By Jamie T. Zanios Vice President North Iowa Area Community College, Mason City
Lessons Learned After Five Years
The North Iowa Area Community College’s(NIACC) John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC) was instrumental in the conception and launching of the John Pappajohn Iowa Business Plan Competition. The concept for the competition was to help meet one part of our mission, stimulating entrepreneurship. Engaging the directors of the other JPEC’s, which are located on the campus of the three regent universities (University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa) and Drake University, it was collectively agreed that we would approach our primary benefactor to support this competition. When he agreed to support the competition by funding the prizes, we launched the effort. You can view the rules and timeline at www.iowabusinessplancompetition.com.
The reasons to start a business plan competition can be several; in our case it was about engaging with more start-up businesses to help them with their business planning through our centers. We enlisted the support and collaboration of the Iowa Department of Economic Development (IDED), Small Business Development Centers and the Iowa Business Accelerators, all of which play a role in supporting the planning effort by businesses and are also represented on the judging panel.
Benefits to All Participants
What have we learned over the past five years? First is that over 300 businesses have participated and many have gone on to grow and create jobs and wealth as a result. Many businesses have sought support for their business planning that would not have done so without the motivation of the competition. The companies that have received funding as a result of winning one of the top prizes have been significantly assisted with that "free money” in their efforts to launch and grow their businesses. The publicity has been helpful for those that won or were in the finals in their pursuit of business and additional funding. The companies that participate, even those that have not won funding, are much better off for having gone through the process and worked through a business plan.
Running a business plan competition is hard work. Some suggestions from the lessons we have learned follow:
Engage a broad group to support the marketing and share the burdens of running a competition. Running a statewide competition is a large undertaking. We have broken down the responsibilities among the JPECs and other supporting organizations. One JPEC has taken the marketing responsibilities and creates the brochures, issues the news releases, and develops and executes the marketing plan for the competition. One center serves as competition manager. This shifted after three years from the University of Iowa to NIACC last year, and NIACC is running the competition again this year. This includes responsibilities for calling the formative meetings, ensuring that materials are updated, rule changes are posted, the Web site is updated (the actual Web site changes are done by one of the other collaborators for the competition, IDED), but mostly this role involves responsibility for the collection of the business plan executive summaries, distribution of those to the judges and running the competition, including the final business plan review and judging. The leader of this effort puts the timeline together, calls the meetings and takes notes and disseminates them to the rest of the group.
If possible use an online entry and review process. We now use Angelsoft, as the repository for executive summaries and business plans. This has allowed us to eliminate the need for creating DVDs of the plans, and also has sped up the process; the plans can be reviewed as they come into the system and judges are automatically advised of new entries.
Market often and consistently. Getting businesses to compete may seem easy when the prize is part of $50,000, but that has not been the case. We have had to work our market areas hard, not just with marketing but actual contacts with potential contestants to encourage them to participate. We engage support from the Chambers of Commerce in our areas as well as the Economic Development Corporations in promoting and directing companies and entrepreneurs to our centers for information and encouragement to compete.
Define Start-up. We have defined start-up companies differently over time. Generally mirroring statewide definitions for other funding, we started with companies three years old or younger, moved to six years and younger and are now back at four years and younger. We also define the value of the company as less than $3 million in net worth. And we do not allow retail or professional services. We do allow Internet-based retail or services, however.
Require the business to be in your area or state.
Have a statewide forum or conference at which you can have the winners present and receive recognition. But require the companies to be present to be able to receive a check. No absentee recipients. No shows get no money.
Bring back the winners to the conference to highlight their progress.
These are a few of the lessons learned and application of those lessons in developing, launching and running a successful statewide business plan competition. You will find that this is hard work and takes planning from nearly the end of one competition to the delivery of the next competition. The effort we feel is worth it if it brings more clients through our doors working on their business plans and if it supports financially the development of home-grown businesses in the region and state.
Finalists in the John Pappajohn Iowa Business Plan Competition for 2008 meet on stage with John Pappajohn (far right): (L-R): Suresh Kothari, Ensoft Enabling Software; Dr. Johnny Wong, EndoMetric; Tim Woods, TMT Manufacturing.