Reflections on UChicago New Venture Challenge

It’s the weekend after the University of Chicago Booth School of Business New Venture Challenge (21st edition).  It was an incredible experience, and an incredible cohort to be a part of.  At the end of the day, the judges were so impressed with all of the finalists, that they threw in an additional $50,000 in cash prizes.

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New Venture Challenge 2017 Judges

Beyond expressing pride in my team and my school for the incredible amount of dedication, effort, and intelligence everyone showed, I wanted to put together a few of the lessons I learned during the process.

So what is the New Venture Challenge? Well, some say it is an accelerator (and a #1 ranked one at that).  Some say it is a “business plan/launch” competition.  Others simply say it’s a business school course.  Here’s how I would put it.  You take your idea, your business, or simply a great team, and see how far you can take that in ten weeks. The best ones get a brief moment of glory, bragging rights, and a little bit of cash.

Tactically, the class is run as follows.  Teams apply in February to be accepted into “Phase II” (Phase I is presumably the application).  Of the 78 teams that applied this year, 32 made it to Phase II.  Those 32 teams each pitch twice over the course of the next 9 weeks.  A pitch consists of 12 minutes presentation, 14 minutes Q&A.  Off the backs of those two presentations and a formal 20+ page business plan, 11 teams make it to the NVC Finals.  Held over the course of one glorious day, each of the Finalists gets at least $10,000, with the winner this year taking home $100,000.  The format for the Finals is similar to the first two pitches, except with more judges and (this year at least) Q&A shortened to 11 minutes.

So what did I learn from these ten weeks of madness?

  1. There Are a Million Ways to Skin a Cat – For people who have been around entrepreneurship long enough, this will not be a huge surprise, but it bears repeating: each business plan is unique.  I’m not talking about what the actual business does, but how it is executed.

    Those of us who are familiar with venture capital and the movie The Social Network often think of new business creation as pumping a ton of cash into something that can grow 30% each day, climbing the elusive hockey stick of glory, and hopefully, maybe, possibly, one day printing out $1 billion in profit per week.  But that’s not the only way to build the next game-changing company.

    ClostraBio, this year’s 4th place winner, is going to invest their prize in clinical trials so that five to seven years down the road they will be the go-to pill for allergy relief.  SwitchedSource, this year’s runner-up, has incredible technology and some revenue already, but needs to invest in huge capex so that they can ultimately become the energy distribution platform of tomorrow.  And SmarterCloud, led by yours truly and coming in 5th place, may have to play to the more traditional VC land-grab game where we get big fast to become the premier brand in insider cybersecurity.  But these can all be successful business models.  In fact, one unfortunate aspect of NVC is that this year there were at least 8 different business execution approaches by my count, so judges were forced to pick between apples and oranges (or more like apples and reindeer). Which leads to…

  2. Keep Your Friends Close… – Although there were many different business execution strategies, each company had one thing in common: they were seeking investors to help them accelerate and meet their goals.  Many of the judges represented Chicago VC firms and brought different lenses to their questioning.  At the end of the day, the winners were determined by how these judges answered a simple question: “Would you think of investing in this startup?”

    SmarterCloud scored 10 out of 24 on this question.  10 judges said they would think of investing in us.  If you’ve ever taken a test, you’re probably thinking “Damn, you failed!”

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    SmarterCloud Getting a 42%

    Well, actually no.  See, as an entrepreneur, if you’re in front of a room of investors (say, 24 of them), your goal is to get 1 of them to say that they would invest.  Seriously, this is not me making rainbows out rain, this is your actual goal.  Not only do you not actually have room on your cap table for ALL THE THINGS, you also want only the investor(s) who believe in you the most.  So your goal is to find the one person who will invest in you and your team, and then leverage their capital and expertise to execute flawlessly. But before you find these people, you should…

  3. … Keep Your Enemies Closer – Maybe “enemies” is a strong term.  But having competition brought out the best in my team.  Not in a negative “we have to crush them” kind of way.  In a positive “damn, did you see what they just did?” kind of way.  When everyone continues to raise the bar for each other, it forces you and your team to up your game.  By the end of the competition, my team executed our presentation perfectly and knew our business plan inside and out.  Beyond that we had brought in a major enterprise client, three all-star advisors, built live demos, and been accepted to 2 major accelerators.  That reflects well on my team, but it reflects even better on the intense environment we were put in throughout the course of the competition.

    If you’re thinking of going into an accelerator, make sure the cohort, programming, and investor communities are extremely strong.  That is what will fuel you and your team to a strong finish.  After you get your first funding, a passionate team and great office space can provide competitive fuel that will enable these kinds of successes.  But if it’s early days and you’re just starting, accelerators and business competitions can provide great creative fuel.

  4. Money (or …) Talks, All Else Walks – The ellipses here represent tangible assets like patents, demos, users, etc. It’s hard for investors to get comfortable with ideas and teams. And with early-stage business plan competitions, accelerators, and other events like this sometimes that’s all there is.  But what if someone else thinks of your idea (or just watches your pitch)? What if one of your team members leave?

    Every team that received money in the New Venture Challenge had something tangible to announce.  And while that wasn’t enough to get you into the finals, it was definitely table stakes.  We can talk more in depth (over a beer or two or ten) about what the appropriate level of risk-taking is from the investors you bring on board, but if you are building a company to have the most options available, here’s why tangible proofpoints matter:

    • Patents – Prove you can sue someone if they try to do what you do
    • Demos/Product – Prove you can build what you say you can
    • Testimonials – Prove that there is actual market demand for your product
    • Other Investors – Prove other people believe in you and have vetted your idea
    • Money – Proves customers need you so badly that they opened their wallets

So what’s next for me? After as intense an experience as the New Venture Challenge, I’m looking forward to taking a little time off with the fam, and getting back to coding our core product.  We’ll also be bringing on new investment partners in the coming months, (if you’re an investor interested in insider threats and cybersecurity, hit me up).

Being on camera with the lights and the mics was, frankly, awesome.  But after I had taken it all in, given my pitch, and gotten the final results, I realized I was ready to get back to the harder work of serving customers.  Hype is great.  But I guess the final lesson (#5 if you’re counting at home) that I had reinforced by NVC is that businesses are only as good as the customers they serve.  You can be very successful without turning a profit, you can be very successful even without having any revenue, but I don’t know of a business on this earth that can succeed without customers.

So if you’re wondering whether to take investment, or do an accelerator, or just bootstrap it on your own, know that hype and capital are just ways of stealing future profits for current growth.  And that’s fine.  But they’re not ends to themselves.  A company’s longest-term source of financing is their customer base.  The New Venture Challenge was incredible because it provided an environment and cohort that drove us to discover and design the best product for customers whose lives we want to improve.


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