That’s the idea behind the Awesome Business Idea Competition, which is exactly what it sounds like. Contestants get 90 seconds to convince a panel of judges that their business concept, whatever it may be, is a worthy investment. If they succeed, they’ll walk away with $1,000 in prize money. The contest was started last year by Franklin-based web hosting company SiteDart.
“Basically it’s to try and inspire some entrepreneurial spirit in the area,” said Clinton Taylor, SiteDart’s inbound marketing specialist who’s helping head up the competition.
Small business competitions, of course, aren’t a new phenomenon. Winning one of the majors is almost a rite of passage for startups hoping to actually be the next new phenomenon. MIT famously doles out north of $300,000 each year in its series of contests, and the University of Texas annually holds the granddaddy of small business contests, the Global Moot Corp Competition, an invitation-only affair where the pre-requisite is victory at another prestigious competition.
Taylor says SiteDart was, in fact, inspired by their own experiences in a startup weekend, where wannabe entrepreneurs come together for a marathon session of team building and business structuring, where they hopefully emerge on Monday with the makings of a fledgling company. Such contests exist in larger markets like Asheville and Charlotte, so the idea was to bring some of that drive back to the western end of the state.
“We just want to kind of inspire or get the mindset for this area of the startup atmosphere and the entrepreneurial kind of spirit, of taking an idea and going for it, not being afraid to chase your business ideas,” said Taylor. “Charlotte and even Asheville, they kind of have that atmosphere. They’re not afraid to fail. It’s just that mindset of an entrepreneur, trying to make money at doing your own thing.”
In fact, they’re so committed to cultivating that western industriousness that they’re only opening it to residents of Macon, Jackson, Swain, Cherokee, Clay or Graham counties.
“We want to back our communities. When we started business back in 1995, those were the counties that we mainly dealt with,” explained Taylor. “We think of our customers as our neighbors, and we want to only offer it to them for that reason.”
But there are other options in the western counties for prospective business owners. Up the street from SiteDart in Macon County, another new contest is getting on its feet. The Macon County Certified Entrepreneurial Community (CEC) Leadership Team is sponsoring a business plan competition that will start in November and culminate with the announcement of a winner in the spring.
Tiffany Henry is the director of Southwestern Community College’s Small Business Center, and she’s helping head up the contest. As she sees it, this contest is almost a stepping stone from Site Dart’s offering. You came up with a pitch, you tested it at the Awesome Business Ideas Competition, now come get it off the ground.
“Any time any entrepreneur is looking for financial support, whether it’s from a bank or an investor, they’re going to want to see that business plan,” said Henry. “Trying to figure out what is my market, what capital am I going to need, what is my management going to include, what is the legal structure, what this is going to provide — is the means to do all this.”
The contest and its $5,000 prize are just the final stage of the CEC’s offering, but what it’s really about is the months of seminars that precede it, where entrants can get free help developing their plan.
The Haywood County Chamber of Commerce has been sponsoring a business start-up competition for several years, with the winner or winners getting a share of a $10,000 annual prize. Those would-be entrepreneurs have to submit a business plan that is reviewed by a committee, and then finalists are interviewed.
Competitions like these have historically been the discovery sites of many now-successful businesses. Even ABC’s “Shark Tank” has collected a whole lot of ratings with the idea of the elevator pitch. But this can be especially true for small business hopefuls in more rural areas, where there’s less access to venture capital and business building resources than there can be in urban areas.
“We’ve been approached by people who provide funding who want access to companies and people with good ideas, and in particular, they want them to have already been vetted in some way,” said Bob Carton, department head for entrepreneurship, sales and marketing and hospitality and tourism at Western Carolina University.
So winning a business competition isn’t just the end, but can be a valuable means to a much larger end that includes outside investors and a great deal more capital than a local bank could likely offer. At the very least, competitions like the business plan contest in Macon County break down some of the more daunting barriers to entering the entrepreneurial space by offering some help and direction.
“One of the most daunting things in starting a new business is staring at the blank piece of paper, not knowing what the process is. A business plan competition, depending on the one that it is, helps provide at least some of that structure,” said Carton. “It helps lower some of those uncertainty barriers.”
It can also help dim the tint on those rose-colored glasses and offer a more realistic picture of the work that needs to go into a prospective business. Often friends and family can’t or won’t dish out realistic feedback about your idea’s prospects, but a panel of stranger expert judges won’t be afraid to point out your flaws and help illuminate where your business concept may need some more work.
Tommy Jenkins is the economic development director for Macon County, and he’s had a hand in both competitions happening there. From his post, he’s also seen more than a few businesses try to make a go of it, so he’s learned a few things about what success in Western North Carolina requires.
“Some folks say entrepreneurs are born; some folks say they’re trained. I think it’s a combination of the two,” Jenkins said, “And you really need to go through the process of developing your plan, your financing, where you’re going, where your business is going to be, where a business is going to be two to three years from now.”
Essentially, an idea is not enough. But that’s were Henry and Taylor hope their contests can come in, helping would-be self-made CEOs get started down the right path, or at least step back and take stock of the work it actually takes to make business a success. Even the idea of a competition implies that some training is required, and that practice could turn out to be its own reward.
Perhaps Bob Carton summed it up best: “Business, just like any sport, is a matter of mastery. You have to practice.”
Will your idea pay off?
At 10 a.m. on Nov. 16 at the Drake Education Center in Franklin, the second SiteDart Awesome Business Idea Competition will take place.
Think you have an awesome business idea? Ask yourself these questions:
• Can you explain it in 90 seconds?
• Can you explain it in front of strangers?
• Can you answer questions about your idea?
• Can you use $1,000 to help make that business idea a reality?
The winner will get $1,000 and a second-place finisher $500.
For information visit www.sitedart.net/awesome to register.