by Erick R. Schmidt // Spring 2010
In times of financial uncertainty, finding solid footing for a new business is one of the largest conundrums facing entrepreneurs. A competition within the UMKC Bloch School’s Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation is putting an emphasis on new venture creation, and teams from within the institute have shown reason for hope.
The Regnier Family Foundations’ Venture Creation Challenge is a University-wide competition with teams made up of students from all academic areas. Teams develop original or existing concepts and present them to investors, entrepreneurs and business owners from around the area. The program’s goal is two-fold, aiming to get fresh ideas into the market as well as preparing the next generation of Kansas City’s entrepreneurs, says Phil Needles, programs manager at the institute. “When you’re there to pitch your idea to 50 business owners with experience, that’s real. Let’s give them that experience before they’re outside of school,” Needles says. “It’s our objective and our obligation to do exactly that.”
The competition began in 2006 but has recently undergone a structural makeover. In the past, winners received a cash prize and an option to use the student incubator, among other perks. Last year, it was restructured into a $15,000 launch package that winners received only if their idea was launched.
Needles says the challenge fits perfectly with the institute’s goal to create an ecosystem where all varieties of business can flourish. The challenge brings together multi-disciplinary teams from across UMKC. “It’s about the business of entrepreneurship,” he says. “We’re giving them the tools to be successful at some point. We strive to have them go quickly into venture creation, but that’s not everyone. Hopefully they leave with the tools to do it when it is right for them.”
Steve Timperley (M.B.A. ’07) is one of the challenge’s success stories, though he quickly points out that his business is still in the growth phase. Timperley was one of the event’s winners in 2008, earning a chance to further develop his business in the institute’s student incubator. His company, Tencap Tennis, began as software to measure the skill level of players and has grown to a social networking tool that helps players find one another. “There’s a very good chance that had I not gone through the Venture Creation Challenge, I may not have started the business,” Timperley says. “The challenge was an awesome vehicle for me to put the business plan together.”
He says competing in the challenge helped him put the theories he developed in the classroom to work. “You’re actually getting the experience,” he says. “You’re in a trade show and you’ve got to sell your product to investors. It’s very different from learning the theory in the classroom.”
Brendan O’Shaughnessy (B.A. ’09) and Chad Owen (B.A. ’10) are friends who took an idea developed during high school and turned it into a Venture Creation Challenge winner. Though Owen was a business major at UMKC and O’Shaughnessy a graduate of the UMKC art department, they were able to collaborate on their entry. Lovesick Clothing is the Christian-themed T-shirt company they created for the challenge, and they both have enjoyed the ups and downs of their first experience as entrepreneurs. “It forced us to formulate our thoughts cohesively,” O’Shaughnessy says. “Now the big hurdle is having to reformulate now that we’re finishing school. We’ve seen it become successful by putting in time and effort, and we want to continue to push forward.”
Owen is careful to temper his thoughts about the success of the company, which he hopes to grow into a national brand. “Before, if we failed, it didn’t matter. Success is still relative, but being in the position where we want to be, we haven’t accomplished yet,” Owen says. “We have always been extremely positive and illogically optimistic, but now that’s balanced with a realistic view of what’s going on.”
Student Ryan Konen is another example of a student who may not have considered venture creation if not for the challenge. He learned about the Venture Creation Challenge through a course called Technical Entrepreneurship in the UMKC School of Computing and Engineering. Konen says that while he was able to see the project from an engineering perspective, he learned there was much more to starting a business, including the business and legal sides. “You’re thrown into a group of people who you might not typically work with, but you learn to work together,” Konen says. “It’s like the real world, being hired into a team atmosphere. That’s a great experience.”
Konen’s team, Fun Flotations, won one of the 2009 launch packages with their electric watercraft designed for social lounging. Though the team elected not to pursue a full launch, Konen’s interest in venture creation was piqued by the challenge. “I go through every day wondering how I could make things better,” he says. “If I think of something (in the future), I have a better idea of how to pursue it.”
The Bloch School’s emphasis on entrepreneurship has paid off, as the Princeton Review named the school one of the top 25 graduate entrepreneurship programs in the nation. The ranking was based on academics and requirements, students and faculty, and outside-the-classroom experiences. It was UMKC’s first appearance on the annual list. “IEI has one of the largest and highest quality entrepreneurship faculties in the world,” says Institute Executive Director Michael Song, Ph.D. “We continue to develop new paradigms for entrepreneurship research and education, creating models others will follow.”