I was pleased to be one of the judges at the 16th annual Connecticut Business Plan Competition sponsored by The Entrepreneurship Foundation.
Each year dozens of teams from the entrepreneurship classes at Connecticut’s private colleges, state universities and community colleges compete for cash awards, trophies and the chance to meet some of the state’s most prominent venture capitalists and angel investors.
The event, like many such competitions, is divided into two halves: the first half deals with “personal businesses” (mostly retail and service companies serving a local or regional market), and the second half with “ventures” (mostly technology and product/manufacturing companies serving a national or worldwide market).
Here are some of the “ventures” concepts that were presented at the event, and my notes on each plan (written in “real time” so not grammatically perfect).
CONCEPT #1: A smartphone application (or “app”) designed to help sellers of large, heavy merchandise – such as refrigerators, office machinery and exercise equipment – find local buyers and arrange to meet with them in public places to close their transactions.
THE PROS: People do not buy heavy items from distant online merchants because of the huge shipping costs.
THE CONS: Craigslist® offers similar services. I was also not convinced that buyers and sellers would actually want to meet in public places to close their transactions as it would require both parties to hire a truck.
SUGGESTIONS: Consider rebranding the business as a “classified ad” site where buyers and sellers can contact each other directly and work out the details of their transactions.
CONCEPT #2: A smartphone app offering short questionnaires to consumers which they fill out at the point of sale in order to obtain coupons and discounts that merchants will make available only for the app.
THE PROS: Studies indicate consumers are more likely to fill out short questionnaires than longer, time-consuming ones, especially if a reward of some kind is offered.
THE CONS: There is no guarantee consumers will take the time to fill out even a short questionnaire, especially if they’re standing at a cash register with screaming kids and a long line of other customers behind them.
SUGGESTIONS: Test market the concept at boutiques and smaller stores with less consumer traffic that might welcome free market research and feedback.
CONCEPT #3: An online social media community for construction contractors.
THE PROS: Construction contractors don’t network on Facebook® or LinkedIn®, feeling that these services “aren’t for them”. Smaller contractors often have difficulty finding specialized local subcontractors when bidding on projects.
THE CONS: I wasn’t convinced that construction contractors would take the time to become social media savvy. I was also concerned that labor unions and contractor associations would want to develop their own social media solutions limited to their members.
SUGGESTIONS: Focus the service on contractors in specialized fields – for example, systems integrators – that aren’t highly unionized or organized.
CONCEPT #4: A crowdfunding website that enables environmentally conscious consumers to invest in wind, solar and other alternative energy projects in exchange for a percentage of the project’s revenue.
THE PROS: Crowdfunding – raising money online from strangers – is in its infancy and there are plenty of opportunities. “Project financing” is an ideal candidate for a crowdfunding solution.
THE CONS: Offering investors a piece of the project’s revenue is offering a “security” subject to federal and state laws. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is preparing regulations for crowdfunded investments such as this one but they are not expected to be released until later this year. So the business model is illegal, at least right now.
SUGGESTIONS: Work hard on perfecting the technology and hire an attorney to follow the SEC’s progress so that the service can be launched promptly upon the regulations being issued.
CONCEPT #5: A social media community offering real-time access to high school sporting events.
THE PROS: Many high school athletic departments, especially at public high schools, lack the funding to set up alumni/ae sites, so there is little competition.
THE CONS: I wasn’t sure alumni/ae would want to view live sporting events from their old high schools, especially after all of their friends on the team have graduated and moved on.
SUGGESTIONS: Consider offering the service as a video enhancement to Classmates.com or a similar website.
CONCEPT #6: An organic, seaweed-based liquid lawn fertilizer product.
THE PROS: Demand for organic lawn care products is skyrocketing. Easy to process.
THE CONS: As with any organic product, I expressed concern about the product’s “shelf life”, especially given that aging seaweed gives off a strong and unpleasant odor. I questioned whether they could obtain fresh seaweed in sufficient quantities to meet consumer demand, especially since the plan called for a mass-market rollout in WalMart and other “big box” retail outlets.
SUGGESTIONS: Start out small, advertise mainly online, and build a “cult” following for the product locally or regionally. Consider adding a scent to deal with the odor problem.
Cliff Ennico (www.succeedinginyourbusiness.com), a leading expert on small business law and taxes, is the author of “Small Business Survival Guide,” “The eBay Seller’s Tax and Legal Answer Book” and 15 other books.