Tag Archives: young entrepreneurs

Global change marketplace: how the GSEC Trade Show brings the world to UW

trade showOver its nine year history, the Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition (GSEC) at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business has brought awareness of pressing global issues to thousands of people – student competitors; competition mentors, judges and coaches; university partners; student volunteers; friends, family and supporters. So far, the competition has engaged over 2000 students of diverse educational disciplines and levels from around the world in tackling complex global social problems with entrepreneurial spirit and innovative market-based solutions.

At the competition’s culmination, semi-finalist university student teams (30-60 students per year) from around the world travel to Seattle for a week to learn about social enterprise, receive professional guidance and connections, network with each other and compete for prizes.

GSEC’s cross-cultural exchange is highlighted at the Trade Show, where semi-finalist teams each give their “pitch” to sell their business ideas to Trade Show judges, who act as mock investors, as well as students and community members. They often have prototypes, photos, videos and stories to illustrate the challenges they are facing and the inspirational impacts of their solutions. As a result, these issues become real, even for those who have never experienced them firsthand. Judge Loretta Little explains: “I have always felt and try to teach my kids that we’re citizens of the world. You need to put yourself in other people’s shoes. What better way than to meet people from around the world who are willing to come forward and share problems with you and what they think might be solutions to those problems.”

Teams often use prize money and connections made during GSEC to help launch their business, which can create employment and have other positive social impacts back home. Archived and streaming video of competition events, media coverage locally and in the student competitors’ universities and communities, and even the competitors own blogs and social media extends the education still further – allowing even those who cannot take part in the competition to feel inspired by the innovations being proposed to some of the world’s most pressing problems. Trade Show judge David Parker summed up why he volunteers each year: “The new ideas that are emerging every year from young people – it’s just astounding – they’re already creating patents, engaging with partners for manufacturing new devices, they’ve been able to engage with experts in the geographies of high need that they hope to get their solutions to – I just love seeing that passion, energy and creativity and innovation emerge and I continue to be impressed year after year with the applicants, the competitors and their ideas.”

GSEC is open to currently enrolled degree-seeking students in any discipline, at any level of study, and at any higher education institution worldwide who submits a plan that uses business principles to create a sustainable solution to poverty, health and economic growth in the developing world. Applications for the 10th annual competition are due November 12, 2014. Learn more at http://www.foster.washington.edu/gsec/

Accelerating first-time start-ups

The start-up process is messy and unpredictable. And student start-ups are certainly no exception. When teams that wow judges and win competitions move to the real world, the sheer enormity of the transition can be overwhelming. Licensing intellectual property, producing a manufacture-ready prototype, lining up customers, raising money—all critical and all daunting. The Foster Accelerator helps early-stage, student-led companies through those decisive first six months.

At  CIE, we believe it’s possible to create a TechStars-like program within a public university environment. True, we can’t pay a modest living wage to the founders. But we do look at the broad range of start-ups—and we don’t take equity.  In the Foster Accelerator, we provide six months of mentoring, a framework for achieving “reasonable but measureable” milestones, much-needed connections, and an incentive—as much as $25,000 in follow-on funding.  May not sound like much, but $25,000 can represent another three months of runway for a young company.

This year there are 10 start-ups in the Foster Accelerator.  There’s everything from consumer products (JoeyBra, Strideline,  MyPartsYard) to cleantech (SuperCritical Technologies, LumiSands, Green Innovation Safety Technologies) to service companies (PatientStream, Urban Harvest) and socially responsible companies (Haiti Babi and Microryza).

Does this work? It does!  In the last two years, we’ve worked with 10 companies—6 of which are still making progress.  Cadence Biomedical, which makes a medical device that helps people with mobility impairments walk, has raised $1.2M and is now selling a commercial product. Wander, formerly YonogPal , morphed from helping Korean students learn English via the web to a cultural exchange mobile app. And they were one of the top three 2011 “stand-outs” in Dave McClure’s 500 Startups. Stockbox Grocers just opened their first store-front location in the South Park neighborhood of Seattle, selling fresh food in a “food desert.”

The Foster Accelerator started with a three-year grant of $240,000 from the Herbert B. Jones Foundation to create the Jones Milestone Achievement Awards. Since then, other donors have come on board to provide additional financial support. You can follow this year’s Foster Accelerator teams on the Foster Unplugged Blog. They’ll be writing about their experiences over the next six month.

Top 5 tips for succeeding in a business plan competition

Guest post by Chris Rodde, CEO of SeniorHomes.com 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, SeniorHomes.com, 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!

Gravity at the speed of light

At 16, Dan Price’s high school rock band, the Straightforwords, broke up. At 26, he was on a stage in Washington, DC, shaking hands with President Barack Obama, who had just announced Price as the winner of the National Small Business Administration Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award for his company, Gravity Payments. Unrelated events? Not exactly.

After the Straightforwords broke up, Price kept up with his record store and coffee shop friends who had ties to the music industry. This small business crowd complained about the credit-card processing fees that made it hard for the little guys to compete. Having spent some time in the industry, Price vowed to level the playing field. In 2004, 19-year-old Price and his brother Lucas started a company called Gravity Payments.

Today, Gravity Payments handles over 10,000 clients, including about 30% of all small to medium-sized companies in Seattle. Their formula is simple. In a world where big banks often tack on whopping fees to the credit card transactions of smaller customers, Gravity charges about one-half to two-thirds less, with a fee structure that is refreshingly transparent. Add world-class customer service and it’s understandable why Gravity is processing more than $4 billion annually for clients in all 50 states, with revenue just under $100 million.

John Platt, owner of St. Clouds Restaurant and Catering, a Madrona neighborhood mainstay in Seattle, notes, “I don’t need a lot from a credit card company other than access to our money, and Gravity does that well. Even though the company has grown, if I have a problem and call him, Dan always gets back to me within 24 hours.”

As a student at Seattle Pacific University, Price won second place in the 2007 UW Business Plan Competition for Gravity Payments. “We were already in business at that time,” Price said, “but entering the competition gave me the opportunity to step back and get perspective on where we were going. The event strengthened my confidence and Gravity’s visibility. Investors were knocking on our door, but ultimately we declined their offers.”

Meeting President Obama in 2010 also served as a springboard into making a political difference, one that would help small businesses and Gravity. The Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was up for vote in Congress. The Durbin Amendment included a provision aimed at regulating debit card fees and increasing competition in payment processing. Major banks “threw everything they could” at repealing the effort. Price contacted Senator Patty Murray, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and the senator’s office told him that his letter played a key part in passage of the amendment.

It’s hard to hold Gravity down