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3/20/2008
12:45 PM
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Smaller Business as Spectator Sport

Paraphrasing Warhol, "Everyone will be famous for 15 minutes," but what's the value of fleeting moments in the spotlight for smaller businesses? A bevy of business contests promise prizes, publicity, and cash. Such contests may sap valuable resources from smaller businesses with little to spare yet they may also be the catalyst for some much-needed fine tuning of business plans.

Paraphrasing Warhol, "Everyone will be famous for 15 minutes," but what's the value of fleeting moments in the spotlight for smaller businesses? A bevy of business contests promise prizes, publicity, and cash. Such contests may sap valuable resources from smaller businesses with little to spare yet they may also be the catalyst for some much-needed fine tuning of business plans.Who doesn't dream of winning the lottery, having Ed McMahon arrive at your door holding balloons, or sinking the impossible shot from the opposite foul line to win a $1,000,000 like that guy at the Chicago Bulls game in '93. Even the most cynical among us entertains -- at least on occasion -- the fantasy of an unexpected windfall changing our lives, but what about changing our businesses.

The last few weeks a flurry of announcements bombarded my inbox hyping contests for smaller businesses. Turns out, the Microsoft Small Business Total Technology Makeover and aforementioned contests sponsored by HP, UPS, and Fortune formed just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. A sampling:

The four finalists in the Boston University $50k Business Plan Competition (AutoNAIS, Essense Medical, MediaLesson, and RemesaTel) will present their business plans to a panel of judges (and a live audience -- the public is welcome) in a three hour event on April 9 -- winners announced "live."

In Philadelphia, young tech entrepreneurs will compete in DreamIT '08, an entrepreneurial game of "Survivor." As many as 12 entrepreneurs -- if you're a 19 to 29 year old hacker with no formal business plan you can still apply -- will compete from May through August to develop their business and products with input from a team of "advisors and gurus" culminating in presentations to VCs and other investors. The money on this one maxes out at $30k with the allure resting on the mindshare of the advisory board and exposure to potential funders.

There's $100,000 at stake in the second annual Forbes Business Plan Competition. That figure was enough to lure 1,000 entrants in the inaugural competition last year; the field winnowed to five finalists who presented plans to the judges and Recycline emerged victorious. With six figures on the line, the stampede stands to be strong again this year when applications open on April 2.

Even government is on the contest bandwagon. Witness the Wisconsin Governor's Business Plan contest sponsored by the Wisconsin Technology Council. This relatively venerable contest began in 2004, dangling a $50,000 grand prize before contestants with smaller payouts for finalists in each of four categories. This year's edition is fast approaching its third phase with the winners slated for feting at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs' Conference in June.

Intuit's QuickBooks Simple Start 2008 contest is over and the $50,000 prize long gone. However, if Im reading the winners page correctly (congratulations Alissa DeRouchie), you can still grab yourself a free copy of QuickBooks if you take their pledge.

The biz plan competition formula is hardly new -- Harvard Business School and other MBA programs have been doing this for years and the value for learning seems inarguable. However, what's the business value? Is winning a contest a viable business strategy? As usual, context is everything -- the value depends on the contest, the industry, and the business model. On American Idol the winner gets a million dollar recording contract. For Kelly Clarkson and a host of contest winners the value is obvious, but what about the other competitors? Sure, they got their 15 minutes of fame. The winners of these myriad biz competitions will likely be enriched by the prizes and the process, But what of smaller businesses -- those struggling to spin success from the scarcest of resources and the tightest of budgets -- that come away empty handed? They spend some time honing their business plan, but maybe that's reward in and of itself.Paraphrasing Warhol, "Everyone will be famous for 15 minutes," but what's the value of fleeting moments in the spotlight for smaller businesses? A bevy of business contests promise prizes, publicity, and cash. Such contests may sap valuable resources from smaller businesses with little to spare yet they may also be the catalyst for some much-needed fine tuning of business plans.

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