Big Blog Update

Big Blog Update

So I haven’t posted here in a while. It’s time for a big fat update! So what’ve I been up to in the Last Six Months (LSM)? Lots of exciting things.

For example I grew a stylish beard.

Then I cut it off and won $10,000 to start my business—SpokeArt. What??

Check it out at www.SpokeArt.com. There’s a lot o work left to do on the site, but check back often as we’ll be updating regularly.

So how did I win $10,000? Well, it was more than shaving off my beard, that’s for sure. Each year the WVU Entrepreneurship center (which I can now spell) holds a state-wide collegiate business plan competition. It starts in the fall semester. Any full time college student in the state of WV can enter a business idea in the form of a 3-5 page business summary. This past year, over 90 entries. A panel of judges composed of entrepreneurs, bankers, lawyers, businesspersons, etc reads the plans and score them.

The top 20 entries move on to round two, which is a two minute “elevator pitch” in front of the attendees of the West Virginia Entrepreneurship Initiative Conference, who double as judges for this day. The pitch is followed by a series of interviews with judges (again, all sorts of business persons) in a speed-dating sort of format. Eight minutes with each judge.

Here I should point out that entrants are teams of one to four students. Most entries are for new business ideas, but one can also enter an idea that is an expansion of an existing business into a significantly different direction. There are two different categories: Lifestyle (product/service oriented) and Innovation (technology oriented). I was the only person on my team. About a day after it was too late to add team members I realized that I probably should have tried to find someone to help me with the financial end of things. I did eventually, but I’ll get to that.

So the scores from round one and round two were combined and the top 5 in each category progress to round three. In the lifestyle category, SpokeArt moved on along with a business planning on marketing used books to prisoners, a calorie tracking Iphone app, a waterpark/lasertag/arcade indoor amusement center, and a comparison shopping website aimed at the growing e-commerce markets in Blugaria. Innovation finalists included two teams working on hybrid upgrades for cars, a waterproof remote for wake-boarders, a foundation stabilization specialty company (walmarts everywhere are sinking), and a company focusing on brining sustainable green practices to Marshall University and surrounding areas.

Round three is a doozy. It takes the entire spring semester. There is a weekend retreat filled with speakers and meetings with business coaches, lawyers, etc, a series of online classes on everything from getting a business license to market research to proper accounting processes.

This is all to help entrants create a full business plan. It is a 30-40 page document (not including any appendixes) that covers everything about the business from ownership structure, start up costs, management structure, sales projections over several years, marketing and advertising plans, and a bunch of financial analysis. Sounds like fun, no?

Before we got to any of that though, we had to complete a feasibility study, which is a bunch of research to see if your idea is as good as you think it is. This is where most business ideas stop. It’s an annoyingly long step that is apparently critical to business success. Mine showed that SpokeArt has a chance to succeed. Which is good, yeah? Another team found out that their idea was not anywhere near commercially viable. I’m not sure if they just sort of coasted in from there or if they tried to find a different product. They were in the other category and writing a business plan while working and schooling and training *cough cough*.

An aside—why did I sign up for this in the first place? Well, it wasn’t because I was convinced that bending spokes into pleasing shapes was going to make me rich. Not near it. It was because I realized that even though I’ve been around business people of sorts my whole life (my father, for instance has owned his own construction business for quite some time, and I’ve been working at a relatively successful bicycle/outdoors store for the last 6 years), that I had no real idea how business works. Sure, you buy things, sell them for more, and sell services, but there has to be more than that, right? So I figured the best way to find out more would be to toss myself into the deep end. So the night before the deadline, I typed up 3 pages of SpokeArt goodness, and submitted it. I hoped to make round two to learn more. I never really thought that I’d win 10 Gs.

The first go point was the weekend getaway, held in Morgantown in February. We had a variety of speakers and we met our business coaches (yep, each team got a business leader of their very own to help them with all this stuff. And there is a lot of stuff). My coach was a fantastic woman named Kim, who works for the Small Business Administration. She gave me the best help anyone could have. I said, “I’m worried about figuring out how to define my market, how to project sales, how to define my customer, how to figure out fixed costs. . .” etc etc etc. She just looked at me and said, “Oh, that’s easy!” It’s easy? Seriously? Sweet!

I left the weekend super-motivated to get to work. The $1000 stipend that each finalist gets to cover expenses such as business cards, business licensing, and business plan printing didn’t hurt. Plus, it is our money to do with what we please. Apparently a couple years ago a member of a finalist team took half the money and used it to take a ski trip to Colorado. He did it without telling anyone he was leaving or taking the money either. Another reason to pick your team wisely. That’s one reason I only picked me. I’m smart, I’m motivated, and I can deal with myself if I mess up.

