Inside Wis: Statewide business plan contest is springboard for young companies
By Tom Still
Katie Brenner of bluDiagnostics came up with an idea of a better fertility test for women because it was a problem she once struggled with herself. Fortunately for Brenner, she’s a researcher and with the help of another scientist developed a saliva-based test called Fertility Finder.
Because gee-whiz technology doesn’t magically crack into the marketplace, Brenner and co-founder Doug Weibel resolved to turn Fertility Finder into a business. That led to entering the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest a year ago – and a grand prize finish for bluDiagnostics in June.
“I think the Governor’s Business Plan Contest really launched us,” Brenner said. “The win in that competition was a result of assistance and mentorship from people across Wisconsin… the accumulation of a lot of help. Since then, we have gotten incredible attention. That win sent us on a course to succeed.”
Since it was created in 2004, the Governor’s Business Plan Contest has helped hundreds of young firms gain footing. Among other platforms, the contest is a big part of the statewide strategy to create and support more startups.
The deadline for entering the 13th annual contest at www.govsbizplancontest.com is Jan. 31, 2016. It is a proven platform to help young companies write their business plans, hear from experienced judges and mentors, meet other entrepreneurs and gain valuable exposure for their ideas.
The contest will again offer more than $100,000 in cash and service prizes, courtesy of its sponsors, but many past contestants such as Brenner say the real “prize” is the plan-writing process itself. Here are reasons to enter:
- You can walk before you run. The first phase entry is about 250 words (or 2,000 characters with spaces) spread among four criteria – product or service description; customer definition; market description, size and sales strategy; and competition. There’s no need to submit financials right away.
- The four contest categories are deliberately broad – advanced manufacturing, business services, information technology and life sciences. It’s rare that an entry cannot find a logical home.
- Entrepreneurs may enter multiple ideas, so long as each idea is separate and distinct. It is free to enter.
- All entries are accepted through www.govsbizplancontest.com. The second and third stages of the contest also take place through that website, culminating in a 15- to 20-page plan. Up to 12 finalists will present live at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference in early June.
- Your chances of winning something are pretty good. If past contests are any indicator, roughly one in 14 entrants will reach the top 25.
- Contestants meet some interesting people. The 50 semi-finalists are invited to attend a half-day “boot camp” in Waukesha, where they’ll meet mentors, potential investors, successful entrepreneurs and others with startup experience.
- The judges and mentors offer years of valuable experience. More than 80 judges drawn from finance, sales, marketing, research and technology will score the entries and provide feedback on submissions.
- Semi-finalists may post their executive summaries through Wisconsin Technology Council portals for secured review by accredited investors. Also, leaders in Wisconsin’s business press may see news value in your story.
- Finally, and most important, many past winners have been successful. About three-quarters of finalists over the history of the contest report they’re still in business and attracting investors, partners and clients to their ideas. Past finalists include companies such as Vector Surgical, RevolutionEHR, BioSystem Development, Nerites, Fishidy, RoWheels, MobCraft Beer, Elucent Medical, Dairyvative and Eso-Technologies.
What about those entrepreneurs who believe they don’t really need a business plan to get started? After all, they argue, building a “Minimum Viable Product” may test the market as well as anything.
True enough, but even experts who like lean startups find merit in writing a plan. They note business plans help startups and even older businesses make their mistakes on paper rather than real life. Plans help to set goals and serve as a platform for action, even if such plans change before the ink is dry.
Most small businesses need a business plan to get a bank loan, and the U.S. Small Business Administration considers them critical. Private investors usually require business plans, too, because they want to know how entrepreneurs arrive at their numbers and assumptions.
For a growing list of emerging companies in Wisconsin, it all started with an idea and a plan. Take your idea from cocktail napkin notes to reality. Resolve to start your new year by entering the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest.