Top 5 tips for succeeding in a business plan competition

Guest post by Chris Rodde, CEO of and 2012 UW Business Plan Competition judge

In April of 2012, I participated as a judge in the screening round for the University of Washington Business Plan Competition. I have never served as a judge before in this competition, nor do I have any personal start-up investing experience (as many judges do). However, as an experienced founder/CEO of a start-up, I have good experience to leverage as a judge. My start-up,, is now in its fourth year. We’ve raised two rounds of financing from angels and institutional investors and now employ more than 25 people.  Based on my experience as a start-up founder and as a judge in this competition, I have a few tips for next year’s entrepreneurs.

My top 5 tips for entering a business plan competition:

    1. Don’t submit a plan until you have traction. My biggest surprise as a judge was the lack of traction demonstrated by many of the teams. Three of the six plans I judged didn’t even have a website. During the investment round of the UW competition, judges are asked to invest a hypothetical $1000. So the same mentality used by investors in the real world comes into play in the competition. Investors in the real world pick companies that have momentum and that demonstrate that they can execute. Execution is everything in a start-up and to stand out in a business plan competition, show more progress than your competitors. Simple things like having a website (even if it just says “coming soon”), a working prototype, a first pilot completed, or actual paying customers will go a long way to make you stand out. Customers using or paying for your product is particularly important as this will help eliminate unknowns and back up the assumptions in your business plan with real world data.
    2. Be complete. There are some critical things every business plan must cover. Make sure that you cover all of these things, even if briefly. There are tons of great sites out there with advice on what to include in a business plan so I won’t elaborate but only suggest that you find out who the current thought leaders are with regards to business plans and make sure you’ve covered everything. Two to three of the plans I read had critical elements missing.
    3. Write like a NY Times reporter. Write in clear, objective language and avoid unsupported claims. Investors pick teams in which they have developed trust. This trust begins with the words you put in your plan. Don’t sound like a playground braggart boasting about your future $1 billion business. Instead build your case piece by piece in an objective fashion using real data.  The key claims that you make in your plan should be well supported with evidence you’ve gathered through experimental learning or research.
    4. Market your team. Investors invest in people not plans. Several plans I read simply listed the names of the people involved, without any bio at all. This gave me no chance to get to know the team. Why should I invest in you? What makes you uniquely positioned for this opportunity? Showing personality is good.
    5. Find mentors to critique and edit your plan. There are two types of editors you should seek. First, and most importantly, find someone that has credibility in reviewing business plans and have them critique it for content and completeness. Find someone who won’t hold back on asking the hard questions. Judges will likely find these same weaknesses so knowing these in advance and doing something about them (even if you simply point the weakness out as a risk) will help inspire further trust that you have thought things fully through. Second, find someone who can help you with writing and tone (this being especially important for techie founders who may have floundered in English 101). A business plan is a marketing document for your business, so you need to ensure you are putting your best foot forward.

Good luck!

Former Schwab CMO and “mad woman” illuminates “talk to Chuck” case study in MBA advertising class

It’s Thursday afternoon, and in one of the University of Washington Foster School of Business classrooms, former Charles Schwab Chief Marketing Officer Becky Saeger was talking to MBA students about the experience of digging deep to revitalize a major brand. As the architect and marketing protagonist of the integrated “Talk to Chuck” campaign platform, Saeger had plenty to offer the students on this Harvard Schwab Case.
Former Schwab CMO Becky Saeger (middle) with Associate Dean Dan Turner and Senior Lecturer Elizabeth Stearns

She discussed the importance of the big picture marketing process. From there the focus was on the decision metrics, advertising strategy and execution, and ultimately how that contributed to Schwab’s overall brand objectives.

Saeger’s also great in her capacity as guest lecturer, which was her role in Marketing 540, taught by Elizabeth Stearns, senior lecturer. Saeger brings to life the lay of the land at Schwab. The year was 2004 and the CEO who hired her was replaced by Charles “Chuck” Schwab himself, reclaiming his role as CEO of the $4.2 billion company he founded in 1971. Saeger reinforced the problem as described in the Harvard case, on the potential for losses and eroding customer loyalty, as the company struggles to fulfill its promise to the individual investor.

