Moot Corp. diary: Behind the scenes at the business-plan contest everyone wants to win
Where can you go to find the most brilliantly conceived, rigorously researched, and persuasively pitched start-up ideas in the world? You might go to school. In fact, you might go to one of the business-plan competitions that have become important rites of passage for M.B.A. candidates all over the globe. At these events, the best and brightest graduate-business-school students--guided by the savviest entrepreneurship educators--test their concepts and themselves, hoping to win not just praise and prestige but, more important, big-time capital from the investors in the room.
What do these people know (that the rest of us want to learn) about creating the most exciting businesses of the 21st century? This past spring I got the chance to find out. I served as a judge at Moot Corp., the 15-year-old, internationally renowned, quintessential competition of its kind, hosted by the University of Texas at Austin.
The contest was held over a single event-packed weekend and began for me early Friday morning, May 7, in the heart of the Austin campus--home of the infamous sniper tower, whose silhouette appears on UT stationery. There were 25 teams competing, including 6 that had won not just their own schoolwide contest but an interschool business-plan competition as well. The Austin contest wasn't just academic; the teams all appeared to want to start their businesses as soon as possible. Some had already raised seed capital. A few were already in business.
Here's what I saw.
FRIDAY, 7:35 A.M.
Judges meet for coffee, fruit, greasy muffins in the B-school's faculty lounge. Two dozen of us (practically all white men), with me the only journalist. Most others are venture capitalists or bankers--sensible, since the point is to evaluate the plans based on their potential as investment opportunities.
UT's Gary Cadenhead--a tall, affable academic who's run the event for seven years--greets us, reviews the drill. Today five divisions of judges will see five teams each. Each team will have 20 minutes to make its pitch, then another 20 minutes to handle questions from the judges. When the round is over, each team will come back before its panel of judges for feedback on its strengths and weaknesses. The winners from each division will face off tomorrow, in front of different judges, in the finals.
The criterion for choosing a winner is simple: Would you personally invest in the company? No reward for effort alone. "Sometimes somebody does a strong presentation for an opportunity you wouldn't invest in on a bet," Cadenhead says.
My judging panel gets one of the small, amphitheater-type classrooms with fluorescent lighting and no windows. It will be a long day. We were mailed the business plans in advance, so I already know who our teams are: from Oxford University in the U.K., Capital Mining Royalties Pty. Ltd., a group that plans to find untapped veins of ore in western Australia and collect royalties from mining companies; from the University of Michigan, our only "dot com," GetOutdoors.com, a Web site that will sell climbing gear; from the University of Illinois at Chicago, J.H. Reid Corp., maker of a very strange chair in which you sit on the floor to watch TV; from ESAN (Escuela de AdministraciĂ—n de Negocios para Graduados), Granos Inka S.A., with a plan I had to read twice to figure out, calling for the growing of yellow corn in Peru; and from the University of Texas, Vusion Inc., which has a new technology for real-time chemical testing. Or so the team says. We find out later it's not quite ready for market.
One judge I already know: Rob Brough, an outspoken Aussie, president of Breeze Technology Holdings, in Thousand Oaks, Calif., a start-up with some shoe technology and a business plan that was a Moot Corp. winner in 1994. The other judges are a pharmaceutical-industry executive, a director of corporate communications for DuPont Photomasks, a managing partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and me--a senior editor at Inc.
The opening act: Capital Mining from Oxford. Team leader Allan Trench starts by throwing up a slide picturing a pile of gold bars. Trench's team is looking to raise $3.5 million--not mind-boggling, but a serious amount. He walks along our table handing each judge a chunk of rock and a foil-embossed box shaped like a bar of gold. "I hope this gets your attention," he says.
Not exactly subtle, and a mistake. This panel knows that gold is down. And we're here to be sold on the business, not the metal. Downhill from here for Trench.
I'm surprised by how few of the competing teams are presenting Web-based business concepts. I thought E-commerce was the buzz. GetOutdoors.com is our only one, and I don't think it's all that strong. The team is one of the youngest, five Gen-X guys, all in suits they don't exactly look comfortable in. Team leader Adam Meron, a standout with his MTV bleached-blond hair, explains that they plan a Web store where people planning a backpacking trip or a rock climb can get all the advice and equipment they need in one place.
