43North competition is a must-see event

The 2016 rendition of the 43North competition for $5 million dollars was outstanding.  I attended the Thursday round-of-ten and am glad I did. The competitors were prepared, the businesses were interesting, the judges were polite as well as diligent, and the stage was audience friendly.

There were a couple of glitches in last year’s competition.

Last year’s cadre of combatants had several immature businesses, not bad ideas, just immature.  However, there here were more than a few that deserved the money and the attention. ACV Auctions was the crown jewel of last year’s competition. I had earlier reported that one of the judges was permitted to invest in ACV Auctions before the finals. I was not able to verify that assertion. Dan Magnuszewski told me that they now have 40 employees at ACV. These hires are good news for 43North and the Western New York economy.

The layout of the stage last year was an issue. The audience could only see what was going on by viewing the large screens. It was very disengaging. They corrected this, and I must say that this year’s competition was great entertainment and educational.

The following presents an overview of each of the competitors and how they fared. I graded each of the competitors and ranked them and then sent my rankings to Tom Ulbrich of CEL and Sam Marrazzo of SuperiorGroup by 5pm on October 27th. The finals started at 6:30 pm that evening. The 43North Judges composite ranking was inferred from the email press release and Sunday Buffalo News article. They did not put the $500,000 names in alphabetical order, so I assumed that this was a composite judge ranking.

Here are the results with my ranking.

  1. $1,000,0000 Oncolinxcombines an antibody that only targets tumor cancer cells with a toxin (Azonafide) that kills cancer cells.  Great idea and many pharmaceutical partners. I ranked them 1.
  1. $600,000 HigherMe assists in finding, screening and hiring employees for retailers. Rob Hunter is an outstanding presenter. Tim Cook should hire him for launch days. I did not think the judges would rank HigherMe this high. I was wrong, and I actually agree with the judges after further reflection. I ranked them 6.
  1. $500,000 Asarasi  produces organic water that is bottled by Mayer Brothers as a byproduct of maple syrup production. Great story with significant sustainability implications. I ranked them 3.
  1. $500,000 UltraCell Insulation produces water-resistant building insulation from recycled corrugated cardboard. Now you have a use for those Amazon boxes. Great sustainability idea. I ranked them 5.
  1. $500,000 PathoVax  is a vaccine that targets all human papillomavirus viruses (HPV) that can cause cancers and other diseases. This looked like a no-brainer challenge for first place. But maybe the judges have better insight into this business than I did. I ranked them 2.
  1. $500,000 Formarum is a device that uses the existing swimming pool circulation system to chlorinate and disinfect swimming pools. It has an app, and it is self-monitoring.This was my favorite creative idea in the competition. This idea is so simple, yet powerful enough to be adapted to a wide variety of applications. Beautiful design and just cool. I ranked them 4.
  1. $500,000 WeDidIt assist nonprofits in mining existing donors to develop specialized targeting strategies and to assist with the entire fund-raising process. They can garner a tremendous amount of information from the email addresses of existing donors. I ranked them 7.
  1. $500,000 Bounce Imaging has a throwable 360-degree camera that can be used for first responders for disasters, fires, and police situations. Very intriguing idea. Getting local Buffalo police testimony was a good tactic. I would want 2 or 3 of these cameras in each responding vehicle. Might be a little pricey, at $2,300 plus. I ranked them 9.
  1. $10,000 The Wealth Factory design games to improve financial literacy to assist in preparing students to meet the financial core standards. This will be an important way for students to become more engaged in education. One of the judges does not play games. Ok, but if you want to understand the Millennials and Generation Z, you need to try them. They received $10,000 as the People’s Choice Winner. I ranked them 8.
  1. $0.00 Arthena is a crowdfunding platform that offers investors to invest  investing in artwork funds such as emerging art, modern masters, and contemporary art.  I think the judges were unsure about the concept and giving the 43North imprimatur.  This will probably end-up be making some people millions. Too many questions about this. I ranked them 10.
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Entrepreneurship is dead: long live entrepreneurship

Thomas R. Ulbrich and G. Lawrence Sanders

There are television shows, numerous blogs and endless social media posts all focused on entrepreneurship. It is finally “cool” to be an entrepreneur. Virtually every academic level from grade schools to high school talks about entrepreneurship. So goes the government. All levels of government are jumping on the entrepreneurship bandwagon. Billions of dollars have been thrown at startups and incubators by families, friends, angels, managed funds, universities and the government. Local, state and the federal government also have the ability to give the gift that keeps on giving, tax breaks.

According to research by the Kaufman Foundation, Austin, Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco, Las Vegas and New York, and Boston have the best startup ecosystems in the world. These ecosystems have the funding, the talent, and competitive density to facilitate new business development.

Despite the fact that the thought of becoming an entrepreneur is more popular than ever, some reports paint a slightly gloomier picture. The bad news is that the startup rate has fallen from 14% to 8% of total companies over the past 30 years. Unicorns, companies with a $1Billion valuation, are also on the decline and a  growing concern. The Financial Times attributes the decline to a lack of access to capital, stifling regulatory requirements, increases in entrepreneurial activity by large companies, and increases in student debt and a very cautious workforce. A recent article in Forbes echoes these sentiments and adds, the Walmartization of America due to Walmart’s infrastructure and buying power.

Part of the decline relates to the nature of the beast. Startups fail. And the workforce is well aware of the situation. It is common to hear of failure rates between 80 and 90%. Other sources paint a somewhat rosier picture.  According to Scott Shane, in Small Business Trends, larger and older companies have a better chance of survival. About half are still around after five years.

