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

6/15/10

Startups are constantly using biology jargon—phrases like “incubation,” “entrepreneurial ecosystem,” “symbiotic relationships.” I never fully appreciated these analogies until this year, when my team and I became the sleep-deprived but happy parents of Lark Technologies, Inc., or Lark for short.

We have been diligently incubated by many university competitions—kept at a suitable temperature in a thoughtfully constructed mini-ecosystem until we develop enough to be hatched into a fledgling company with a higher likelihood of survival.

I’ve come to think of well-run business plan competitions like the MIT 100K and the Rice International Business Plan Competition as a simulation of reality that helps, ironically, to counterbalance real reality.

For Lark, these competitions provided us with an artificially optimal entrepreneurial ecosystem with project deadlines, project deliverables, mentors, and judges. They created structure, provided a name brand, and supplied a continued sense of urgency and priorities in an otherwise chaotic process.

They also almost killed our company before it hatched. But that’s the beauty of these experiences.

Commitment to an Idea

I started with a problem, an annoyance really, and if it weren’t for the MIT 100K’s Elevator Pitch Competition, I would have never committed to solving that problem by creating a company.

When I moved in with my boyfriend last year, we were already sleep deprived because of our workaholism, so it drove me crazy that he woke me up everyday with his alarm clock an hour before I had to get up. I had a bunch of ideas swimming around in my head about silent alarm clocks, but MIT’s first competition forced me to commit to the best of my half-baked ideas by pushing me in front of an audience for a 60-second Elevator Pitch. That’s how Lark got started.

Lark Technnologies' iPHone app and prototype wrist monitorMomentum

After getting to the top five in the competition, I realized how much my problem resonated with other couples. It gave me a new type of momentum and discipline. Instead of trying to fix our lives with some sort of hack job to deal with the problem ungracefully, my team and I pushed ourselves in defining Lark so that our technology could enable people to wake refreshed everyday.

The Focus After The Unfocus

The PR from the competition brought a flurry of interest, and as our team, product and business was taking shape, I was brainstorming with everyone. It was at once confusing and exciting. “What if Lark also solved snoring, what if Lark was a vibrating watch, what if…” The ideas grew and grew into an amorphous cloud of what the product and company could be.

But maybe these were necessary growing pains.

Through the sifting of all the great and sometimes contradictory advice, I realized a simple truism: Every mentor will have a different opinion, and it is your responsibility as an entrepreneur to be open to these ideas, but not to idealize them.

The benefit of having many mentors is that certain pieces of advice are consistently repeated, and those naturally rise above the white noise. This is why I don’t believe it’s 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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