A good idea on the surface, but the plan and the presentation lack detail. They talk about partnering with suppliers and with local climbing clubs all over the country, but they haven't yet formed any relationships. An investor would question why they didn't at least get a few letters of intent from manufacturers. It's as if these guys got together over pizza and beer one night and had a brainstorm: Hey, we like to climb and hike, and we like the Internet, so why not build a Web store for people just like us? Radical, dude.
I feel bad. They've worked on this for a year. But they still haven't done enough homework.
We're halfway into the third pitch when I recognize a problem about potential investors: they won't necessarily tell you what they're thinking. The third team has the TV chair. The leader is Walter Albecker, a bookish Mr. Peepers type, down to the glasses. And the chair is right in front of us--a wood-frame, crate-style thing with no legs and a cushion that looks just like a futon. Two judges whisper the exact same remark: "If I ever came home with a thing like that, my wife would kill me...."
None of us says the obvious: we would never invest in this, because we don't instinctually believe in the product. Yet here's this guy Albecker, who has been working on the design of the chair for eight years--eight years!--ready to wow us silly. He's got one good selling point: in a traditional recliner, your head is pointed at the ceiling. This chair angles your face straight out, so you can lean back and still see the TV. But he's also telling us how great it is to sit on the floor, as if that were our secret desire.
At question time we don't even really grill him. You can tell how much we don't want to tell this guy we don't see it. One judge finds a red-herring issue: "How much patent protection is there? What if I bought this and put little legs on it so that it's six inches off the floor?"
"You could do it," Albecker says, "but you won't be sitting on the floor." That's the point, bub.
Waiting for the next team, I realize that the judges share a real mental link. We're all focused on the same basics: return on investment, product, management team, and whether the numbers make sense.
In comes Granos Inka, the corn growers from Peru. They struggle with a language barrier. A real disadvantage. Easy to see how cultural barriers are true barriers to investment. Nobody invests real money unless he or she feels right about it, and it's difficult to vet a foreign market.
Yet it's obvious that this team is deadly serious. After several governments have come and gone in Peru, it is now legal to buy back land that was given to the country's farmers, one tiny plot at a time. This team wants to consolidate the land, replace imported animal-feed corn with a domestic product, and in the process, replace the coca crop and wipe out the drug trade. Talk about ambition. The young woman who leads the presentation is personally-- personally--investing $5.2 million. Obviously has some resources of her own (family money?) but it seems bad form to ask.
Enter team five: Vusion Inc., the home team from UT. Teams from UT have won in three of the last eight Moot Corp. competitions; it may help to have motivated faculty advisers versed in business-plan competitions, especially this one.
The team members have a new technology built by UT professors, a cartridge-based system to analyze chemical fluids in real time. Each cartridge has a silicon chip with a surface of polymer beads coated with sensitive chemical receptors. You stick the cartridge in a chemical flow and look for changes that indicate pollutants. They call it the Electronic Tongue. (There is already an Electronic Nose on the market, which explains the mildly revolting moniker.) They're targeting chemical producers like the pharmaceutical industry, which must usually shut down expensive processes to do a lot of testing because of government regulations. With this, those companies can test as they go.
The team leader is Jason Levin, who looks just like a taller George Costanza with more hair. The whole team is a smooth bunch. Another member, Richard Burgess, gets up, very practiced, and says Vusion is seeking $1.5 million now to build a prototype. (They don't have a prototype?) Eight million by 2001. Twelve mil in 2004.
Burgess: "I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, 'I love this product.' " (He gets laughs.) " 'But will it make me money?' "
One judge blurts out, "Show me the money!"
At question time we poke immediately at huge holes in the Vusion plan. The team had bad luck. It drew a pharmaceuticals expert on the panel: Bob Vukovich. "You've got a plan here with false revenues, false numbers, and the technology is not there," he says. He speaks for all of us. These guys have not been clear, but if you read between the lines, you can see that the technology is not yet fully developed and that they haven't locked in the rights! All red-alert signals for an investor.
Levin admits that the technology is now capable of reading only one part per million of contaminants in chemicals. It needs to get to one part per billion.
I don't buy the idea that pharmaceutical companies will jump all over this in a few months. "What about barriers to acceptance? They're not just going to take your word for it," I say.
