Why entrepreneurship competitions matter

The city of Buffalo, N.Y. recently crowned the winner of 43North, its newest entrepreneurial initiative. With prizes totaling $5 million – including a $1 million grand prize – the initiative sought to “turn the best new business ideas from around the globe into reality,” with winners receiving free incubator space and access to mentors, among other benefits.

With every municipality east of Silicon Valley undertaking “entrepreneurship initiatives,” I’m usually a little skeptical, becuase they often seem to lack having a real system in place and are just trying to capitalize on buzz. A city can launch as many incubators as they want, but without a network of support, access to funding or mentors, and a community united behind the project, those spaces fail to really spur any true change in the area.

However, after thinking about Buffalo’s initiative, I thought it was a really good idea – and that’s coming from personal experience.

My partners and I launched New Media Campaigns (NMC) while still in college. The motivating factor for the company was the Carolina Challenge, a business plan competition sponsored by UNC. We were lucky enough to win that competition and take home the $12,500 prize (essentially $1 million to a college student). I think I can safely say that without the Carolina Challenge, NMC wouldn’t exist. However, interestingly, I do think it would exist even if we hadn’t won the competition.

That’s the beauty of business plan competitions — the carrot they dangle in front of you encourages you to do a lot of the hard work up front. We had to spend a lot of time thinking about what we wanted to do, writing our business plan (which quickly got pitched out the window after a few months in business), validating that to judges and making connections in the local business community as we traversed the competition. All of those things had to happen before we won or lost, and I distinctly remember all of us agreeing to act on our idea regardless of the final outcome because of all the work we had already put in and the value we saw in it.

Someone getting cheap space at an incubator doesn’t necessarily have to go through all those steps, which makes them less likely to be fully bought in when times get tough (and they will).

And how did that investment from the UNC community turn out for our team? NMC is now 8 years old and employs a dozen people in the area, helping the local tax base and contributing to the community in many ways. We’re not Google or Facebook, but I’d say it worked out well for a relatively small investment – and we’ve also tried to pay it back to the UNC community by helping with the competition and speaking to entrepreneurship classes on campus.

There are definitely plenty of ways to spur entrepreneurship in an area – many are cheaper than a $5 million investment – but I really respect what Buffalo is doing. It seems to be outside the box of what most communities are trying (incubators, pitch days, etc.) andit wouldn’t surprise me if one of the biggest successes to ultimately come out of the process is someone who doesn’t win the grand prize. I’m excited to see where this goes!

And your reward for reading this whole post is getting to see what we looked like when we won that competition 8 short years ago (get a haircut, bro)…

Adapted from an article by Clay Schossow