Following Professor Stearns’ lead, Saeger asked as many questions as she answered. One interesting aspect of this class is that Stearns does not play the role of professor—but rather that of a marketing client. Students have formed teams acting as advertising agencies vying for Stearns’ business. There’s very little handholding – and that’s good, because as any marketing agency veteran will attest, clients expect initiative and brilliance. The students demonstrated considerable chutzpah—one memorable moment occurring when a student agency, Drapers’ Disciples, turned down Saeger’s request for an additional $50 million budget with their excellent ROI analysis.

In the end Saeger won out with exceptional rationale; moreover, she proved success.

This teaching model brings intense realism into the classroom, as do guests like Becky Saeger.  There was an exhilarating quality to the session, and an overwhelming sense that Foster MBAs are getting the best of rigor where it intersects relevance to their futures.

As a side note, there was some irony that the ‘agency’ challenging Saeger’s budget request was “Draper’s Disciples.” As it turns out, she began her career at Ogilvy & Mather in NY, where she made a name for herself with global brand campaigns for American Express, among other clients. A true Madison Avenue prodigy.

TMMBA Study Groups: Team Miracle Grow

Meet Team Miracle Grow

“Miracle Grow” is not only the name of this study group, but also represents each student’s experience via Technology Management MBA. Immense growth in management, collaboration, time management, and business acumen are all the result of 18 months of dedication. Expanding their comfort zones, they grew as individuals and as a team. Watch their video for insights into how they blossomed from MBA applicant to seasoned professional.

(L-R: Steve Stroberger, full-time student; Aaron Parsley, Consultant, Group Health; Bhaskar Dutt, Senior Program Manager, Microsoft Corporation; Frida Thernstrom, full-time student; Jared McInelly, Senior Field Engineer, National Instruments; Murat Yanar, Global Account Manager, Hewlett-Packard)

What advice do you have for someone considering UW TMMBA?

Murat: The UW TMMBA Program is only 18 months long; however, it is intellectually challenging, quite intense and requires significant time commitment. Candidates should make a decision on whether this program is a good fit for their individual, personal, and professional development goals. Identify the key stakeholders who will be impacted by this decision (i.e. employer/co-worker, family and friends) and discuss the commitment, requirements, and support needed from each stakeholder. If you are married and have a child (like I do), I strongly recommend sharing as much information as you can with your spouse up front and getting your spouse’s full support before you start the program.Aaron: Write down what you want to get from an MBA program and document your requirements. Use this as your grading sheet as you compare and contract different options. Also, make sure to research the validity of some schools claims of accreditation or affiliation to bigger schools. If national ranking agencies don’t recognize the school offering the program, this should play into your decision. One last item, when considering the cost of the program, remember that the TMMBA covers all meals and materials. Don’t underestimate the value of having meals catered and books delivered right to your classroom.

Bhaskar: Learn as much as you can about the program by reading all the available literature, talking to staff and alumni, and attending any events you can. Make sure the program and you are a good fit. Have clear goals coming in to the program and work towards those goals while in the program. Once you are in the program, look at this as an opportunity to stretch yourself. Do things that you have never done before or are outside of your comfort zone, like public speaking, playing golf or taking point on a marketing project. Make it a goal to meet new people. Take every opportunity to learn from them.

Why did you choose the UW TMMBA Program?

Bhaskar: The Foster School is consistently rated the best business program in the Pacific Northwest. I want to continue working in the tech sector and the focus on technology is therefore attractive. The program is part-time, but only 18 months long. It doesn’t have the crushing opportunity cost of a full-time program, but it still provides a challenging, well-rounded MBA experience. The TMMBA staff takes care of so many inconveniences that eat away at your time (registering for classes, getting books for the next semester, getting parking permits – the list goes on).

