Impressing the Judges at a Business Plan Competition

By Cliff Ennico

May 6, 2014 6 min read

I was pleased to be one of the judges at last week's Connecticut Business Plan Competition sponsored by The Entrepreneurship Foundation (www.entrepreneurshipfoundation.org) and held at Gateway Community College in New Haven, Connecticut.

Twice a year, dozens of teams from the entrepreneurship classes at Connecticut's private colleges, state universities and community colleges compete for cash awards, trophies and the chance to meet some of the state's most prominent venture capitalists and angel investors, in Connecticut's own version of the "Shark Tank" television show (although the judges are much nicer).

Here are some of the concepts that were presented at the event, and my notes on each plan (written in real time, so they're not grammatically perfect).

Concept No. 1: A compact pen scanner that enables the user to scan text into a computer, tablet or cellphone.

The Pros: Nothing like it on the market — the "S pen" used with certain Samsung Galaxy products can take notes on the device itself, but cannot scan paper text.

The Cons: Like an optical scanner, scanned text will appear as a PDF file on a user's device and so cannot be changed or edited.

Suggestions: Patent the product, and then license it to a company that manufactures optical scanners.

Concept No. 2: A social media website designed to teach networking skills to foreign students at U.S. colleges and universities.

The Pros: A real need for students whose cultural background may prevent them from networking as effectively as they may need to in order to find jobs.

The Cons: Will be difficult to grow beyond this niche market.

Suggestions: Require users to pay for premium, one-on-one networking advice targeted to specific job interviews, companies and positions.

Concept No. 3: A service business that uses 3-D printers to create building models for architects, urban planners and developers.

The Pros: Architects in small firms cannot afford the investment in 3-D printer technology. A service like this would enable them to compete more effectively with larger firms.

The Cons: Business is capital- and labor-intensive and may require multiple shifts of workers working round-the-clock in order to meet client deadlines. Also, a number of trade associations offer 3-D printing services to their members without charge.

Suggestions: Solicit input from local architects to determine the price they would be willing to pay for 3-D modeling.

Concept No. 4: An e-commerce website for the live aquarium pet industry.

The Pros: Easy to target customers. Little online competition and virtually none from eBay and Amazon, both of which prohibit sales of live animals.

The Cons: Will be difficult to enforce compliance with federal laws prohibiting interstate transport of endangered species and state animal welfare laws.

Suggestions: Allow only reputable pet shops and breeders with at least five years of experience in the aquarium business to sell on the site.

Concept No. 5: A virtual fitting room website that would enable users to scan clothing items of varying sizes and overlay them on "selfie" photos to see how they would fit.

The Pros: Would reduce returns to retailers due to poorly fitting merchandise, and enable customers to try on many more items than they could in a physical-world fitting room.

The Cons: Sizes for most clothing items are not uniform — you may need a size 8 in one brand and a size 10 in another.

Suggestions: Focus on showing the user how a particular item would look on them, and then link to sizing information on clothing manufacturer's website.

Concept No. 6: Costume jewelry charms that are interchangeable between necklaces, bracelets and rings.

The Pros: Charms are easy to mass produce using base metals and glass in lieu of precious metals and stones.

The Cons: It will be hard to distinguish this jewelry line from the Pandora(r) line of charm bracelets which is well established in jewelry stores nationwide. Distribution may have to be exclusively through the Web.

Suggestions: Brand the charms as inexpensive "starter" jewelry for "tween" and pre-teen girls who cannot afford Pandora charms, and test the market on eBay, Amazon and other online retail venues.

Concept No. 7: A coffee shop that provides a range of Keurig single-cup dispensers where customers can brew their own coffee.

The Pros: Customers self serve, so fewer employees are necessary to serve customers at peak times of day. Also, because a single dispenser can brew multiple varieties of coffee, the shop can offer dozens of blends each day as opposed to only three or four.

The Cons: Customers may not want to wait for their coffee, especially early in the morning. Customers may also be reluctant to dispose of the single-cup after using the dispenser, leaving it to the next customer to remove and dispose of it properly. Especially at chaotic peak times, customers may be tempted to walk out with their coffee before paying.

Suggestions: Open a traditional coffee shop in a high traffic area and offer the single-cup service as an option to see how customers actually behave.

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 Web page at www.creators.com.

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