Category Archives: Entrepreneurship

Alumnus is Pirq-ing up the daily deals market

Maybe James Sun was never the hiring type.

More of a job creator, the 1999 BA graduate of the University of Washington Foster School of Business has been one busy entrepreneur since being the last contestant “fired” on national television by Donald Trump in the season six finale of “The Apprentice.”

Sun’s latest venture is Pirq, a clever twist on the buzzing “daily deal” industry that was pioneered by Groupon.

James Sun (Foster BA 1999) is a serial entrepreneurPirq’s innovation is a smart phone app that identifies instant deals offered by businesses—initially restaurants—near your location or destination. Simply activate the virtual coupon and redeem on the spot for up to 50% off the total bill. Instant gratification.

Sun says it’s a win-win. Customers pay no upfront charge, endure no waiting period, swallow no pre-purchased coupons that never get used. And businesses get the opportunity to offer more targeted deals and the flexibility to avoid being crushed by oversold daily deals.

“Pirq shifts the way we discover and get deals by letting our smart phones help us find instant, relevant savings wherever we are—in a way that benefits both consumers and businesses,” said Sun.

UW alumni exclusive deals

Pirq recently raised $2 million in venture capital funding and is expanding rapidly from its home market of Seattle. Sun, the company’s CEO, has been busy making exclusive partnerships with a variety of organizations. The newest is with the University of Washington Alumni Association, announced in May 2012.

UWAA members have only to enter their member number when downloading the free Pirq app to become eligible for exclusive offers unavailable to the general public. What’s more, Pirq will donate 10 percent of the proceeds from each member transaction to support the UWAA.

“Pirq is an innovative business founded by a UW alum, and it provides our members with relevant benefits they can access through their phones while generating support for the UWAA,” said UWAA executive director Paul Rucker, in an interview with GeekWire. “Members will absolutely enjoy saving money with Pirq and… we’re thrilled to be working with Pirq.”

Life after Trump

Given his adventures since “The Apprentice” wrapped, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that Sun would have been better off as a foot soldier in Trump’s gold-plated, real-estate empire.

After his televised dismissal, Sun leveraged his new-found celebrity to launch and host his own international TV show. “Sun Tzu: War on Business,” a co-production of the BBC, MediaCorp and CCTV, was broadcast in 20 nations across Asia in 2009-10. In each episode, Sun counseled motivated-but-struggling entrepreneurs on lessons from “The Art of War,” the iconic writings of the ancient Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu.

Returning to business of his own making, Sun founded GeoPage, a location-based search company that helps people find restaurants, hotels and attractions in their vicinity. GeoPage built the platform upon which Pirq now operates.

Sun also is an active angel investor and strategic advisor to a number of start-ups. He serves on the board of United Way of King County and the King County Scoutreach Program, as well as, an organization that solicits micro-donations to support children in the developing world.

Columns magazine recently named Sun one of the UW’s “Wondrous 100 Alumni,” and he recently judged the Foster School Business Plan Competition.

Ben Huh: be weird, practice failure, thank the Internet

Guest post by Alex Diaz, vice president of UW American Marketing Association chapter

“The best things in life are non-linear.” So said, Ben Huh, CEO of Cheezburger Network, at a recent event organized by the University of Washington American Marketing Association in collaboration with the UW Foster School of Business Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.  Not surprisingly, his talk, “Making Failure Cheap: Managing Risk to Ensure Success,” was no ordinary bullet-point-filled PowerPoint. Instead, Huh was an amazing speaker who grabbed everyone’s attention by sharing his real-life stories—the kind of tales we (as students) hope we never have to face.  Together, we all learned how he overcame his challenges in the most unconventional of ways.

Ben Huh is a quirky, innovative, natural entrepreneur. He injects fun into everything he does, which helped make something as trivial as sharing cat pictures into an Internet sensation. The audience heard about his successes – like “LOLcats,” but also learned about how to create knowledge through failure and to learn from mistakes. Huh gave a call to action to “hack the system” and follow your vision.

Thinking beyond the great education we are getting here at the UW was another piece of Huh’s advice. While educational institutions do an amazing job teaching us how to strive for success and accomplishment, we can’t forget that a proper education is actually a balance of what we learn from the books and what we are courageous enough to experience in real life. Being courageous enough to consider our failures as good practice, is one example. Huh suggested we not fight failure, but take it in and redefine what motivates us.

Specifically with regard to using the Internet in future ventures, Huh reminded us that users drive it, and that the Internet IS culture. Each user is motivated innately and content is then created by the masses. This means that a different user mindset applies to different mediums. Know your audience.

