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Friday, January 3, 2014

Tom Still: It all starts with an idea: Business plan contest offers entrepreneurs a way to build


By Tom Still
There may be as many ways to get a company up-and-running as there are startups.

The lean startup methodology works for some, especially if the goal is to produce a "minimum viable product" that allows entrepreneurs to learn from potential customers before they build something the market doesn't really want.

For others who operate in regulated environments, the pathway to a commercially appealing product may be more methodical and require step-by-step validation.

Some 'treps prefer to go-it-alone, others prefer working in a team, and still others think the only way to innovate is to find a cool co-working space with a ping-pong table.

It all starts with an idea, however, and a plan to take it from cocktail napkin notes to reality.

That's what the Wisconsin Governor's Business Plan Contest has done for hundreds of entrepreneurs since its inception in 2004. The 11th annual contest is open for entries through 5 p.m. Jan. 31 at http://www.govsbizplancontest.com. All you need to get started is an idea – and the time it takes to write a first-round entry.

The contest will once again offer more than $100,000 in cash and service prizes, but many past contestants say the real "prize" was the plan-writing process itself. Here are some reasons to enter:

* You don't have to be Tolstoy. The first phase entry is about 250 words (or 1,400 characters with spaces) spread among four criteria, so there are no stresses about writing "War and Peace." At least, not right away.
* It's free. There is no cost to enter, other than your time.
* No stamps? No worries. All entries are accepted through http://www.govsbizplancontest.com. The second and third stages of the contest also take place through that website, culminating in a 15- to 20-page plan. Up to 12 finalists will present live at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs' Conference in early June.
* Entries are made in one of four categories: Advanced Manufacturing, Business Services, Information Technology or Life Sciences. Entrepreneurs may enter multiple ideas, so long as each idea is separate and distinct.
* Your chances of winning something are pretty good. If past contests are any indicator, roughly one in 14 entrants will reach the top 25. That's about the same odds Las Vegas is giving for the Green Bay Packers to win the Super Bowl.
* Contestants meet some interesting people. The 50 semi-finalists may attend a half-day "boot camp," where they'll meet potential investors, successful entrepreneurs and others with startup experience.
* Your idea will get some valuable exposure. Semi-finalists may post their executive summaries on the Wisconsin Angel Network web site for secured review by accredited investors. Also, leaders in Wisconsin's business press may see news value in your story.
* Finally, and most important, many past winners have been successful. About three-quarters of finalists from 2004 through 2012 report they're still in business and attracting investors, partners and clients to their ideas.

Some "graduates" of past contests include BioSystem Development, WiRover, NitricGen, RoWheels, Eso-Technologies, Vector Surgical, My Health Direct, Platypus, Green 3 and scores of other finalists. Collectively, those finalists have raised at least $70 million from investors over time.

More than 2,600 entries have been received from 280 Wisconsin communities since 2004. Also, more than $1.7 million in cash and services (office space, legal, accounting, information technology, marketing and more) have been awarded. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. is among the major prize sponsors.

What about those entrepreneurs who believe they don't really need a business plan to get started? After all, they argue, building that "Minimum Viable Product" may test the market as well as anything. True enough, but even experts who like lean startups find merit in writing a plan.

"The process of creating a business plan—at least a credible one—demonstrates that the entrepreneur is capable of thinking about his or her idea in business and investment terms," wrote Paul Jones, a veteran entrepreneur, investor and lawyer who helps lead the emerging company practice at Michael, Best & Friedrich. "(It demonstrates) the entrepreneur can conceive of his or her baby, so to speak, as a tool rather than a child; as something that has to serve crass commercial and financial masters, as well as a prerequisite to serving any higher values."

So, support your "baby" by entering the Wisconsin Governor's Business Plan Contest. Who knows? It may grow up into the company of your dreams.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, which produces the Wisconsin Governor's Business Plan Contest. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.

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