Hatching a Lark: An Entrepreneur’s Journey Through the Business Plan Competitions

6/15/10

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in your best interest to only have one mentor. I completely understand that business plan competitions have limited bandwidth and can provide you with one mentor, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to be brought up by three or four excellent parents, or even a village?

These business plan competitions enabled us to build our own ecosystem. As finalists and track winners of MIT’s and Rice’s business competition, our titles and affiliation were a great way to get in the door with incredible visionaries: we talked to everyone from Hap Klopp (North Face founder) to Clay Christensen (of Innovator’s Dilemma fame), and slowly built up our business advisory board with serial entrepreneurs and our medical advisory board with sleep experts from Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and NASA.

Dreaming Big Cannot Be A Distraction

But too much dreaming and too little doing can really kill a pretty good idea. Business plan competitions, much like VCs, tend to favor the huge game changers. But they sort of forget to tell you that not all businesses need to be huge, and that every huge company starts out scrappy and unglamorous.

As the year progressed and the business plan competitions wore on, I often felt like a schizophrenic. Here I was—motivated and incentivized by the business competition model and VC model to dream big and create a sleep business empire on paper, while also trying to run a small company and build a good, simple first product.

When I felt it most, the two worlds—the business plan world and the business world—were often in conflict, because, well, the perfect is the enemy of the good. And the more beautiful our business plan got, the more I felt the weight of every little decision, as it would effect the trajectory of our Fortune 500 company vision. But I did not want to fall into the trap of avoiding decisions: I had created a company on paper in a prior business competition, and the decision paralysis from the grandness of the plan killed my company (though probably for good reason- there’s a reason for survival of the fittest).

Even when I felt it least, these two worlds were still in competition for my precious time and that of my team. Do I rush my hardware engineer to finish up the schematics to send to China for our manufacturing deadline, or do I ask him to finish up the prototype for our final business plan pitch? Do I focus solely on our flagship silent alarm for busy professional couples, or do I dream about our five year product development cycle?

The answer is yes. You do all of them.

A Balancing Act

But here’s why the balance was wonderful. Without the banal daily decisions of running a business, the business plan would become so much grander and unrealistic. Without the business plan, there is no dream to sell, there is no force that keeps everyone motivated, there is no need to seek out great mentors.

While the repetitiveness of the business competitions sometimes felt like a time suck and a distraction, they became the best training ground to learn how to switch lenses often: sometimes focusing on the big sweeping strategic decisions (Let’s take our manufacturing to China!), other times going to every single JoAnn’s in greater Boston to buy 90 different types of elastic textiles for the perfect breathable, lightweight, sturdy, comfortable wristband.

A Dose of Reality

The best part of our business plan journey? Competitions give you many chances at life. That makes it much easier for us to forgive ourselves when we fail.

We failed at the mock judging session at Rice, but we had another shot the next day and won the Best IT Award. We failed at winning the grand prize in Texas, but we took the 30 pages of feedback and created a competitive advantage for ourselves and won the MIT 100K’s Mobile Track. We failed at securing the ultimate prize in the 100K competition, but earned our seven-person team a coveted spot at Lightspeed Venture Partners‘ Silicon Valley headquarters to be, guess what? Incubated! And we’ll be working on Lark day and night here on Sand Hill Road, undoubtedly failing at some things, but not letting it slow us down.

It’s been wonderful jumping from incubator to incubator and slowly building up our own network, our own community, our own sense of self.

With everyone’s generous support in helping us first time parents, we really think Lark might grow up to be something.

Julia Hu is the CEO and co-founder of Lark Technologies (www.ourlark.com). Read more about her team's journey at ourlark.posterous.com. Follow @

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