Jared: I chose the TMMBA Program after considering every possible option for an MBA out there. I had even been accepted at a top 25 full-time program and been offered a scholarship there. But when it came down to it, I couldn’t bring myself to quit my job, move my family and go without income for 2 years. It was just too risky. So I made a spreadsheet listing all of the things that really mattered to me in going back to school in one column. Then I listed every program in the Seattle area in the rows and gave them each a score. I showed this to my wife and we talked about it and adjusted some of the scores. By the time we were done, it was pretty obvious that the TMMBA Program aligned well with the things I wanted to get out of an MBA. Having gone through this exercise really prepared me to be focused on my schooling. And having made the decision together with my wife made sure that we were both on the same page. She has been a great support throughout this program.

What recommendations do you have for an applicant navigating the admissions process?

Frida: Go ahead and start with it! It is not as difficult as it first might seem. It takes some time though, and you don’t want to rush through it in the end. Anytime I had questions during the admissions process, I communicated with the UW TMMBA Program staff and they were very friendly and helpful.

Steve: Go to all UW TMMBA sponsored events; the information session, application workshop and visit a class or two. There are also recruiting events where you can meet current students and alumni. These events will provide you with an opportunity to find out what alumni are doing after graduation and how the UW TMMBA Program helped them advance their careers. During your class visits, you will also get a chance to talk to current TMMBA students and ask your questions about their experience and find out how they are managing their school/work life.

What has been your favorite class and why?

Murat: This is a tough one. I would say that I have a number of favorites. Financial Accounting, Corporate Finance, Leading Organizational Change and Entrepreneurship are the classes that stood out for me. These classes were taught by excellent professors; Frank Hodge, Jonathan Karpoff, Greg Bigley and Suresh Kotha respectively. In each of these classes, I learned concepts that I could apply immediately at my workplace. The Entrepreneurship class brought it all together and taught us foundational concepts to start our own businesses. In fact, my study group is participating in the UW Business Plan Competition this year.

Jared: My favorite class was “Leading Organizational Change” by Greg Bigley. Greg is really entertaining to listen to. This class was really challenging and pushed me to understand and master the material. And leading change is a very practical skill that can be used throughout life, in most any situation. I have already used many of the concepts in my work life in helping our company go through some painful changes. Greg taught me several concepts that I wish I would have known earlier in life.

Aaron: This is a tough one because there are many courses that I enjoyed a great deal. If I really have to choose just one, than it would be Operations and Supply Chain Management. Professor Kamran Moinzadeh did an excellent job of presenting detailed uses of concepts and also integrated a great hands-on simulation in the form of team competition to reinforce everything learned in class in a fun and unforgettable way.

Frida: That is a really hard question, because I can honestly say I enjoyed all classes. The content has been very informative and the professors have been really good, interested and encouraging. The courses are all about different concepts so it is difficult to compare them all together. I really liked the Leadership Development class a lot. I learned things that will be useful both in my work and private life. It gave me new perspectives particularly around power of influence, motivating and shared leadership that I will think about and apply going forward.

How did you like the study groups? For the first time, you had to be part of two study groups. Tell us about your observations and how this was beneficial.
(Students are on one group for the first half of the program and another group for the second half.)

Bhaskar: Being part of a study group (two, in fact!) made the whole experience much richer for me. Other team members bring diverse and unexpected points of view to the table and force you to consider things from multiple angles. I have gone into a team meeting multiple times convinced that I had the One True Answer and left it somewhat chagrined but wiser because one of my teammates saw something I didn’t or came up with an equally valid solution. You make deeper connections with the folks in your team – connections that you will likely keep alive for many more years. These are the folks you will lean on to pick up your slack the week you have the big deliverable at work, and these are the folks who will help you understand the intricacies of the subject that you are struggling with.Frida: The team work has taught me much about other people, and maybe most important, much about myself. Personally I like that we switched teams in the middle of the program, because you get to know other people better and also encounter other challenges which makes the learning experience better and richer. The team has also been a great support during the program. I believe that the TMMBA Program has done a good job of mixing different people with different personalities and backgrounds together.

