The Vac Pack Shack – Critique of UCF’s business plan competitions

In Feb, I (along with my co founders) attended UCF’s elevator pitch competition organized by Center of Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CEI) to pitch our company Gotootie Inc. 13 other teams participated in the competition.The panel of judges consisted of 4 people (UCF alumni) from various backgrounds. If I recollect correctly, their backgrounds consisted of real estate, insurance and technology staffing. Unfortunately, none of them had a pure technology background (a person working/owning a technology staffing company does not qualify him/her to be of ‘technology’ background). As the business plan competitions are never marketed strongly in the science and technology departments by CEI, ours was the only team having any relations with science and technology department.

The judges selected 4 winners. First position went to company called ‘Vac Pack Shack’. It is a niche e-commerce company that sells ‘zip lock’ like bags in customizable sizes. Second position went to a water bottle company (I fail to recall its name). They manufacture water bottles,as a self contained units, that generates clean drinking water from dirty water. Obviously, the target segment is the set of people who do not have access to clean drinking water. There were around 5 information technology focused companies and as expected none of them made it to the top 4. According to me , this is a direct result of the panel lacking necessary technology background. The panel simply did not understand the technology businesses. For example, they did not even question the intellectual property or the technology related to the water bottle. Any panel with technology background could have raised these questions as they are extremely important to the viability of the business. All the other stuff, like the structure of the actual pitch, is irrelevant if your technology cannot be proven or protected.

Over last couple of years, I have had various conversations with people connected to CEI. From those conversations, I gather that one of the main aims of CEI is to foster entrepreneurship in the science and technology (S & T) departments. This is very important and relevant goal for CEI as UCF has very strong science and technology (School of EECS, Biomedical, CREOL, Industrial etc etc) departments but they lack entrepreneurial focus. These schools and departments are definitely stronger and well known than College of Business. If this is the case, why did the panel of judges, not contain a single ‘technology’ judge. Thus, I believe there is a major disconnect between CEI aims and their actions. One of the reasons could be CEI’s lack of contacts (or lack of clout) in the technology industry. Even though, Orlando is not a technology hub there are few respectable technology companies in the Orlando area (Oracle, Symantec , EA sports, Harris Corporation, etc etc.) .I guess it wont be too difficult to tap into these resources for such competitions.

The judges also performed poorly. They acted as conservative investors. They only picked businesses with mature business models that they could understand. How difficult is it to understand the business models of ‘Vac Pack Shack’ and the water bottle company? I guess, not too difficult. The judges of academic business plan competitions are meant to act as maverick, early stage, high risk investors. This helps to promote unconventional business ideas which otherwise would not get the required exposure. The judges acted in the exact opposite direction and this showed when they selected the winners. We were so disillusioned by this that we decided against entering ‘Joust’ which is the annual business plan competition. Our instincts were spot on as the ‘Vac Pack Shack’ went on to win the business plan competition.

As long as the judging focus for the UCF business plan competitions remains on very mature and easy to understand business models, like Vac Pack Shack, and winners are selected based on these criteria, UCF will never foster entrepreneurship in the S & T departments.

a) heavily market their competitions in the science and technology departments.
b) Make sure judges have necessary technology backgrounds.
c) develop strong relationships with local technology companies.
d) Make entrepreneurship seminars compulsory, much like technical EECS seminars.
e) Fund a student run technology entrepreneurship organization.

Can entrepreneurship be taught?

Before, answering the above question, let us try to answer another question, “Can you teach someone to fight for a cause?”.The answer, in my opinion, is big emphatic “No”. Who taught Mahatma Gandhi to fight for India’s Independence? I hope you agree with me when I say that no one really taught him to pick this cause and fight for it, unto death. Although, you can’t teach an individual to pick a cause and fight for it, you certainly can inspire him/her to do so.

I consider entrepreneurship to be a cause, a cause to solve a certain problem that you are passionate about,a cause to create jobs, a cause to create wealth, a cause to stimulate the economy.  Now, How do you teach students to take up this cause? Well, you can’t.Thus, in my opinion, entrepreneurship can never be taught in a traditional class setting. The entrepreneurship classes offered by most business schools can certainly teach some useful tools, but, an entrepreneur does not need them from the get go. He/She is better off learning them on demand.

To create entrepreneurs, universities/colleges should brand entrepreneurship as a “cool” and “exciting” cause and inspire all of its students to be associated with it. They should create an agent on campus that continuously draws students to this cause and spreads the “entrepreneurship” message that

  1. It is “ok” to take high risks.
  2. It is “ok” to be overtly optimist.
  3. It is “ok” not to enter the traditional 9 to 5 workforce.

Also,one of the most effective ways of nurturing entrepreneurship on campus, is to hire faculties that are entrepreneurs and not just entrepreneurial.

In short, to create entrepreneurs, universities/colleges should stop teaching (it doesn’t work anyways) and start inspiring future entrepreneurs.