The gist is this: There are two ways of looking at the future. The first is that you see the future as inevitable, whether good or bad, everything is already set in stone. The second way of looking at the future is to create it the way you want it. Hearing Huh speak helped the audience remember that we each have the ability to do exactly that. Nothing has been determined for us.

Huh’s presentation left us all with the following insights: Being weird doesn’t mean you are alone (thanks to the Internet).  Instead of following the money, be non-linear and follow your dreams. Know what motivates you and strive to make an impact. Take what you can from your dreams and make them as real as anything.

$68,000 for winners of UW Business Plan Competition 2012

The 2012 University of Washington Foster School of Business’ Business Plan Competition had a record amount of seed funding and record participation. Winning start-ups are innovating in sectors like hyper-local agriculture, functional fashion, health care patient tracking technology and alternative forms of mobile advertising.

UW Foster School Dean Jiambalvo says, “If you look at the basis for having a free and prosperous nation, it’s job creation. And where are jobs created? They are created by entrepreneurs.”

At the awards banquet, Connie Bourassa-Shaw, director of Foster’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, announced a new innovation lab to open soon at the Foster School where students can utilize office space to incubate and start ventures.

$25,000 Grand Prize + $2,500 Best Clean-Tech Idea

UW’s UrbanHarvest will grow the healthiest, tastiest and most environmentally sustainable produce available anywhere, all on a rooftop near you. Two students are both Foster School MBAs: Chris Bajuk (MBA/MS Real Estate) and Chris Sheppard (MBA/Juris Doctorate). “We are two locally raised, UW-educated military veterans creating green, sustainable business,” says Bajuk.

A pilot project is underway to build a rooftop, hydroponic greenhouse on a Microsoft garage. They reduce the fossil fuel burn of transporting produce from elsewhere to consume locally. Bajuk adds, “We’re going to be supplying Microsoft food services with their entire lettuce and herb quotient. They currently source it all from Salinas Valley, California.”

Washington Research Foundation Capital sponsored the Grand Prize. CEO Ron Howell says, “We have invested in 57 companies in this [Seattle] area and most of those have been related to technology coming out of the University of Washington. The best of the best this year is Urban Harvest.”

$10,000 2nd Prize

UW’s Xylemed is a cloud-based electronic patient tracking and operations management system that leverages existing information systems to manage hospital workflows—improving communication and safety, while reducing expenses. Students are all enrolled in the UW Foster School of Business Technology Management MBA Program: Ben Andersen, Marc Brown, Anoop Gupta, Jason Imani and Glen Jensen.

CEO Ben Andersen, who created and successfully deployed his new technology called Ember at UW Harborview Medical Center, says, “You would be shocked at the number of hospitals still using white boards as a way to track patients. [Ember] really improves communication inside a hospital. We’re in 55 locations across three medical centers.”

$5,000 Finalist Prize

UW’s JoeyBra, a unique pocketed bra design that allows women of all ages to go to dances, parties, or events without having to worry about bringing a purse. Two Foster undergraduate students founded JoeyBra: Kyle Bartlow and Mariah Gentry.

$5,000 Finalist Prize

UW’s Biking Billboards is a new kind of mobile advertising combining billboards pulled on bicycle trailers with savvy and engaging brand ambassadors to promote our client’s messages. Team includes: Curtis Howell (Foster entrepreneurship undergraduate), Claire Koerner (Foster entrepreneurship undergraduate), Andrea Lieberman and Alyssa Norwood.

$3,000 Low-Income, Senior-Service Prize

UW’s Flash Volunteer offers a set of mobile and social tools to create, discover, track and easily share volunteer service events via a variety of integrated channels. Team consists of Brad Wilke (MBA 2012), Damon Gjording (Executive MBA 2012), Logan Buesching and Janis Lee.

$2,500 Best Technology Idea

UW’s EchoGuide Medical is developing a disposable ultrasound based catheter guidance technology that will address the current high rate of error in placement of catheters during ventriculostomy procedures while reducing cost. Team consists of Daniel Butts, Evening MBA; Edward Lo, PhD bioengineering; Molly Moore, Evening MBA; Revathi Murthy, MS bioengineering; Michael Robinson, graduate in chemical engineering; Ryan St. John, Evening MBA; and Anning Yao.

$2,500 Best Consumer Product Idea

UW’s GroBox aims to make it super easy to grow your own fruits and vegetables in a small amount of space. The entire team consists of UW Foster School of Business Technology Management MBA students: Amador Abreu, Jared McInelly, Aaron Parsley, Steve Stroberger and Murat Yanar.

$2,500 Best Innovation Idea

UW’s SuperCritical Technologies provides a compact power solution that will revolutionize the way we generate and distribute electricity. Team includes Chal Davidson, Evening MBA; Max Effgen, Evening MBA; Nico Spitz, Evening MBA; Brooke Macomber and Josh Walter.

