Hatching new ideas at Washington University

One of the most fun things that I get to do professionally is be a volunteer judge at some of the entrepreneur competitions over at Washington University. Today I was listening to nine different student presentations for the final class projects at the “Hatchery“. The students learn to write business plans, refine their ideas, put together a slide deck and presentation, and figure out funding models and how they are going to create a new business during the course of the semester.

What was impressive were the presentations by the kids themselves. As a professional speaker, I can appreciate all the hard work that goes into polishing up a talk and making your points — and they only have 15 minutes to get across a lot of information for us to judge whether they make the grade. We have an additional 15 minutes to ask questions and all the students did well under our scrutiny.

Here are some of the lessons that I learned from my day at Wash U:

  • Know your P&L’s. The weakest parts of the presentations were the financial portion. While the students submitted full accounting statements in their written backups, some of them made absolutely no sense to me. Either they were giving away too much equity for too little value, had odd gross margins of 89%, structured unsecured loans as their initial capitalization, or whatnot, clearly they all could use more work in this area.
  • These are the Google generation, and many of them were all over Adwords and other online funding models. But one caution that I would have is that the best plans combined some aspects of online and offline funding and marketing mechanisms.
  • Odd uses of IT resources. Some of the teams over-estimated the costs of IT support, some grossly underestimated them. $120,000 to build a Website? Try to do it for $1,000. A part-time CTO with a company that is still developing their iPhone app? I think not.
  • Sales was another weak spot. One team that produces a very good student magazine was planning on expanding the magazine to other college campuses. They had never sold advertising until now — because Wash U. supports the publication. While they had some good ideas on how to do this, shoe leather and visiting local watering holes is not a sales strategy.
  • Focus on the first hires. The most impressive presentation was by a company-to-be that is going to sell custom women’s sleepwear. What got me, apart from some of the girls modeling the goods, was how the CEO knew what she didn’t know and needed to hire right off the bat. She also had some very clever ideas on using user-generated contests to help refine and perfect her initial prototypes.

I wish all of the students well in their ventures, and I hope to see good things from some of them as the summer goes on and they put their ideas into practice.

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