published 5/07/2007

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