Murat: I loved the study group approach which essentially simulates a workplace environment where there are individuals with different goals, aspirations, motivations and experiences. The study group gives you a safe environment in which you can navigate conflicts, cooperate, disagree, lead, follow, and essentially learn to be and act as one team marching towards the same goal. Having two study groups during the program is a terrific idea, because you get to bond with a new set of individuals at the half point and learn to become a team again with individuals with entirely different backgrounds, ideals and experiences.

How much time per week do you spend studying individually and meeting with your team? What is a typical week’s schedule?

Aaron: I would say that on average I spend around 8 hours per week working individually on assignments and 4-8 hours on group assignments, although this can spike during busy times. A typical weeks schedule for me looks like this:

    • Sun: Study individually and prepare for team meeting
    • Mon: Team Meeting in the evening, generally 6-8 or 9pm
    • Tues: Prepare individual work for Wednesday class and finish team assignments
    • Wed: Class in the evening
    • Thurs: Day off for review sessions if offered
    • Fri: Prepare individual work for Saturday class or day off on non-school weekend
    • Sat: Class every other weekend or family time

Steve: Individually approximately 15 hours every week at home, but I also listened to recorded lectures or review sessions or audio books related to school activities during my commute to and from Kirkland. As a team, we met once a week and occasionally a second time for about 3 hours each meeting. Besides team projects, the team meeting was good to be sure my individual work was on par with my teammates.

Bhaskar: I would say the typical week consisted of about 10-12 hours of individual study plus time for classes and team meetings. The time factor was a major concern for me going in to the program, but I soon realized that though it is certainly challenging, it is by no means impossible. In fact, it really is amazing how much time you have in your day once you cut down on all the time that you would have wasted surfing the web or watching TV. Time management and prioritization are skills that you will become experts at in the program. Map out the entire quarter soon after you get your syllabuses. Though the professors work together to ensure that the workload is manageable, you will find that there are some weeks when everything seems to happen at once. Identify those weeks early and plan for them!

UW environmental innovation wows judges

Judges were supposed to walk into the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall on March 29, pick up their folders and grab a seat. But the 23 prototypes were simply irresistible.

They caught your eye the minute you walked into the room for the 2012 University of Washington Environmental Innovation Challenge. A bicycle with the electric assist that could transport up to 200 pounds of cargo. Solar windows that would continue to operate even if cracked or broken. The new cooking surface that was nonstick and nontoxic with no coating at all. A tiny helicopter drone that could be used to inspect remote wind turbines. The highway jersey barrier made of recycled tires that were not only cheaper to produce but could also lessen the impact of a direct automotive hit. The earth-bag house that can be built quickly and safely after a natural disaster—and still withstand a category 4 hurricane.

The Environmental Innovation Challenge, managed by the Foster School Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (in partnership with the UW colleges of engineering and environment), is focused on student-led solutions to environmental problems. More than 120 judges from Seattle’s environmental and entrepreneurial communities evaluated student teams from colleges and universities across Washington on three criteria:

  • a working prototype, designed and built by the team
  • an investor pitch, paired with a solid understanding of the  market opportunity
  • the solution’s potential for impact

Judge Kelly Ogilvie, former president and CEO of Blue Marble Energy, was impressed by the creativity. “People are worried about the economy, but look around. This is cool stuff, and a lot of these concepts have legs.” David Allen, executive VP of McKinstry, agreed. “Every one of these ideas is pushing the green innovation needle forward,” he said. Seattle entrepreneur and Concur CEO Steve Singh was more impressed by how robust the prototypes were. “This is amazing,” he said. “Not one of these teams spent more than $3,000.”

The $10,000 grand-prize-winning team was Green Innovation Safety Technologies (GIST), which has one goal in mind: to eliminate the vast number of auto and truck tires plugging up US landfills. GIST’s jersey barriers use the equivalent of 240 tires (5,000 pounds of rubber mulch) each and have the added benefit, in comparison with concrete barriers, of increasing safety, reducing noise and enhancing water run-off. The team is composed of UW business and engineering undergraduate and PhD students.