Entrepreneurship is not dead.

It is morphing, changing and penetrating every aspect of traditional business as we know itMarketing, finance accounting, organizational behavior, and operations have assimilated the entrepreneurship. Marketing for startups focuses on engagement via viral and social networking strategies. Startups eschew traditional channels used for legacy and mature products.  Using traditional capital budgeting is just not appropriate for startups. Financial analysis for startups uses a combination of real options theory and qualitative models for evaluation. The ideal composition of startup teams draws on a different literature than traditional team literature. Startups need engagement marketing specialists, product designers and prototyping specialists, experts with infrastructure knowledge for configuring cloud-based applications that are scalable and of course the charismatic visionary. Accounting for startups is all about forecasting and cash-flows. Operations involve a constant struggle to scale production up and down.  And how to leverage and address the Amazonification and Walmartization  of supply chains.

Oh, and don’t forget strategic planning. Traditional planning approaches are confusing, cumbersome, take too long and just not agile. One-page business plans, pitch decks, lean startup approaches and the numerous templates to assist in identifying an opportunity are replacing the traditional strategic planning approaches.  This simplified planning allows entrepreneurs to react quickly in response to customer feedback, providing an iterative process that spirals in on the best products and services.

No, entrepreneurship is not dead. It is being assimilated into every nook and cranny of successful businesses. Many large organizations have embraced entrepreneurship because they understand that products and technologies have a life-cycle, that consumers will always be attracted to the next big- thing, and because large companies have the resources to invest in entrepreneurship.   Being entrepreneurial is the best way to delay and even prevent, the natural decline of business.

Illuminati is the new name for the CIO and Technology Evangelist

Illuminati has slowly creeped into the common vernacular to mean someone possessing unique insight, enlightenment or knowledge. I propose, partly with tongue-in-cheek, that organizations should have a Chief Illumination Officer or Chief Illuminati Officer rather than a Chief Information Officer or a Technology Evangelist. The illuminati responsibility is directly related to the CIO as an entrepreneur.

As noted by McKinsey&Company, the CIOs typical responsibilities of running the IT function as a utility by keeping the lights on and facilitating business performance is evolving. The CIO is now being asked to be a venture capitalist or an angle investor. They seek, incubate and accelerate promising ideas by monitoring emerging technologies and invest accordingly. One of my good friends has actually been at the forefront of this trend and has been quite successful at keeping the lights on, facilitating business performance and being an entrepreneur.

What should be at the core of these responsibilities? I have identified several levels of investment activities, or options, that the CIO should engage in. They imply increasing levels of investment commitment.

  1. Have someone investigate an emerging technology or product and report back
  2. Develop an early paper prototype of emerging technology or product
  3. Develop a more refined prototype of the emerging technology or product
  4. Attend conferences, discuss with illuminati, talk to vendors, search and gather additional information on technology and develop a whitepaper on market growth and potential
  5. Develop a more refined prototype of the emerging technology or product
  6. Use the emerging technology to develop a version of an existing product model
  7. Scale-up production and introduce a new product line.

After each level of investment, the CIO along with the relevant parties (potential customers, employees and management) can discuss and provide feedback. The feedback and discussion should eventually lead to making a decision to invest more resources, continue monitoring, or perhaps abandoning further investment.

The implications are profound for organizations and for the CIO. Entrepreneurship is now a core competency requirement for the CIO. The good news is that much of contemporary entrepreneurship is about monitoring emerging technologies, and then designing, building, launching and maintaining business systems. This is natural territory for individuals with an IT background.

Preparing to Pitch your Idea

(This blog was co-authored with Thomas Ulbrich)

We have watched many business presentations over the past year. Some of the ideas are relevant to the existing business climate and could result in a sustainable business. We will call those ideas viable businesses.  Some of the ideas are not viable because they are too late, too early or too immature. They are just impractical in the current business context. We will call those business models impractical.

There is sometimes a mismatch between receiving funding and the viability of the idea. Some of the impractical ideas receive funding and some of the viable ideas do not receive any funding.

There are a variety of reasons that impractical ideas get the attention and the money. Impractical models sometimes have founders with a track record and they also have connections. Sometimes it is related to the nature of the idea. For example, complex science and trendy technology-based models always draw attention because of the cool factor.

Communication is the key to obtaining funding regardless of whether the idea is viable or impractical. If you have a viable idea that is being ignored; you are not communicating your idea effectively. We have prepared some slides that will help you craft an interesting and unique presentation.

The pitching slides on Prepping and Delivery can be found here. The slides are adapted from Garr Reynolds, David Rose, Seth Godin, Mary Ann Rogers and others. Photos are from Flickr and are Creative Commons-licensed content and from NASA. It is a large file.

In the near future, we will present a set of slides that will focus on the business model content of the presentation.

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs was the prototypical example of failure leading to success. Steve Jobs was always an experimenter and a doer. Although some of Apple’s products, such as the Newton, Power Mac G4 Cube, Next computers  the Lisa, and Apple TV, were considered  failures, he bounced back numerous times and introduced dazzlingly exceptional products that have and still are dominating the market. He was a superb example  of an experimenter who sometimes failed in the marketplace, but learned from his mistakes and achieved subsequent success. This is the hallmark of the serial entrepreneur. He realized that technology does not just die out or become obsolete, it just becomes part and parcel of a new technology. His  entrepreneurial mojo will be difficult to replace.

{Adaptated from book}