After 10 years, Governor’s Business Plan Contest more relevant than ever

Business ideas are born every day, and most melt back into people’s cluttered minds before the sun sets. Of those that percolate to the surface with somewhat greater frequency, few ever find the animal spirits to become anything more than a passing thought or a nagging regret.

There are lots of reasons for this — fear, self-doubt, inertia, or simply the absence of a risk-taking mindset.

The biggest obstacle, however, may be a basic lack of focus.

“Without the rigor of the plan process, it’s likely we would not have gone through this valuable exercise.” — Rimas Buinevicius, CEO and co-founder, RoWheels

No worries. The Wisconsin Technology Council is here to help. As the chief sponsor of the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest, the council has been spinning dreams into gold for years now — or at least helping its fellow Badgers do so.

Now entering its 11th year — and celebrating its 10th anniversary — the contest offers entrepreneurs in the seed, startup, and early-growth stages of high-tech businesses the opportunity to coalesce their ideas into workable business plans, and the results have been more than a little encouraging.

For one thing, the survival rate of the contest’s finalists has been high. More than 75% of past finalists are still in business — a number that easily surpasses average survival rates in the economy as a whole.

For another, past participants speak well of the contest, noting especially the opportunity to distill one’s thoughts into a tangible plan.

Rimas Buinevicius, CEO and co-founder of RoWheels, the 2012 Grand Prize winner and Advanced Manufacturing Category winner, said the contest helped his startup home in on a plan of action and provided key input from other entrepreneurs.

“The competition was an outstanding way to vet our business idea and get multiple third parties to review our plan,” said Buinevicius. “Likewise, the structure of the program forced us to think through our plan more thoroughly as well as conduct key upfront market research. Without the rigor of the plan process, it’s likely we would not have gone through this valuable exercise. Finally, it was an outstanding way to hone our message, and this is a key to getting in front of investors to raise capital.”

Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, also notes that the contest helps draw entrepreneurs out of the bubble they sometimes operate in — exposing them to a network of other entrepreneurs as well as people with deeper experience in the high-tech sector.

“Because entrepreneurs tend to sometimes work alone, or at best in small groups, they don’t necessarily always meet other entrepreneurs like themselves,” said Still. “This is one more way for them to do that. But for the top 50 — and, you know, roughly one out of six people who enter would get into that group — there’s a boot camp that really allows them to get more in depth and to meet a bunch of people. They would have an opportunity to get their plan posted up on our Wisconsin Angel Network site for investors to take a look at. There’s exposure in a variety of other formats where there might be investors or others who would take an interest in the company.”

Walk before you run

The contest is divided into four phases. In the first, competitors submit a basic 250-word business idea. (Those submissions are due by 5 p.m. Jan. 31.) Those who advance to the second phase are asked to submit a 1,000-word executive summary. In phase 3, the remaining competitors are required to submit a full 15- to 20-page business plan. Finally, the top 12 finalists give an oral presentation at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference on June 3.

Throughout each phase of the contest, competitors can learn a lot, said Still.

“In the first phase, we’ve got mentors that are set up and those who want to avail themselves of that can do so — and that’s all online at that point, and it continues to be an online aspect to all of that entering throughout,” said Still. “But they also get judges’ comments in addition to scores as the contest moves along, and the boot camp itself is a pretty deep dive where the top 50 can hear a lot.

“We invite all of them to attend the Entrepreneurs’ Conference in June, and that’s where they can spend a couple of days getting more in depth. So the contest opens a lot of doors to longer-term mentoring, but in the short term they’re getting it both online and, in some cases, live.”

For Buinevicius, the mentoring he received was invaluable.

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“The reviewers and mentors who participate in the process are outstanding in what they do and will offer very valuable and constructive feedback,” said Buinevicius.

Past contestants also note that the way the contest is structured — proceeding in phases, the first of which requires minimal commitment — allows competitors to, as Still notes, “walk before they run, and build their plan in segments with the benefit of some feedback and advice.”

According to Shobhan Thakkar, COO of Gristmill Studios, the 2013 Information Technology Category winner, the contest not only helped his company go from the idea stage to implementation, it also allowed he and his partners to focus in on a plan in easily digestible stages.

“If anyone has any interest, I would just say 250 words is not a lot,” said Thakkar. “It’s something they have to put a little bit of thought into, but if they’ve ever had an inkling of trying to see if there’s a business plan in what their idea is, it’s really the place to go.”

Entries for the contest are split into four different categories: Advanced Manufacturing, Business Services, Information Technology, and Life Sciences. More than $100,000 in cash and service prizes are available, and since the contest began in 2004, more than 2,600 entries have been received and more than $1.7 million in prizes have been awarded. There is no entry fee.

The contest’s website has also been updated for this year, giving potential entrants yet another reason to look into applying.

“We’ve got a fresh look to that site, and I think the users are going to find it more friendly,” said Still.

Some of the more successful past entrants include BioSystem Development, WiRover, Eso-Technologies, and Vector Surgical.

That’s eye-opening in itself, but for Still, the real success of the contest has been its ability over the past 10 years to contribute to our state’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“I think it has added immensely to the entrepreneurial culture in Wisconsin,” said Still. “It is truly a statewide opportunity. I think we’ve had at least one entry from 280 unique communities over time, and so it’s ingrained in the entrepreneurial culture now. It has strong name ID. People know what to expect, they know it’s going to be an opportunity for them. So that’s, I think, been part of the enduring value of the contest — it’s helped, among many other things, shape the entrepreneurial culture in Wisconsin.”

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