Do you have what it takes to start your own business?
Four groups of students believe they do and presented business plans this Saturday as part of the first-ever Williams Business Plan Competition created by local entrepreneur Jeffrey Thomas.
Thomas started Entrepreneurship@Williams this year. The program, which is operated through the Career Center, focuses on bringing more entrepreneurial workshops and opportunities (like this competition) to campus. Thomas also taught a Winter Study course on entrepreneurship this January.
The four finalist groups were selected in early March from about 22 submissions and have been consulting with mentors about how to put together their business plans and pitch them effectively ever since.
The final groups presented diverse, creative ideas for businesses. The first-place prizes for Best Business Plan and Best Pitch were awarded to Designed Good, created by Imran Khoja ’12, Katy Gathright ’12 and Andrew Lorenzen ’12. The trio plans to create a website that offers products from “socially-friendly sources.” “We sell carefully-selected, trendsetting products that are also good for the world,” Khoja said. “We vet our products based on our four main values or ethics criteria: environmentally-minded, recycled, made in America and ‘gives back.’” Khoja hopes that Designed Good’s products will include an organic cotton bowtie, recycled sneakers made of PET bottles, a backpack made in a carbon-neutral facility in Colorado and Toms shoes, to name just a few products. The group won $15,000 to jumpstart their business, as well as office space and legal services.
The runners-up for the title of Best Business Plan were Chris Hikel ’13, Wen Han ’13 and Haotian Xu ’13, who created Green River Goods. Hikel thought of the idea while in South Africa. “Our plan is to produce and sell a dried meat snack called biltong and market it to the Whole Foods/Trader Joe’s customer segment. Our brand name is Cowsciutto, like prosciutto but with beef,” Hikel explained.
Another project called 1UP, started by Will Weiss ’12 and Conor Dowling ’14, was created to prevent teens from drinking and driving. “Our business plan is to create a portable ignition interlock device, which is basically a breathalyzer that allows you to activate your car,” Dowling said. “It ensures that teenagers don’t drive drunk.”
Ade Lawal ’15, Carman Nareau ’15 and Medina Mody-Fitzmaurice ’15 designed a website called ChicPolitik, which Lawal described as “an online social community helping the fashion-forward and the fashion-interested customize their wardrobes and explore their individualities through online thrift swapping.”
While some groups had begun thinking about their business plans before the competition, the existence of the competition itself sparked a lot of ideas for the finalists. Khoja, Weiss and Hikel had all thought significantly about their respective business proposals before the competition. Lawal had a few business ideas, but decided on ChicPolitik after hearing about the competition and talking to Nareau.
The students learned quickly that building a business plan and a developing a pitch is not easy. “We hadn’t really refined our idea, so there was a lot of skepticism,” Nareau said. “It was hard to convey what we were passionate about.”
Hikel saw the time commitment as the hardest part: “This is essentially a mini-thesis, in a way,” he said. Han added that the many failures all the groups faced were difficult. “It’s just a process of trial and error. You have to keep at it, and nine times out of 10, your ideas are crap … the only way to get to that one idea that will work is by going through the failures that lead up to it,” he explained. Lawal’s ChicPolitik team also found this to be true. “We thought it was perfect in the beginning. We had to refine, refine, refine until we actually got that diamond that we were looking for in the beginning,” he said.
All of the teams reported gaining valuable knowledge about entrepreneurship. Weiss found that putting together a clear plan is critical to presenting a business venture: “Some vague notion isn’t going to cut it,” he said. “We’ve gotten much more concrete over time, and that preciseness is ultimately what is going to make our idea more fundable.”
“The most valuable thing that I learned is what you can do in such a short span of time,” Mody-Fitzmaurice said. “We learned that in a couple months we can get this idea going, and then in a couple more months, we can have our site live.”
Xu was impressed to see the Williams Alumni Network in action. “It’s encouraging to see that even as undergrads who have very little experience in entrepreneurship, there are still so many alums, who are essentially experts, who are willing to come and lend us their time and energy and resources to help us reach a point where we can feel proud of what we have done,” he noted.
With the competition concluded, the groups are all still planning on continuing their work and trying to make their plans a reality. They were all grateful for the opportunity to work with mentors to turn their ideas into viable business plans. “Jeffrey Thomas deserves a huge thank you from all of the teams,” Hikel said. “He has been a powerhouse behind this entire idea.”
The involved students also hope to see more entrepreneurship on campus. “I really hope that entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship becomes a really important part of the Williams community over the next few years,” Khoja said.
So if you have a great business idea, don’t be afraid to turn it into something real. Who knows? You might just be the next Mark Zuckerberg.