$2,500 Best Service/Retail Idea

UW’s ViewPointe, UW, is a real time software tool that enables emergency response agencies such as police, fire and utilities to collaborate, communicate and track resource locations on an interactive geographic map. Team consists of all UW Foster Evening MBA students: Anna Atlasova, Abhishek Gupta and Ross Town.

$2,500 Best Sustainable Advantage Idea

UW’s Barrels of Hope provides safe, affordable and sustainable permanent shelter solutions to disaster victims and citizens of developing nations. Team: Sloan DuRoss, MBA; Sarah Jeglum, MBA; Corina Popescu, BS civil engineering; Ryan Scott, MBA; Sushant Wad, MBA; and Travis Corigliano.

A record 101 student teams representing colleges and universities across Washington state applied to participate in the 2012 University of Washington Business Plan Competition. 36 teams pitched a who’s who list of 200 Seattle-area venture capitalists and entrepreneurs at the investment round trade show. Sweet 16 teams advanced to semifinals and the top 4 teams polishes their pitches for the final round on May 24, 2012.

Start-up teams at various stages of the competition came from a range of institutions: Bainbridge Graduate Institute, Eastern Washington University, Evergreen State College, Gonzaga University, Northwest University, Seattle Pacific University, Seattle University, University of Washington, University of Washington Bothell, Walla Walla Community College and Washington State University.

The UW Foster School of Business Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship puts on this competition every year.

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!

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.

Meet your new apartment: you’ll love her

Every entrepreneur learns that the company you envision at the outset almost certainly won’t be the same company you own a year or two later. Take Phillip Lee and Spottage, for example. With the help of the high-profile TechStars and greater industry exposure, Lee and his co-founder, Bryan Leptich, have turned their 2007 Business Plan Competition entry, Spottage, into, a rental housing “date match” business that is now the largest listing site.

For Lee, the stops, starts and re-grouping came with the economic downturn, which hit just as Spottage found its stride in 2008. Lee discovered that he was actually serving a lessor’s market rather than the previously hot renter’s market. That shift drove a new emphasis on providing real value and more refined search results for users – something akin to the algorithms behind Netflix’s “suggestions.”

This was also when Lee started to see Spottage in a new light. “Instead of just building another listing site, why don’t we become the intelligent layer that sorts through all those listings and efficiently matches them with renters?” he said. “The problem isn’t lack of inventory. The problem is how to quickly and efficiently match vacant units with renters.”

By working with rather than against the likes of, and, Lee’s company, now using the more descriptive name of, has collected the largest number of listings (roughly 1.5 million) of any comparable site. With that expanded listings pool, the dating began. now offers greater levels of customization to match housing seekers with exactly the features they want. Furthermore, their cross-competitive partnerships allowed them to expand beyond university campuses into other urban geographic areas.

“What was surprisingly hard to get used to was the reality that, for a start-up, it’s a race to fail quickly, learn quickly and ‘do more faster,’” he explained. “If you’re too afraid of failure, you don’t take those big risks that can turn into big successes.” Lee’s experience in the TechStars process ingrained this “fail faster” theory in his thinking. With a broader perspective and expanded connections, Rentmatch’s start-up journey has helped set up even more successful “dates” between apartment seekers and lessors.

After saying no to an early buyout “marriage” offer at the Real Estate Connect conference in New York City in early 2012, Lee and Leptich have continued to grow Without marketing or press, site visits went from 1,000 to 25,000 from December 2011 through March 20, 2012. And though the company has always had revenue, Lee notes, “most angel investors have told us to not worry about revenue at the seed stage and instead focus on product market fit and building traction.”

The lean, two-man team plans to add five developers and a sales/business development manager by the end of the year. Like dating, the energy they have put into failing has been worth it, now that they have found the perfect entrepreneurial fit.

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

Kikking it

James LeppGolf champion-turned-entrepreneur James Lepp brings style and performance to the green

Different. Believes saddles are for horses. Always scores better than it appears. Only replaces divots that are actually going to grow back. Welcomes unnecessary noise in his backswing. Is in several people’s dream foursome. Respects golf history, but embraces change. That describes the Kikkor golfer, according to the shoe company’s 2011 catalog.

Sound a little edgy? Cool? Like you—maybe? If that’s the case, James Lepp (BA 2006) welcomes you to the world of Kikkor Golf.

“I don’t know many guys who say they want to dress like their dad,” says Lepp. So, in 2008, with his career as a pro golfer lagging, he felt the entrepreneurial spark and began designing alternatives to classic golf shoes. The company started with six styles when they launched in 2010; they currently offer more than 40.