I then proceeded to do nothing but occasionally brainstorming for the next two months. Did I mention that I’m a founding member of the National Association of Procrastinators Pursuing Extensions and Reprieves from Studies (NAPPERS)? Well, I am. Luckily, in addition to Kim, I found some more help. First, I hired my long time friend Mike to do research for me. That was a big time saver. Second, inspired by the contest I had signed up for a business minor and had enrolled in an introductory accounting course. My professor, a fantastic woman by the name Nancy Lynch, had at the beginning of the semester agreed to be a faculty advisor to me in the competition and I’d had maybe one meeting with her to ask her a few questions before the last three weeks before the business plan was due.

The real weight of what I had left to do settled in with about three weeks to go. I talked to a few other teams and found out that I wasn’t that far ahead or behind anyone else. So we’re all procrastinators! Surprise surprise. So I got down to work and started typing. Started compiling my research. Started working hard on my sales projections, working with a bunch of gigantic excel spreadsheets. I asked my accounting professor to help me go over the whole pro-forma (start up costs, sales projections, costs projections, projected balance sheets, income statements, etc etc). Turns out that Nancy, oops, Professor Lynch is just one of those fantastic amazing people you sometimes meet. She spent hours and hours helping me with each item, making sure it all worked together, making sure my balance sheets balanced, making sure my sales looked good. We worked daily for two weeks strait to make sure that my financials were in order. In the mean time, I got to writing and sent rough drafts out to several people including my friend Jeff, the journalist, my wonderful girlfriend Laura, my sister, Professor Lynch, and my business coach, Kim. Each sent back different and useful feedback.

The persons who run the competition, Mindy Walls and Kelley Kerns, strongly encourage contestants to go find help. It is part of the learning process and it is part of learning to be an entrepreneur. There are all kinds of assistance available to persons starting a business in WV, and if you are ever starting a business, you too should look for help wherever you can. It was just required that we wrote the business plan.

There was one other source of information that really helped me shape my plan. Dragon’s Den. It is a show on BBC where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of self-made millionaires (the Dragons) in an attempt to gain funding for their business ideas. The Dragons are very sharp and don’t hold back with questions and criticism. Just watching a few episodes showed me what information one has to have before they launch a business, and they have to have it down.

1) Cost of production. How much does it cost to make? How is it going to be made?

2) Target market. Who is going to buy this and how many of them are there?

3) Marketing Plan. How are you going to bring this to market?

If you can’t answer all three questions, you don’t stand a chance against the dragons. Plus, your answers have to be good.

I actually had managed to complete my business plan with a whole couple days to spare. I spent the last two days working with Laura to make sure there were no typos, and to make sure that my layout and formatting and charts all looked good. Really good. I figured out a long time ago that most of the time, if you sweat the details, you’ll be way ahead of the curve. Turns out I haven’t gotten far enough in life that sweating the details is just par for the course.

So, here we go. Got the thing printed on recycled paper, bound with a professional clear plastic binder, and turned it in with 10 minutes left to spare before the noon deadline on April 8th. All done, right?

Well, no, you see that was only half of it. The second half of the final round is a twenty minute presentation followed by another twenty minutes of Q&A from the judges. Sounds like fun!

So the next two weeks was spent creating a 20 minute powerpoint presentation. 10 slides. As few words as possible. Cover the Bases. Anticipate questions and answer them in the presentation. Reference the Plan. Be charming. Speak clearly. Speak Loudly. Keep the pace slow. Cut the Chaff. Practice pra….

I only really got to run through it twice start to finish. And those were both drafts. The final speech had a different intro and had a few slides rearranged. This is where all my dorky high school extracurriculars paid off. I participated in plays and competitive speech competitions through-out high school. Even went to nationals my senior year. This public speaking experience (as well as story telling experience) is something that has consistently set me apart from yeah my peers. Get your kids into the arts. I did sports too and I can tell you that my experience in music and theatre classes did more to provide me with skills to be successful in life than any sports program.

Anyway, the presentation went well. Really well. Afterwards the judges had more comments than questions and they were all very positive. The other contestants weren’t quite so lucky as they mostly had hard questions or harsh comments. Woohoo!

After that I had a bit of free time to hang with the ‘rents before heading over to the awards luncheon where I was presented with a gigantic novelty check. And who doesn’t love giant novelty checks?

So now I’m in business. I’ve got a cube and a workshop and I’m going at this for real. SpokeArt is currently available at the Pathfinder, Tamarack, and Marathon Cycles in Fayetteville. It is on its way to numerous other bike shops, outdoors stores, art houses, and online.

Take a look at the website. Tell me what you think. Let me know if you know of anywhere that would like to sell something like this! And thanks again to all the people that helped me get here. Couldn't have done it without each and every one of you.