And Rob Brough tells them, "I'm not convinced of the economics."
The Vusion boys lean in, eager to answer questions. They're very, very smooth and maybe are used to getting over on style alone. We can see already that this is a real contender for the team we will send to the finals. Not really going to be a pleasure, though, unless these guys learn some humility. Brough gives it to them straight: "Well, guys, if you get into the finals, it will be one late night tonight." He strongly suggests they spend the time redoing their financial assumptions. But we all suspect this team doesn't want to do what most teams would do, which is spend all available hours before tomorrow's finals revamping the proposal to make it bulletproof to the questions we raised. Later, Brough and I bet that if we see these guys on the boat cruise planned for that night, they won't win on Saturday.
Presentations are over--time to make our decisions. Student helper Kai Olderog (Class of 2000, Wissenschaftliche Hochschule fĂ"r UnternehmensfĂ"hrung, Vallendar, Germany) delivers little box lunches: sandwiches, chips, soda. We start talking. Brough and I argue immediately about GetOutdoors.com. He thinks it's a good economic opportunity. I tell him my "Radical, dude" theory, and he will repeat that phrase all weekend, just to keep the argument alive. We'll be walking down the street, and he'll mutter, "Radical, dude!" and shake his head. But he still won't agree with me.
Vukovich is reluctant on Vusion: "They could never get a multimillion-dollar pharmaceutical manufacturer to adopt a new technology so quickly. And even Jason acknowledged that they made up the numbers."
Still, it's Vusion we send to the finals.
Time to give feedback. Gary Cadenhead has been walking around the halls, telling the teams what all the judges have decided. The finalist team is up first--since presumably every minute counts when it comes to tweaking presentations for tomorrow.
Vusion comes in, and Bob Vukovich leads off. Only right, since he's the guy with the pharmaceuticals background. "The big picture?" he tells them. "You're undercapitalized and too optimistic."
We're giving the Vusion guys the bad news as we also give them the good news that we're sending them to the finals. We expect them to take it seriously and listen hard to the advice. Instead, they're a little defensive and off-putting, and they clam up. Brough: "As you gentlemen know, business plans are never fixed in stone. This is where you can maybe win. My advice is that you stay up late tonight and rerun your financials. The finalist judges will tear you apart if you don't."
The team resists. Levin: "Every panel of judges has its own questions. We don't want to revise our whole presentation."
Brough whispers to me, "I'll be interested to see how our comments are reflected in the presentation they give tomorrow."
The other teams get more cursory advice. After all, we're not sending them off for further competition. But we try to give them some constructive comments.
Albecker, the chair guy, takes the results particularly badly. We guess by his expression that he considers us a bunch of nincompoops for not seeing the brilliance of his product. Maybe he's right, but we have other concerns as well. One judge tries to tell him he made the very common mistake of not asking for enough capital: "The overall amount of money you're looking for is really small. This is the deal you're offering: put in $275,000 and get back $750,000. But in venture capital, investors are looking for a home run, not a base hit. It should have been bigger. If you want a real success, you have to think big."
"I would disagree," Albecker says. Still stubborn. A real turnoff for investors. Interestingly, we still don't tell him what's really on our minds, which is that the chair looks uncomfortable and we don't believe there's a huge unsatisfied market for furniture that seats you on the floor.
We finish and go out into the hall. There's a release of tension. The game has been on from early this morning until now, and we're all tired. It's hot in Austin.
Rob Brough and I find the dock and board the boat, a large ferry. Teams and judges mingle. Nachos and chips are set out, a countrified rock band starts playing oldies covers (this is Austin, after all), and we pull away for the cruise. An hour plus one way, a stop at a landing for some barbecue, and an hour plus back.
I spend most of the boat ride gossiping and talking with Steve Spinelli, the faculty adviser for the team from Babson College. He's the first to say to me what I learn in time is the mantra for teams that do not make it to the finals or do not win: "The judges just didn't get it."
At one point I'm leaning against the rail talking to him and he says, "You really ought to be looking at this." I turn around and see that the riverbank is lined with one incredible mansion after another. Most, some of the others tell us, belong to Dell millionaires, and a lot are not even their primary residences. Something to think about for the teams pitching all these different businesses, seeking their fortunes.