As good as they look

Lepp finds inspiration on the streets and the courts. Kikkor’s current line-up of styles range from slip-ons resembling skater shoes to a high top that begs for a shot beyond the 3-point line. Read the shoe names and descriptions and the Kikkor brand comes to life. For the Men’s New Heights – Whiteout: “No, we weren’t high when we designed this bad boy. This high top golf shoe is legit.” Or, the Women’s Tour Classe – Black Aruba: “While the shoes may be lightweight and waterproof, you’ll want to resist the temptation to dive into the ocean or nearby pool. Instead, just run to your ball and tap in for birdie.”

Make no mistake however, as cool as “Kikks” may be, they are also made to perform. A review on gave the shoes 96 points out of 100, and 20 out of 20 points for performance.

Kristen Williams, the author behind the popular blog “The Golf Chick,” writes about her Kikkors: “If I could stop looking at them I might forget I was wearing shoes at all. However, they’re also quite stabilizing. They make me feel secure when addressing the ball and give me confidence in my golf shots.”

Consider the chip shot

The fact that Kikkor shoes perform as well as they look shouldn’t come as a surprise, given Lepp’s background. Among his many golfing triumphs, Lepp was named the Royal Order of Merit as Canada’s top amateur golfer for 2003 and 2004, was the first non-American to win the Pacific Coast Amateur Championship, and made Husky history when he became UW’s first NCAA Individual Champion in 2005.

“I love the subject of James Lepp” says UW men’s golf Coach Matt Thurmond.  “James is a guy I’d always bet on because he’s committed to finding creative and innovative ways to get results.”

Take Lepp’s approach to wedge play, something Thurmond says is a point of pride in the program and that Lepp took to a new level.

“He would constantly practice his chipping,” says Thurmond (for golf novices, a chip shot is a short, usually low approach shot that lofts the ball to the green). “He’d do it the night before a round in the hallway of the hotel, chipping over and over again, or into a garbage can, or onto the seat of a chair. He even chipped on the putting green, which most golfers say is taboo, but he knew that and he would practice his chipping on the putting green doing things that no one else does—he’d chip it into the pin and bang the pin over and over to make sure his alignment was perfect. He’s incredible with a golf club.”

Passionate and prepared

Similar to many entrepreneurs, the classroom didn’t garner as much attention from Lepp as the things he was most passionate about—like the golf club.

“Looking back on it I wish I didn’t view assignments, tests, projects as something I needed to get done, like a chore,” says Lepp. Yet his business school experience did help him launch the company. “There were definitely some things I learned that helped me when I started to think about launching Kikkor.”

There is ongoing research about whether entrepreneurial success is rooted in passion or preparedness. In Lepp’s case, it may be a bit of both. Lepp is still making mad chip shots (just check out Kikkor’s Day-at-the-Office video) and Kikkor experienced a 550% growth in its first year and revenues are up 250% to-date in 2012.

Undergrad learns from losing and winning a competition

Guest post by James Barger, UW engineering senior and UW Environmental Innovation Challenge co-chair, 2012, Grand Prize team member, UW Environmental Innovation Challenge 2011

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood…who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt, France, 1910

Completing the University of Washington Environmental Innovation Challenge (EIC) is a big arena for many people that enter each year. But it is actually a milestone on the way to becoming a successful entrepreneur.

When I came to the UW EIC as a sophomore I had no training, no experience, and no clue how to build world-class technology; along with the other members of my team, I just had a lot of passion for changing the way the world uses energy. In the beginning we believed we would be able to do everything, but it turns out that only three months of passion and blind experimenting isn’t enough to compete with PhD and MBA students with years of time invested. At the competition our prototype leaked and we had to shut down the demo after we got one of the judges’ shoes wet. After the competition we disagreed on the future of the technology and went our separate ways.

The following year I had no intention of entering the UW EIC and focused on being involved with class research at the UW. However, I became involved with a project in the Mechanical Engineering Department to convert a Honda Accord to an electric vehicle at a low cost. I met incredible people who were just as passionate as I, and we worked hard as a team to create a technology business that could make an impact in people’s lives. The judges thought so too, and we won the Grand Prize. Though, what we gained from the competition went far beyond any prize money.

Each year I competed, I began to see the common threads that made teams stand out and be successful. The experience of going through the entire competition once taught me so well, that by the second year I understood how a successful business plan was put together and how much development a prototype would need before being ready. A great businessman once said to me, “You learn business by doing business, the classroom can only teach you so much.” As EIC advisor and chemical engineering professor, Daniel Schwartz mentioned when he spoke at this year’s Challenge, it is experiences like the EIC that add enormous value to a college education. The UW EIC has given me a solid foundation to build on, so that when I start my own company, I will have the confidence and experience to go forward daring greatly.