Business Plan Challenge

Your questions answered as deadline looms

Planning to enter the Business Plan Challenge? The questions have begun to flow in, and we will answer them here.

We offer three tracks to win our contest, which is sponsored by the FIU Pino Global Entrepreneurship Center: a community track, open to all South Floridians, an FIU track for its students and alumni, and a high school track. You can enter our contest with a business idea or an existing business if it is not more than two years old. The deadline is March 16.

Find rules and other information for the Challenge at MiamiHerald.com/challenge.

Here are some questions I have received (I will include the most recent ones first and continue to add as I get more).

Q: I am entering the High School Track. The guidelines say one and two page entries are fine in the high school track, but can it be three pages?

A. Thank you for your question. Yes, your plan can be up to three pages and you may have an addendum page for a chart or photo if you wish -- the same rules as the Community Track. Good luck to you!

Q. I am an FIU alum and a proud Miamian. Can I enter both the FIU and Community Tracks?

A. No, we're sorry: Pick one. The FIU Track typically receives fewer entries, but the choice is yours. To be eligible for the FIU Track, at least one team member needs to be a current FIU student or alumnus.

Q. Is a cover sheet counted in the page limit?

A. No, but it isn't necessary. Our judges will judge the written plan.

Q. Can high school finalists participate in the video contest?

A. While the People's Pick video contest is open to the Community and FIU Tracks, we will invite the winner or winning team of the high school track to make a video of the winner's elevator pitch in our studio if they wish. It won't be mandatory, but we will proudly feature it on MiamiHerald.com.

By the way, we don't have any entries in the high school track yet -- your odds are very good. College counselors have told me that being a winner or finalist in the Challenge sure looks good on college and scholarship applications!

Q. I incorporated my business in 2012 but didn't launch it until December 2013. Am I eligible?

A. Yes, to be eligible, your business can't be more than 2 years old, and we look at the time you opened your door or launched online. By the way, in our contest, business ideas are welcome too!

Q. Is there a required template I should follow for my entry?

A. The short answer is no. Your entry is a three-page business plan, with one additional addendum page allowed for a chart or graphic, and we allow people the freedom to send it in as they would like. But we suggest you consider including all or most of this information: brief product or service description, problem it is solving in the market (market need), a little about your target market and competition, relevant experience of your team, your business model -- how you will make money -- and growth strategy (how will you scale it), your marketing strategy (how will you get the word out and sell it) and some financials, for example your startup costs and three years of projections. It can be done. Keep each section brief -- bulleted items are your friend. Many use their extra page for their financial chart.

Some people download templates for business plans (easily found in a Google search) and include the categories most relevant. Some use an executive summary they already have written and add to it. People who already have investor decks already have the info in a concise way -- just put it into a 3-page word doc and you are done. If you are starting from scratch, good for you! You have probably been meaning to do it anyway, and it will be a roadmap you can continue to update in months and years to come.

Q. Why the 3-page limit?

A. Short business plans are in vogue, actually. In today’s day and age, investors (and judges) tell me they want the information fast and brief and will ask for more info as they need it. Learning to be concise is both a science and an art, and our judges (who are often in positions where they read a LOT of business plans) have told me over the years that in real life, if you don’t capture their attention in the first page or even the first paragraph, they will move on. Pro tip: Ask someone who doesn’t know anything about your business or business concept to read your plan, or at least the first few paragraphs, to make sure they understand it.

Also, though our judges are almost super-human, we can’t ask them to judge hundreds of full business plans.

Q. I entered last year but did not win. May I enter the same idea again?

A. Yes, we welcome repeaters, as long as you were not one of the top three winners. Freshen up that plan and try again. The second time was a charm for one of last year’s winners, AthleticSelect, who had been a finalist the year before. “The first year we entered, we saved the financials for last and ran out of time, thus having to guestimate and it showed. The judges weren’t impressed. Last year, we began with the financials, performed in-depth research, bench-marked our numbers versus the competition and nailed our financials – a significant improvement over the previous year,” said Travis Smith, the CEO.

If your plan is for an existing business, however, it cannot be more than two years old.

Q. May I enter more than one business idea?

A. Yes, as long as they are separate entries.

Q. Why don’t you have a social entrepreneurship track?

A. We welcome social entrepreneurial companies in all our tracks. We’ve had several winners in recent years with social impact missions, particularly in the high school track. The plan must be for a for-profit business, not a nonprofit.

Q. May I enter both the Community and FIU tracks with the same plan?

A. Nope, pick one. For the FIU Track, at least one member of your top management team must be either a student of alumnus of that university.

Q. My daughter is in the eighth grade – may she enter in the High School Track?

A. Yes, we welcome ambitious middle school students in the High School Track. Good luck to her.

Q. What is the biggest mistake people make when they enter?

A. A lot of entrants spend too much of their precious three pages talking about all the features of their product or service and don’t include enough about the problem it solves, your target market, your business model and how you plan to make money, your team, your financials and your marketing strategy.

Another judge comment I see on a lot of plans: Think bigger. A lot of entrants have concepts with market growth potential but don’t express how they would expand beyond their initial markets.

Q. Any other tips?

A. Lots. Show your passion. Make every word count. Keep each section brief – bullet points are your friend. Don’t forget financials -– judges want to see you have thought through startup and operating costs and would like to see projections for at least the first three years. Don’t wait till the last minute. Find more advice and tips on Miamiherald.com/challenge.

More questions? Email ndahlberg@miamiherald.com and follow me on Twitter @ndahlberg. Check back on this story often as I will be adding questions as I get them.

Business Plan Bootcamp recap

Want expert advice on crafting a short business plan and pitching your company to investors? If you missed our Miami Herald Business Plan Bootcamp Feb. 18, see our recap on the event here.

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