SATURDAY, 1:00 P.M.
The finals. I'm just an observer this time. Before it starts I'm eager to grab a few words with finals judge Joe Aragona, whom Cadenhead calls "my chief justice." Younger than I expect, he looks like Rick Pitino--forties, a handsome guy with coiffed black hair and a gravelly New Yawk voice whose edge has not been dulled by his years in Austin. He's been judging Moot Corp. for 15 years and is always in the finals. He's a general partner in Austin Ventures. Portfolio of three-quarters of a billion dollars. Has funded more than 100 companies.
I tell him that I hear he's tough on the teams. "Imagine how tough I would be if this was for real," he says. "The criteria is simple: Where would I write a check? And that's how it should be. In real life, the first business plan is never the company we fund."
I haven't seen any of these finalist teams except Vusion, the one we sent up. The first is JetFan Technology, from Queensland University of Technology in Australia. It has a cooling device for computers and other electronics, the small black-plastic fans you see inside computers. Except this one is better.
I think this is a very impressive, simple, competent presentation. The company has already raised $1.8 million. It has a good-looking product it plans to sell to OEMs, not consumers. Brough is sitting next to me, and I whisper to him, "They're better than our guys." "Yeah," he says. But we don't know as much as the finalist judges do about the teams--except Vusion--because we haven't seen the plans.
Next team: Regents Park Healthcare, London Business School--two British doctors of Indian extraction who want to run cardiothoracic centers for hospitals. But the judges are of one mind and blunt. Aragona: "Why would a hospital transfer management to you?" The team is cooked.
Before the next team, I head for the bathroom and run into the JetFan team members. They tell me my Vusion boys were drinking on the boat last night.
Now Vusion is up. Brough and I are both curious to see how the presentation has changed. Very quickly, we get our answer: it hasn't. Not one word.
Levin starts. Same speech as last time. Burgess even does the same joke: "I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, 'I love this product....' "
Their smooth presentation gives the impression that they're much closer to having a licensing agreement than they are. In the Q&A, Aragona busts them right away: "Tell me a little about the license with UT."
Levin: "We've been talking to them."
Aragona: "So you have about two years to go?" (Laughs.)
Levin: "We need the financing to prove ourselves and to get the licensing."
Aragona: "You expect to raise this money, and you don't have the license or patents?"
Burgess: "We need to bring in the financing first."
Aragona: "What do you think it will take to break this chicken-and-egg question? It's a $1.5-million question I'm asking." There's no good answer.
Aragona shifts his attention to the product: "Does this stuff work?"
Another lesson they should have learned yesterday. "It's early," Levin says. "There's a lot of development facing us."
Aragona: "So the answer is, you hope so."
Another judge, William Glasgow: "You're planning to be based in Austin?"
Levin, happy with the new line of questioning: "We'd love to be based in Austin."
Glasgow was setting him up. "Where are you guys going to find real estate for $1 per square foot?" It's an assumption he dug out of the numbers in the business plan.
Levin laughs and turns away. Busted again. "Yeah, that's a mistake," he acknowledges.
The end. I think they've done poorly, but the judges are actually impressed. "At least there's an element of reality there," Aragona says.
"There's a potential here," says another judge. "It's a real market opportunity. It's the type of thing you'd want to fund."
Next team, a "dot com": Home Dream S.A. from FundaĂĂo GetĂlio Vargas, Brazil. It's the only Internet business in the finals. The team plans to do a site with real estate advertising for homes in SĂo Paulo.
I'm struck by the sophistication of the proposal and very happy we didn't put GetOutdoors.com up against these guys. The team shows us how the site will work for consumers. It includes listings of homes and apartments with photos, even 360-degree virtual-reality tours of some properties. There is a URL locked in. Later the team plans to include maps, statistics, and other services on the site.
I'm impressed by the read of the market these guys have. The Internet is growing like crazy in SĂo Paulo. And Brazil has no multiple-listing service for real estate. They intend to get listings from independent real estate agents. Seems like a slam dunk; good for them, the agents, the property seekers. But the judges grill the team hard. Aragona: "Help me here. Tell me how you will get users."
