An Entrepreneurship Competition Turns 5: Lessons Learned at CU-Boulder
The New Venture Challenge Championships at the University of Colorado, which wrapped up last week (see Xconomy’s coverage here), were magic. An April snowstorm did not deter more than 200 individuals from the community from packing the finals. Few things inspire like seeing entrepreneurs—especially students—solve problems by creating new companies. And the teams were great. Really great.
As a colleague said to me in a moment of post-event euphoria, “This is why we do what we do.”
Our competition, known as the CU NVC, turned five this year. It is powerful to see the NVC go from “let’s make up a competition” to, five years later, an annual institution with more than 60 teams involved. The five-year anniversary prompts reflection about what we’ve learned at CU-Boulder.
The CU NVC was hatched in 2008. From the start, we bootstrapped the NVC without a large gift or central campus support. Almost anyone could do what we’ve done. The CU NVC is not the biggest, richest, or most polished of campus startup competitions. But it makes an exceptionally high impact on those who participate and is among the most rewarding endeavors I’ve been part of during my eight years of university teaching. It has three simple goals: (1) collapse the campus: convene cross-disciplinary congregations and stimulate interaction across departments; (2) create an entrepreneurial launch pad: provide a campus platform that answers the question “where do I start if I want to do a startup?”; and (3) provide a pipeline to the community: offer a point of entry for CU students and faculty to get meaningfully involved in the region’s startup scene.
I’d like to think we learn more than one thing per year. In terms of things that matter, however, one insight per annum is probably about the rate of our innovation. Below are the five things we’ve learned in five years at CU-Boulder.
1. Bake campus wide engagement into the event’s DNA. The core strength of the NVC is cross-campus collaboration. From Year One’s outset, entrepreneurship entities from the business school, the law school, engineering, music, and digital arts banded together to build the NVC. Students were recruited from each of the schools to help promote the event in their home departments. Cross-campus engagement makes entrepreneurship accessible to all parts of the campus. It also becomes an important trust building exercise for organizations that should be working together but too often do not.
2. Git ‘dem menners. A co-professor, Jason Mendelson of the Foundry Group, makes merciless fun of my Nebraska-bred pronunciation of the word “mentor” because the ‘t’ gets swallowed. The word comes out “menner.” In Year Two, the NVC figured out the importance of “gitten’ ‘dem menners.” Each participating team in the NVC is offered an expert community mentor with background in the team’s area. Mentors agree to take at least two meetings with their assigned NVC team. This allows great relationships to go forward by choice, but gives unproductive relationships a stop date. The program works because mentorship is more powerful in the context of a real “problem”—e.g., a mentor advises 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.