Entrepreneurship education: competition simulation

As an entrepreneur, and former video game designer I love the idea of active learning and making it fun. Below is a description of one of the simulations I run in my classes. In it I put the students in the shoes of the judges for a competition they hope to actually enter later in the semester. The results have been fantastic! I don’t have to lecture the students on the importance of preparation and getting their grammar right – and then being ignored. Instead, they judge the simulated applicants and then end up being harsher then the real judges I recruit each semester :). I ask them simply "Now that you have been through this, how can you ensure you would place well in such a competition." And they tell ME how important grammar and preparation are. I never had to say a word. MAGIC! 🙂

Here is the description of the simulation activity from the course syllabus:

Simulation: Concept Competition

Every Fall & Spring semester the UMass Amherst Entrepreneurship Initiative holds a concept competition where students get a chance to win real cash to start their ventures. The competition is judged by representatives from a diverse range of flavors of capital, giving the students a taste of what it will be like to raise money. This competition is similar in design to hundreds of others around the country and a nice example of the Small Grants & Competitions flavor of capital.

In this simulation you play the role of one of these judges, a successful alum of this class who has been asked to come back and help the next generation of crazy young entrepreneurs. You are given the exact same materials as the competition judges in the real event. The contestants’ applications are all actual applications that have come in over the years (slightly modified to protect the identities and core ideas of the teams).

In phase I of the simulation we replicate what the first round of any fund raising process is like – dealing with a flood of applicants. You get a stack of >30 submissions (called executive summaries). That’s >60 pages of content to read. Each idea is loved passionately by its authors. These companies come from more than a dozen different industries. To evaluate a company fairly you will need to spend a significant amount of time exploring the trends and characteristics of it’s industry (assuming the industry is well defined). That would normally take >10 hours per company. Scared yet?

Clearly, you do not have enough time to evaluate all of the teams as fully as would seem fair. So why did I set you up to fail? Because in real life no one has enough time. Funders are forced to “triage” applicant pools and find time-efficient means to analyze companies. I have found that when students get to personally experience the time pressures that funders go through, they are far better able to understand what must be done to get those funders’ attention.

Phase I’s activities focus around you deciding on, documenting, and using your own process for narrowing the pool of dozens of companies down to just a few. There is no right or wrong answer. I’m simply trying to show you, by the process of doing it, that some process, and a highly imperfect one, must be used. Once you realize that, you realize what key things your pitch will require to get through the first level of screening. I use everyone’s votes to narrow the pool down to a few finalists. To get specific details on what is required, view the written assignments associated with this phase by clicking on their links.

In Phase II we all drill down in more detail (although no where near as the ideal amount) on each finalist. You do your own due diligence, get a chance to pose questions to the finalists (I will be simulating them :)), and have a “closed door” discussion where just you judges get to chat with each other. Then you submit your final ranking and justification and we find out who wins our competition :).

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