After the questions, Aragona dismisses the Brazilians. "They're awful," he says.
"They did a great job, though," says one of the other finalist judges.
I agree, saying, "It looked good to me, but you guys grilled them."
"You don't have the business plan to see where we're getting our questions," says Aragona. "Besides, some companies are easier to grill than others. How do you grill a guy with a chemical-analysis product? But with these guys I can use my own sense to ask where they think they're going to get so many hits on a Web site."
The judges are on to the final entrant: Fabrica Co. Ltd., from Thammasat University, Thailand. (Thammasat has quite a rep at Moot Corp. Last year Thammasat's team demonstrated its lightweight bulletproof fabric by firing a handgun into a barrel lined with the stuff. Shocked the hell out of the judges.)
Chalermporn Siriwichai is the leader, one of three young Thai women in extremely short black dresses--selling the cookie factor a little. There are also two young Thai men with nerdy haircuts and dark suits.
Fabrica has a proprietary loom that will make fabric samples for textile makers, which then wouldn't have to shut down big commercial looms to make customer samples. It makes sense that this plan is from Thailand, which is a huge textile center.
Siriwichai starts by promising, "We will not discharge a firearm in the room this year and do not plan any other politically incorrect demonstrations." She gets laughs. The team handles American humor well, which maybe isn't so surprising when you think that graduate business students in Thailand are probably pretty cosmopolitan kids.
The loom isn't there. It was too cumbersome to bring, so the Fabrica team left it in Bangkok. But there are plenty of pictures, and the team members hand out tons of samples woven on their looms. They explain that the device was developed by one of their professors, and there are already 16 beta units in use. They're looking for $490,000 million now in return for 49% of the company's stock. The founders themselves will contribute $510,000.
Team member Amornrat Putrakul, a young woman with a serious demeanor and very good English skills: "The opportunity is now. Somebody will be able to engineer around our patents in two to three years." She's put her finger on what will be a key issue for the judges.
One judge cuts to the chase when the questions begin. He tells a story of seeing bazaars full of pirated merchandise in China and asks, "Are you concerned about your patent being protected in such countries?"
Putrakul: "That is why we are not going into China until the last year of this project."
It doesn't satisfy him. After the questions, he tells me, "There is no such thing as patent protection in Asia!"
I ask Aragona who he thinks might win. He doesn't know yet. "With Fabrica, there's a clear market there. But how do you compare it to a Vusion? Where would you write a check?" He tells me he has two in mind, then goes to meet with the others. It's the last I'll see of him at this event. Having done his thing, the chief justice leaves the building.
We're at a banquet room in the Doubletree Guest Suites hotel. You have to be specific, because there are at least three Doubletree hotels in or near downtown Austin. Everybody's here--judges, teams, faculty advisers. Cadenhead is holding out on the results, building suspense--and, incidentally, ensuring that people actually stay for dinner. He has all his corporate sponsors to thank and probably wants everybody there to hear it. "Please enjoy your meal," he says. "I'll be back a little later with some announcements." Everyone laughs.
Time for finalist prizes. Cadenhead announces the second runner-up, a $1,000 prize: JetFan Technology, Queensland, Australia. Hmm. I thought they might win the big one.
First runner-up (a $2,000 prize): Vusion, UT/Austin. Our guys. You can't keep a good investment opportunity down.
But who wins the big cheese? Cadenhead winds up for the big finish. "Motorola sponsors the $15,000 prize for the world championship," he says. The Motorola guy comes out with a huge, poster-size check for $15,000. "The winner: Fabrica, Thammasat University, Thailand!"
It's a crowd favorite. The team not only was charming but had a rich opportunity, proprietary technology, and some basis in reality, since the equipment was already being used by some textile makers.
Siriwichai makes a little speech: "Thank you, thank you very much. KhĂwp khun khĂ." ( Thank you in Thai.) "We are in seventh heaven. I would like to apologize for making most of the weak jokes. I would like to thank the judges and congratulate them on their excellent judgment in choosing us." Everyone laughs. This might be the only team that could get away with that joke.
SUNDAY, 6:15 A.M.
