Focus on customer experience first. Share your idea widely to gain valuable feedback. Start building your network and never stop learning.
A panel of serial entrepreneurs and investors — most were both — shared that advice and more with 325 attendees at the Miami Herald’s Business Plan Bootcamp Wednesday night at Miami Dade College. The bootcamp was held in conjunction with the 2015 Business Plan Challenge, the Miami Herald’s annual entrepreneurship contest that is open for entries until March 16.
Panelists included Melissa Krinzman, co-founder of Krillion Ventures; Steven McKean, serial tech entrepreneur and startup advisor; Benoit Wirz, director of venture investments for the Knight Foundation; Leandro Finol, executive director of Miami Dade College’s Idea Center; and Adam Smith, partner at Medina Capital.
What do they look for when they are reviewing business plans?
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“What’s the problem you are trying to solve but also how do you know it is a real problem, what’s the evidence?” Wirz said. “What is it about you, specifically the team, that makes me believe you can solve that problem? As a general rule, the more competitive the space, the more important it is you have a very specific background that gives you an unfair advantage.”
Wirz also looks for a plan for how customers find out about your product. “If you have some secret hook, an advantage you can leverage, that’s great,” Wirz said. Be sure to show evidence of product-market fit, added McKean.
Krinzman and McKean, veteran Business Plan Challenge judges, also advised paying attention to the storytelling. Said Krinzman: “You have to remember that there is a person reading the plan, and we need to be interested. ... Work hard on your first paragraph and define the problem you are solving: why should we care, why should we keep reading, and do we understand what you are talking about. Share at least your first couple of paragraphs with someone who doesn’t know your business and see if they understand it.”
Include financials in your plan, but be realistic and include assumptions. A photo or rendering is good to include, particularly if you are a product company. In live pitches, product demos are effective, Smith said. If you get to the finalist stage of the Challenge, you will be presenting your elevator pitch on video.
Advice on starting a business came pouring out. “If you are small and don’t have a lot of capital, go after a small but growing market and think about world domination later,” Finol sad. In selecting your idea, follow your passion and do it because you love it, he said. “Branding is important but focus on user experience first,” Finol added. Focus on the why — why should customers tell others to use your products. The branding will evolve.”
Wirz said in most cases entrepreneurs shouldn’t be so secretive: “Tell everyone about your idea, and get feedback. The more feedback the stronger your idea will become and the more ready you are to build your business.”
If you are a first-time entrepreneur, you can establish some credibility through social proof, said Krinzman. One way to do this: Create a board of advisors of people who believe in you and have credibility in your category or can add value.
When capital raising, do your homework and target investors in your industry or sector, Smith said. It sounds obvious, but the investors said the great majority of emails they receive are not fits. If you do get in the door, “don’t be defensive, you are going to be challenged, and you can’t have all the answers so don’t worry about that,” said Smith. “Be engaging and conversational and you will get through it.”
Get introduced the right way. Get active on LinkedIn and build your networks, McKean said. It’s a relationships game.
The good news on that front: Thanks to the Knight Foundation and others, South Florida’s entrepreneurial ecosystem has evolved. “It’s an ecosystem that is very open and if you are part of it, opportunities will come to you as well. More doors will open,” Finol said.
A not to be missed event, particularly if you are in tech, is the eMerge Americas conference coming up in May. A sampling of other resources mentioned by the panelists (get on their mailing lists): Refresh Miami (refreshmiami.com), the largest meetup group for early stage entrepreneurs; The LAB Miami (thelabmiami.com), a co-working space in Wynwood with many events; and AGP (AGPMiami.com), an active angel network. For companies much further along, there’s Endeavor Miami (endeavormiami.org) providing mentorship and support. Take advantage of local resources and follow the Starting Gate blog (on MiamiHerald.com/business).
Some recommendations on other blogs, books and websites from the panel: The Hard Thing about Hard Things, by Ben Horowitz, Brad Feld’s books on capital raising, blogs by well-known investors such as Fred Wilson (http://avc.com/) and Mark Suster (http://www.bothsidesofthetable.com/); and Eric Reis’ The Lean Startup, particularty if you are a tech company. Pitchenvy.com is an enviable collection of investor decks, and there’s “How to get an investor to say yes,” by Adeo Rossi (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3tzef-oKee0).
“Over the winter break I went through “How to Start a Startup” by YCombinator’s Sam Altman (http://startupclass.samaltman.com/). It is free and it is unbelievable,” said Finol.
Listen to podcasts. Smith suggests Jason Calacanis’ “This Week in Startups” podcast (http://thisweekinstartups.com), which includes a new series for his Launch incubator with great speakers. Another is “Startup,” a series by Gimletmedia (http://gimletmedia.com/show/startup/)
At eMerge Americas last year, Manny Medina interviewed Pitbull; an amazing and enlightening interview worth watching, the panelists said (watch it here).
Just getting started? Finol said the Idea Center, theideacenter.co, offers a workshop on design thinking every month that will help you create, refine, validate and test innovative ideas.
“Find mentors who have been there before to help get you there faster,” McKean said. “Your ability to grow a company will be dependent on of how fast you are able to learn. The fastest learning will come from who you surround yourself with.”
Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg and find rules, tips, a Q&A and other resources for the Business Plan Challenge at MiamiHerald.com/challenge.