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Searching for the Next Big Thing
October 28, 2010
Tech entrepreneurs kickoff university’s $50,000 Business Plan Competition.
By Danny Freedman
Roland Schumann caught the bug back in high school.
He’d signed up for a business mentorship program that guided students through launching a tiny business; in this case, selling first aid kits for cars. When the kits actually began selling, it gave him pause for thought.
“Who’d have thunk it, right? That you could take $3 worth of stuff and you could sell it for $6 or $7?”
Mr. Schumann—who went on to hatch another company, SwapDrive, during the late-1990s as a graduate student at GW School of Business, and to sell it in 2008 for $123 million—was among a panel of four local entrepreneurs talking shop Tuesday night with enterprising hopefuls at a kickoff for the GW Business Plan Competition.
The event, sponsored by the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Office of Entrepreneurship, inaugurated a season of SEAS seminars on entrepreneurship and workshops surrounding the GW Business Plan Competition.
“All of these panelists started their companies as students,” said Jim Chung, director of the Office of Entrepreneurship, and “we’re hoping that their stories and their advice will be inspirations for the students here.”
With the Business Plan Competition, there are “no more excuses” not to act on a great idea, he said. “We’re providing a safe environment for you to be able to take those ideas, to explore them and to succeed with them.”
SEAS Dean David Dolling echoed that, succinctly, in parting words to the audience after the program: “Get busy.”
The contest, now in its third year, is open for the first time to faculty as well as all students and alumni. And the stakes now are bigger than ever: The first place team will take home $25,000 in seed money; second place will win $10,000; third place will win $4,000; and fourth place will win $1,000.
In addition, $10,000 will be awarded to the best undergraduate team.
The deadline for entering the competition is Jan. 31, 2011; the contest’s third and final round will be in April. (For entry rules, details about the competition and a listing of future events, see the GW Business Plan Competition website. The line-up for the SEAS entrepreneurship seminar series can be found at http://www.alumni.gwu.edu/calendar.)
At the kickoff event, the panel of businessmen brought tales of entrepreneurial leaps-of-faith; of a business’ core servers operating from an unair-conditioned dorm room or a kids’ play room; of wooing (and often being rebuffed by) venture capitalists.
Mr. Schumann, M.S. ’97, went all-in when launching SwapDrive, which offers businesses data backup online in off-site, secure data centers, and was sold to Symantec Corporation in 2008. That meant investing the entirety of his life savings, leaving a comfortable consulting job at Booz Allen Hamilton (and trying to sell his wife and two kids on the idea of an oatmeal diet), and seeking additional seed money from an adviser, William Money, an associate professor of information systems at GW.
“We were going to have some real skin in the game,” he said, and it was that grit that convinced Dr. Money to lend the business financial aid.
Duke Chung, who co-founded the web-based customer service software company Parature in 2000, as a student at Cornell University, said it was a great advantage for him to be relatively unencumbered when starting the company—living a lean lifestyle was simple right after college.
“If you ever thought about building a business, you should do it now,” he told the audience, before it becomes too difficult to scale back down to a “bare-bone level.”
But entrepreneurs don’t always need to put everything on the line.
As an undergraduate at University of Maryland, Haroon Mokhtarzada co-founded the website-builder Freewebs (now Webs.com) with his two brothers.
The business grew—eventually covering its own expenses—throughout undergrad and after, as Mr. Mokhtarzada earned a law degree at Harvard University. By the time he finished, the site had millions of users. Only then, when it was relatively safe, did he and another brother leave behind jobs and plunge fully into the business.
“If we had quit everything and done it [earlier], maybe I would be so rich I wouldn’t even be talking to you people,” Mr. Mokhtarzada said. “But there’s another side of that … we could have had nothing. That’s a scary idea.”
In the beginning, he said, the success and know-how of established startup CEOs can seem “so out of reach.” But learning to launch a business is a process.
“You don’t learn how to run a 50-person company overnight—but you don’t hire 50 people overnight,” he said. “You hire one person today, and then in three months you hire another. And when you’re doing things at that pace, you just learn along the way.”
“Just start,” he said. “If your idea’s working, you’re going to figure all that other stuff out. It’s much more important to throw out the idea and see if it’s working.”
They’re the ropes now being learned by the newest entrepreneur among the panelists: David Mathison, whose team won the 2010 Business Plan Competition this past April with its pitch for healthEworks, LLC, which seeks to create video discharge instructions that can be emailed to patients when they leave the emergency department.
Dr. Mathison, the business’ CEO, this year completed his master’s of business administration at GW School of Business, and is a physician in a pediatric emergency medicine fellowship at Children’s National Medical Center. With the contest win under his belt, he’s spent the past six months building the new business and looking for funding.
(The GW Business Plan Competition is jointly sponsored internally by the School of Business, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, the GW Office of Entrepreneurship, and the Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence.)
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