The third annual Business Plan Competition at the College, a collaborative project of Entrepreneurship@Williams and the Career Center, concluded on March 2, with five final teams: ApertusData, InteracTiV, Peck, PriceTap and Tidy. The winner, Peck, will receive $15,000 in seed funding, and the runner-up, InteracTiV, will receive $5000 in seed funding. Both teams will spend their upcoming summer in Williamstown to work on their plans.
A panel of alumni judges, Jack Wadsworth ’61, Tracy Heilman ’88 and Adam Ifshin ’87, selected the winners based on the business plans submitted by teams earlier in the week. The panel judged the teams on their 10-minute pitches and Q-and-A sessions on Sunday.
Ayodele Ekhator ’15, Michael Madding ’15, Timothy Marchese ’15, Philip McGovern ’15 and Aaron Taylor ’16 constitute the Peck team. The team released the mobile application Peck last semester to help students consolidate information of interest relevant to College life. “Peck is a social calendar application for mobile devices targeted at college campuses,” Taylor said. “It provides a unique and convenient experience for students by allowing them to find all their information and setup events through a single easy-to-use portal.”
Since Peck’s release, the team has been updating and improving the application. “The changes made to Peck thus far have been small fixes and updates, as well as increased coverage of ongoing campus events,” Taylor elaborated. “We are currently beginning work on a large update with an exciting new user interface and added features.”
Peck plans on expanding its application to be used at other college campuses in the near future. “We plan to move to other colleges by scaling the current model we have used successfully at Williams,” Taylor said. “We will provide customizations of the app for each campus and hope to work with each institution we go to, to provide the best experience for the students there.”
Peck currently plans its expansion to coincide with the new school year. According to McGovern, the application is expected to move to at least one new campus, potentially two, by this September.
Amir al-Arnaouti ’14, Piroune Balachandran ’16, Klejdi Banka ’15, Ioannis Florokapis ’16, Juan Mena ’15 and Jordan Zhao ’15 are the members of InteracTiV. According to al-Arnaouti, “InteracTiV is a Web-based platform that re-imagines the multimedia experience by allowing users to interact with and through the content.”
The other finalists in the competition were Benjamin Fischberg ’14 and Yang Lu ’14 of ApertusData; Christopher Bravo ’16, Steven-Louis Dreyfus ’16, Brian Leland ’16 and Yasick Nemenov ’16 of PriceTap and Jason Briggs ’14, Christopher Cogswell ’14 and Emily Pavlini ’14 of Tidy.
14 teams entered the competition in fall 2013, and each team worked extensively with alumni mentors who helped the students develop and refine their plans. Eight teams submitted plans in January, and from those eight, five finalists were selected in early February.
The winning teams will stay in Williamstown over the summer to access their seed funding. “In Williamstown, we can do a lot to help teams build their new enterprises. There are terrific alums here in the summer who can offer great guidance,” Jeffrey Thomas, coordinator of Entrepreneurship@Williams, said. “If teams get stuck or need particular resources, we can leverage our local network and the alumni network to help them.” In addition, the teams’ location on campus will allow for oversight to ensure that funding will be spent appropriately.
Each year, program organizers look to improve the competition and appeal to more of the student body. “We’ve really tried to make the competition more student friendly this year. We changed the timeline of the competition. The previous two years, the competition ran from January through March and it finished the weekend after students got back from spring break, which is early April,” Thomas said. “This year, we started the competition in September. Students worked on it through October. We took a break in November and December, started back up in January and February and concluded March 2. The reason for that is to make it easier for students to balance the work on their business plans with their academic work.”
Of all the members of the five finalist teams, Pavlini of Tidy was the only female student. “Most Business Plan Competition participants are men. However, we are seeing more and more women students involved,” Thomas said. According to him, women led three of the 14 original teams that entered the competition, but all three teams later withdrew. “Every year, we always see about 30 to 40 percent of the teams withdraw because they encounter a fundamental flaw with their idea, or they don’t have time to commit to the competition.”
The Business Plan Competition Advisory Council consisting of Thomas, Career Center staff, Professor of Chemistry Lee Park, two alumni and a student, is looking for ways to get more women involved. “We would definitely like to see more women involved in the future. But [low female participation] is not Williams-specific; we see it in business plan competitions all across the country,” Thomas said. “We work hard to bring in women alumni mentors to help with the Business Plan Competition. It can be tough. There aren’t as many of them and they’re very, very busy. Nonetheless 15 percent of this year’s mentors were women.”
The Business Plan Competition began three years ago as an initiative to encourage entrepreneurship at the College. David Michael ’13, a member of last year’s winning team, Pipe and Quill, reflected on his summer in Williamstown with the company. Pipe and Quill’s winning project was Econ Grapher, an iPhone application that allows a user to create introductory economic graphs and models on his or her phone.
“Working with the team in Williamstown this summer was an incredible experience. We were able to spend two intense months putting together components for an educational technology product,” Michael said. “Working with a team to build and launch software entails developing and applying a broad range of professional skills. These skills are valuable complements to liberal arts graduates who are already excellent learners and are equipped to deeply understand problems.”
Integral to the success of the winners of the Business Plan Competition is the support of the College’s alumni. “I witnessed the unparalleled generosity of the Williams alumni community in helping us grow. We received so much support and advice from skilled alumni professionals, including top entrepreneurs and members of the legal community,” Michael said. “While the cash from the Business Plan award was a solid foundation to start a business, the community endorsement was what facilitated the valuable alumni relationships. Jeffrey Thomas deserves a lot of credit for making this happen.”
Pipe and Quill dissolved at the end of 2013, but Michael found the experience to be rewarding nevertheless, saying, “Starting a company is one of the most challenging and potentially rewarding career decisions a young person can make.”
From his experience, Michael offered the following cautionary advice to budding entrepreneurs at the College:
“Execution, not ideas, is what ultimately matters in the growth of a company. Don’t bother protecting your idea with [non-disclosure agreements]. It’s a sign of inexperience and insecurity. If someone with the same idea could out-compete you, you should reconsider doing it at all.
“Focus on what you, yourself are able to accomplish, as well as those you know you could count on to participate. If your great idea just needs a programmer to be successful, you should think again about what you bring to the table. There is no room for ‘idea people’ in a startup so learn how to actually make something.
“The world of technology entrepreneurship is crowded with people who delude themselves about what it takes to be successful after watching The Social Network or seeing big number acquisitions in Silicon Valley. Take computer science courses while you’re still at Williams (if your dreams involve technology), and think about ways to make a difference based on what you are uniquely equipped to accomplish.”