I may be one of the last travelers to see the old Austin airport at this ungodly hour. There's a brand-new facility about to open across town, one that is said to be bigger and better. More than most cities, Austin has benefited from being a hotbed of entrepreneurship. The growth of Dell and the other local tech giants has seeded the ground for a thriving crop of energetic start-ups looking to leverage the resources of a tight little cash-rich community, one that understands the power of entrepreneurship to build wealth and realize dreams.
No wonder these teams work so hard to put on a good show at Moot Corp. Two years ago, when I first served as a Moot Corp. judge, I was struck by how bright the students were and what strong ideas they brought to the table. But then, many of the teams were not serious about the businesses they were proposing. It was different this year. All the contestants I spoke to intended to start the business described in the competition plans. And did they have big plans! Fabrica, with its new technology and an offer no fabric maker could refuse. Granos Inka, planning to revolutionize the economy of Peru. Vusion, which for all the slickness of the team is proffering an entire new technology potentially worth many millions. Even Walter Albecker, who, if he can only persuade us all to see his chair the way he does, could be sitting on the ground floor of something very big.
In its way Moot Corp. is a microcosm, a concentrated snapshot of the venture-capital crucible and the companies it yields. It is a mecca for would-be entrepreneurs with practical ideas. Here they can test their plans, get expert advice, and maybe even find the resources they need to build companies and fortunes. The contest is exciting to see as ideas and energy from all over the world are all brought together at once.
That's Moot Corp.: 25 dreams, no waiting.
Moot Corp. reality check
It's the opportunity that counts at a business-plan competition. Each team has an idea that it thinks is worth millions, if not billions. But how well do these ventures do once they leave academia and run smack-dab into the real world?
We contacted three past winners of Moot Corp. to see how well their prizewinning business plans had predicted their own future.
BUSINESS: Independence Marine Technologies, maker of the WhaleAway device--a brick-size sonic device to warn dolphins, porpoises, and whales away from commercial "gill" fishing nets--and the 1993 winner of Moot Corp.
MANAGEMENT TEAM: Fred Hagedorn, John Hagey, John Hattery, Caleb Tower, and Tom Zant--all students at Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: In late 1993--just two months after the team graduated--the government restricted gill-net fishing in overfished waters, deep-sixing the market for the WhaleAway. Today the Kellogg quintet all have management jobs outside the marine-biology industry.
BUSINESS: True Dimensions, maker of ergonomic chairs that incorporate NASA zero-gravity research on neutral body posture into their design, and the 1995 winner of Moot Corp.
MANAGEMENT TEAM: University of Texas at Austin/The Texas Business School students Michael Hanratty, Jeff Hoogendam, Leslie Frank, Wes Boyd, and Irene Bond
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: True Dimensions anticipates that its sales this year will top $1 million. It has nine employees and manufactures eight chairs a day for sale in retail chains such as the Healthy Back Store.
Hanratty, the CEO, is the only team member working at the company (although Hoogendam is on the board). Hoogendam is CEO of a computer software start-up. The others have marketing jobs at such established companies as Dell. "The prize had nothing to do with our success," Hanratty says, "but the competition's feedback process made a big difference" when it came to tweaking the company's business model.
BUSINESS: Bio-Pet Technologies, marketer of the drug SpaySafe, which sterilizes female dogs through vaccination rather than the traditional surgery, and the 1998 winner of Moot Corp.
MANAGEMENT TEAM: Founder Richard Fayrer-Hosken (inventor of the vaccine and a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Georgia) and four students from the university's Terry College of Business: Tobias Groenen, Kimberly Haynes, Jeffrey Mills, and Mark Patterson
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: SpaySafe probably won't get FDA approval until December--six months later than predicted in the Moot Corp. business plan, which projected $3.5 million in sales for 1999. But Fayrer-Hosken has raised more than $500,000 from vets. Haynes and Patterson plan to rejoin the company once business is under way. Mills is working for an Internet start-up. Groenen reportedly works for McKinsey & Co. in Germany.
From Moot Corp., the team gained the credibility it needed to persuade the University of Georgia--always more comfortable dealing with large, established corporations--to license this technology to a start-up. "I'm not sure we'd have otherwise gotten exclusivity or such reasonable performance targets for royalties," says Charles Hofer, the team's faculty adviser. Winning also helped when it came to raising seed capital, most of which came from veterinarians. --Ilan Mochari