Three Things Every Startup Should Do, As Inspired by UW Business Competition

I overheard some crucial advice for young startups while helping judge the UW Business Plan competition on Tuesday. As I worked the room, I compared notes on the various teams with some well-established entrepreneurs like Steve McCracken of CultureMob, Brent Lamphier of Athleon, Nathan Kaiser of nPost, and Marcelo Calbucci of Sampa and Seattle 2.0.

I came away with three things every startup should be doing, no matter what stage they’re at. These steps may seem obvious, but it’s easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day details of running and/or pitching a small company.

Focus on one thing. Whether you make a location-based tracking device, an energy-efficient motor, or a social network for job-seekers, carve out the specific market you’re going after. And then make your product a must-have for that market, using every possible competitive advantage you have. Do what you do better than anyone else, but don’t try to do it all.

Work on what you’re passionate about. Every successful startup has a story about why it does what it does. That story should ring true with the founders’ backgrounds and expertise. Investors (and customers) can tell right away if a company representative is going through the motions.

Cut to the chase. What is your company doing that’s special? How is it different from your competitors? People will decide whether your company sounds promising in the first 30 seconds of your pitch, so make sure you answer those questions upfront.

Overall, it was a great event. Some 200-odd judges were involved, and the HUB ballroom was packed for most of the afternoon. Connie Bourassa-Shaw, the head of the UW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, told me she was more than thrilled with the quality of the student teams and the turnout. “The Business Plan competition ranks up there with the best investment forums around town,” she beamed.

No argument here. I hope to post some more thoughts on the advancing teams as we get closer to the final round of competition on May 21.

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4 responses to “Three Things Every Startup Should Do, As Inspired by UW Business Competition”

  1. Shawn Plaster says:

    As a judge in the past and a participant working the booth this year (helping some friends with their idea, TalkHealth), it was a fun event. Some observations from the other side:

    * General consensus from several judges is the ad revenue model is not working. Interesting catch-22, ad model doesn’t work so don’t bother, but you cannot implement a subscription-based revenue model without an established large community; can’t create a large community if you charge them from the start. I know content / participation is key to solving the riddle but it’s a daunting task for those starting out on a shoestring budget.
    * Great to interact with some judges who were interested in truly helping the participants with their business model (e.g., Lara Feltin of Biznik spent a lot of time talking to Bas Kamphuis of TalkHealth about how to protect your community; Chris Howard of Ignition shared a lot of relevant information about community building; Galen Ward of Estately stressed the importance of exposing content to maximize organic search traffic).

    Overall, it was great to see such a huge turnout.