Twice a year, I have the honor of being a judge at the Connecticut Business Plan Competition, where students from business schools and undergraduate business programs throughout Connecticut compete for cash prizes and mentorship from leading business experts, in a format very similar to the popular "Shark Tank" television show.
The event has grown so popular over the years that there are now six judging categories for different types of business (such as personal or service business, venture enterprise, social enterprise and mobile app) and over 70 participating student teams. I was privileged to judge the personal business part of the competition, featuring 10 student projects involving consumer-oriented products and services. Here are some of the ideas the students came up with, and my judge's notes describing their strengths and weaknesses.
Concept No. 1: a restaurant and craft brewery focused on mead and other alternative alcoholic beverages.
Strengths: Mead, a fermented honey beverage, has been around since ancient times but has become popular in recent years due to "Game of Thrones," "Vikings" and other similarly themed programs (basically, this is the stuff Beowulf drank). It's a sweet drink similar to a port wine with floral/herbal overtones. With studies showing women (especially) preferring mead to craft beer in taste tests, the idea of a mead-focused brewery is an interesting one (I, personally, don't know of any in the U.S.).
Weaknesses: Mead won't be enough to sustain a restaurant/brewery, as not enough people are familiar with it. A medieval-themed restaurant featuring a variety of foods and beverages that people ate back then — with trench tables, no utensils and candlelight to heighten the sense of being there — is an intriguing concept but would take the focus away from the mead. The business would be better positioned as a mead distillery whose products are sold in liquor stores, supermarkets and (yes) craft breweries via on-site taste tests to build brand awareness, preferably featuring a big-bearded guy in Viking armor.
Concept No. 2: a high-tech soil sampling and extracting device for farmers.
Strengths: Soil extracting is an important process for farmers, as it helps them determine not only erosion but also whether or not certain fields have been depleted. Most extraction tools are extremely low-tech — basically, an augur or drill coupled with a bucket with a hole — providing little guarantee that samples won't be contaminated. The team's product would be automated using robotic technology to ensure accurate and uncontaminated samples, thereby increasing the reliability of soil-testing methods.
Weaknesses: Farmers in general are a fairly conservative lot and resistant to change, especially if the impact on their bottom line isn't 100% clear. The proposed price point for the team's product is six times that of comparable low-tech products, and it may be difficult to sell farmers on the benefits of this additional expense.
Concept No. 3: a website catering to newbie and wannabe bass fishermen offering instructional videos and starter kits of necessary equipment.
Strengths: Bass fishing is a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States, especially in the Southern states. While there's a ton of information about bass fishing on the web, much of it is designed for experienced anglers and is confusing for newbies who may not know which lures and other equipment they need.
Weaknesses: Although the instructional content would be copyrighted, there is little protection against a much larger sporting goods company taking this concept and running with it, providing kits with its own equipment. Also, the website would be heavily dependent on the companies providing the equipment for the starter kits, most of which will insist upon being an exclusive supplier or advertiser.
Concept No. 4: a virtual reality business targeting high-end real estate professionals.
Strengths: It is almost a certainty that when virtual reality becomes mainstream, the real estate industry will use it to showcase properties for sale in much the same way it is currently using video.
Weaknesses: Virtual reality is (at least for now) extremely expensive, labor-intensive and time-consuming to shoot and would require lots of equipment and staff, even to operate and target only a dozen top real estate brokers in the U.S.
Concept No. 5: a service providing delivery of gelato and other dessert items via bicycle to college dormitories 24 hours a day.
Strengths: College students are perpetually hungry and work long hours. Many would be willing to pay a premium price to have desserts and other snacks delivered directly to their dorm room at off hours.
Weaknesses: While many college campuses have such services, they are usually under the radar of the college administrations, since they pay less than minimum wage, don't carry insurance for their drivers and otherwise are not legally compliant. To bring such an operation into compliance would raise the price of dessert items to the point where most college students couldn't afford them. Also, it would be extremely difficult to offer the service on multiple college campuses without some sort of franchise setup.
Cliff Ennico ([email protected]) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series "Money Hunt." This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our webpage at www.creators.com.