See full list of all 5 winning teams and videos.

Learn more about the world of start-ups via the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

For loyalty’s sake: follow the smartphone

How do you convince coffee shop and pizza parlor owners that it’s time to ditch the paper punch card and move to a digital customer loyalty app? Educate them in the ways of today’s savvy smartphone users.

Punchkeeper, an app developed by Seattle University MBA Val Trask and her friends, programmer Jon Ohrt and developer Matty Mitchell, does just that. By providing a simple alternative to the old-fashioned paper punch card for businesses like cafes and salons, Punchkeeper ups customer loyalty and downplays wallet space. But wait, there’s more. In the course of any transaction, the app is also collecting valuable market data, performing target marketing through phone notifications, and using geo-locational technology to create social media buzz. What’s not to like?

It is no surprise that early-adopting university students in urban locations are exactly the customers to convince small businesses of Punchkeeper’s benefits.  Once store owners learn how simple it is for a smartphone owner to scan a QR code and transmit their data, Punchkeeper becomes an obvious solution. Josh Losinger, the owner of Seattle’s Lunchbox Laboratory, only had to observe his lunch-time customers. “We figured that since most people these days are glued to their phones even while chomping down on our crazy burgers, they may as well get value out of it,” he said. “Punchkeeper is the future of loyalty recognition.”

Since participating in the 2011 UW Business Plan Competition, the Punchkeeper team is now seeking Series A funding to scale and add features. The company currently serves merchants in Washington, Texas and Colorado, and is starting to work with retailers in Oregon and on the East Coast. Punchkeeper has 3,000 users. The team expects that number to grow rapidly with the launch of the University of Washington Housing and Food Services program later this spring.

The biggest lesson Trask and her team have learned? Be scrappy. “At the Business Plan Competition we were the team with the homemade sign, the logo-shaped cookies, the cool borrowed props and the donated giveaways,” explains Trask. “It started us on a path of scrappiness and creativity that translated into successful bootstrapping in the real world.”

Learn more about the world of start-ups via the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

Community is the new equity at SURF

Seaton Gras  is a certifiable start-up junkie who has been forming incubators and launching meet-up groups since before those terms became technospeak. Whether it was his upbringing in a 1950s-era cooperative in the woods of Massachusetts or just pure passion for entrepreneurship, collaboration is clearly in Gras’s blood. Even Wizzymouse, the “wiki for kids” business he entered into the 2007 UW Business Plan Competition, was a form of community-building.

So is SURF, Seaton Gras’ newest effort to provide a safe landing spot and creative environment for early-stage entrepreneurs. SURF (Start Up Really Fast) sprang into existence to “help an idea grow into a series of milestones,” Gras says, “because each stage needs different resources. Talent clusters and re-clusters, depending on the need.”

Early SURF member Donald Rule, the founder of Translational Software adds,  “Even before its official opening, the SURF Incubator linked me with people that have offered insights, encouragement and most importantly connections that have accelerated my progress. Combine that with the energy created by associating with dynamic and optimistic start-ups, and you have a really compelling environment for incubating a business.”

Functioning for three years as an incubator without walls in random pizza joints and donated spaces, Gras recently landed the perfect physical space for SURF in Seattle’s historic Exchange building. With over 15,000-square feet already designed for the previous tenant’s tech workers, the incubator is fully outfitted to serve as many as 100 entrepreneurs with a variety of desk space and conference room configurations. Night owl entrepreneurs can even rent a desk just for the early morning hours.

By mid-March 2012, the lease was signed and both Geekwire and TechFlash, among others, had run stories. With 19 companies already signed on, Gras has also fielded calls from the mayor of London (yes, in the UK) and interested parties in Denver looking to replicate the SURF model.

What Gras gains from launching the SURF Incubator may not earn him equity in the traditional sense, and he’s just fine with that. Instead, he values a whole different kind of ROI. “I’m driven by the experience and talent and re-clustering of teams,” he says. “I’m in a community of people like me.”

Learn more about the world of start-ups via the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.