An Entrepreneurship Competition Turns 5: Lessons Learned at CU-Boulder

4/23/13Follow @BradBernthal

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on the team’s live issues—than social interaction for its own sake. Teams directly benefit from the mentor’s advice and insights about their company. And the mentor interaction sets many participants on the path to full participation in the region’s startup community.

3. Capture the event’s power and identify a campus fundraiser. The biggest mistake we’ve made—and it still haunts us—is that we failed to make noise about the NVC’s importance and neglected the systematic fundraising needed to raise prizes for the competition in amounts likely to attract significant faculty interest. To be clear, we’ve been fortunate to have generous sponsors. But with $20-30K in prizes, we are a long way away from the kind of awards (e.g., $50-100K range) that would attract faculty interest. If I could go back five years, I would hire a videographer each year to capture the energy and inspiration of the NVC. With this in hand, a campus fundraiser could drive donor support to levels that we have not yet achieved. Opportunity missed (so far, anyway).

4. Bake in subject matter diversity. In Year Four, we created separate “tracks” tailored to different types of startups. This might be the best idea we’ve had. (I don’t recall whose idea it was, so we all probably claim it.) Depending on a startup’s ambition, entrepreneurs can select into an information technology, cleantech, social entrepreneurship, music, or general track. Each track winner then participates in our cross-campus championships. The track structure helps provide assistance best suited to a startup’s needs. And the championships then spotlight the diversity of problems that entrepreneurs can tackle. The track structure is terrific.

5. Look to campus startup classes as a feeder. I woke up this year to realize that our world—at least at CU-Boulder—has favorably changed. Five years ago, for students outside the business school, the NVC was CU’s only entrepreneurial launch pad for students. Today that is no longer true. Students from any discipline on the CU campus can take entrepreneurship courses. Departments outside of the business school now offer experiential courses where student teams pursue startups. The changed landscape matters. It allows the NVC to do less step-by-step, how to start a business advice. Instead it now focuses on generating student enthusiasm for startup courses where they can take a more systematic dive into entrepreneurship. The classes then feed into the NVC where possible. As a result, the NVC is seeing better teams and participants get a richer experience.

I’ve observed in Brad Feld’s book Startup Communities that if you cross a beauty pageant with a forensics meet, plop it into a contrived startup competition format, and surround it with a revivalist atmosphere filled with entrepreneurial gospel, then you get the glorious mess known as the campus business plan competition. Such competitions are inevitably flawed.

Here is even more curious thing. They can somehow work, too. Five years in, the CU NVC is working. Here’s to another five years at CU-Boulder.

Brad Bernthal is director of the Silicon Flatirons Center’s Entrepreneurship Initiative at the University of Colorado-Boulder and a faculty member of the Colorado Law School, where he leads the entrepreneurial law clinic and teaches classes on venture capital finance. Follow @BradBernthal

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  • http://www.facebook.com/benbuie Ben Buie

    Awesome thoughts Brad! I can’t imagine a better way to have ended my time at CU than attending that awesome event. It was amazing to see the growth from last year to this.

  • Eben Johnson

    Well done on 5 years.
    My suggestions: 1) spread the word; 2) mentors are there to help; 3) any background and major is welcome; 4) show up, and; 5) have fun!
    Regards
    Coach to multiple CU-NVC teams.