Thursday, May 26, 2011

Startup Moments

Entrepreneur Competition

Runners at the starting line
~ Customer pain, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Entrepreneurs are drawn to painful needs; if it is urgent, compelling and unmet, one can be sure that there will be entrepreneurs competing to satisfy the need and alleviate the pain. The old adage is true: if you have no competition you probably have no market.

It is through this lens that one might wonder about the growing spate of entrepreneurial contests: challenges, competitions, thus-and-such of the years, opens... The customers are the entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs, but what is the pain they suffer that these contests assuage? Don't entrepreneurs face enough competition in the market for the product or service that they seek to provide? Why compete against other startups with offerings that target different problems and offer different solutions, i.e. against companies that, in a market sense, aren't competitors at all?

The answer lies in another startup truism: the need to carefully define your market, to know who your customer is and what and why they will buy what you offer.

The early stages of a startup are less about seeking customers for the product or service and more about seeking customers for the business itself. And these customers are those buying (into) the business: investors, prospective team members, mentors, advisors and contacts of every kind that believe in the future of it and are willing to help it succeed.

Entrepreneur contests are competitions for these customers, the people that make the difference between an inventor with an idea and a business that can execute upon it. Some of the competitions may seem like beauty contests because in many ways that's what they are: making the business sufficiently attractive to make a successful sale and garner what's needed to make the business real.

I had good success with Hydrovolts in both the Newpreneur of the Year and the Cleantech Open. The Newpreneur event is apparently no longer held, but the CTO continues to grow in both stature and value. The deadline to apply is tomorrow, and I strongly recommend any startup in the cleantech space to get involved. The contacts, mentoring and assistance a new company receives are far in excess of the modest cost of applying, and the experience is powerful and deeply valuable. (Disclaimer: I am on the team of MountainLogic, one of this year's entrants.)

Another intriguing opportunity is the Startup Open, a contest sponsored by the Kauffman Foundation, a longtime advocate for entrepreneurship. Today's press release says that it is part of Global Entrepreneurship Week, and is for startups with "high-growth potential." They will select 50 such entrants based on their concept, growth projections and knowledge of their industry (so do your homework!) Also:
“Economic growth and job creation is directly tied to young businesses with the potential to become part of tomorrow’s Fortune 500, so recognizing and rewarding those most promising startups on the path to success may inspire others to follow their examples,” said Carl Schramm, president and CEO of the Kauffman Foundation.
Startup Open is a featured competition of GEW, an initiative founded by the Kauffman Foundation to spur new ideas, ingenuity and firm creation through local, national and global activities in more than 100 countries. The competition, now in its second year, is open to entrepreneurs who have a “startup moment” between GEW 2010 and GEW 2011 (Nov. 22, 2010 to Nov. 20, 2011). A startup moment is defined as any action related to launching a new business, such as incorporating a company; officially opening the doors for business; completing a first sale; or securing outside funding.
Last year's winner got to spend time with famed entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson on his private Caribbean Island. I was fortunate to have a few minutes with Branson some years ago, and the prospect of his undivided attention for a few hours would truly be an incredible boon.

Overcome the vacuum that threatens your startup with irrelevancy, and enter one of these competitions. Trust me, your business needs it, and you'll be a winner even without taking the top prize.

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