Business plan

Twenty years later, the business plan competition still puts students to the test

SUMMARY: The Gateway program prepares students for the stage.

By David Doremus

Long before “Shark Tank” memes became pop culture fodder, faculty members at the JMU College of Business had students role-play some of the same business fundamentals that have become iconic tropes of the reality show, including market niche, valuation accuracy, capital structure, and polished and sophisticated presentation.

These early forays into engaged learning had evolved, by 1998, in COB 300 – a core curriculum anchored by a central project that requires each team of students to develop their own plan to build a business from scratch.

Student teams formulate their business plans while learning and integrating the fundamentals of finance, management, marketing, and operations through the completion of 12 credit hours of weekly in-class work. Often described as the “gateway” to the College of Business, the COB 300 is typically taken in the first year, after a student is formally accepted into the program.

“They have to get down to business,” says Fernando Pargas, senior lecturer in management and COB 300 coordinator. ever take.

“Students learn that it’s not just about an isolated discipline, it’s about being creative and innovative to help take the organization to the next level,” says Michael Busing, dean of the College of Business. . “The culminating experience is the business plan – and the opportunity it deserves to be considered for the annual business plan competition.”

The competition, which is in its 20and year, was created by Don Rainey (ʼ82), who remains one of the main figures involved in organizing its annual renewal. It is scheduled for March 25 at 3 p.m. at Hartman Hall in the College of Business Learning Complex.

With more than $25,000 in prize money up for grabs, the competition is in some ways similar to “Shark Tank” and its imitators, where entrepreneurs pitch ideas to potential investors in hopes of finding one with pockets. deep enough to give life to their fledgling projects.

For the 2022 “Platinum Edition” of the competition, which was first held in 2003, COB 300 faculty members selected a dozen plans from more than 100 created during the spring semesters, summer and fall of the previous year. These 12 were reviewed and evaluated, then whittled down to just five deemed worthy of a place in the finals.

Sarah Knecht (ʼ19), co-MVP of Safe & Sound, the 2019 winner, says there was a noticeable shift in her team’s perspective after receiving the email telling them they had been selected as finalists. “We started realizing,” she says, “that maybe it wasn’t just for a grade in a class — it could be part of something bigger.”

“For us, the chance to win a scholarship was really important,” says Brett Danielson (ʼ19), MVP of the 2018 winning team. “We all had student debt, so it was a big deal for us to compete. where there would be real rewards if we did something right.”

The enduring value of the competition also derives in large part from the coaching and wise counsel the teams receive from the competition judges. Chief among them is Rainey, the event’s founder and most passionate advocate.

“The business plan competition is usually the first opportunity for students to demonstrate their skills with real value at stake,” says Rainey. “In-class lectures, seminars and discussions are important, but the competition goes further by testing the real-world application of what they have learned” – with significant monetary benefits at stake.

Over the two decades of the competition’s existence, more than 100 teams, representing nearly 650 individual team members, have participated. More than 90 judges have dedicated their time and business acumen to helping shape the entrepreneurs and executives of tomorrow.

“Students can interact with engaged, high-caliber, successful adults,” says Rainey. “The presence of the judges validates them as future peers.”

The quality and execution of the presentation and the ensuing question-and-answer session weigh among the criteria for assessing business plans, as does the originality of the idea of ​​a team and its potential. profitability. Teams are also asked about the details of their plans when it comes to the four core disciplines – finance, management, marketing and operations.

Danielson, for whom the chance to win a scholarship was among the competition’s main attractions, is now CEO of BarTrack Technologies, LLC, the company that evolved from his team’s winning idea. BarTrack is the developer and marketer of a technology solution that helps bars, breweries and restaurants manage their inventory and ultimately eliminate waste.

“The problem we analyzed in the business plan competition was why we ended up creating an actual product,” says Danielson.

“I can definitely say that my life would be completely different” without the competition, he says. Danielson has more than 20 current and former JMU students who joined him in launching BarTrack, either as employees, investors or advisors.

“We’ve taken the entrepreneurial journey,” he says, “from running the business from our living room to now, where we have offices and a manufacturing facility.” Danielson proudly notes that the company has not only survived the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, but has “grew significantly” in the process.

He will return to campus this year to serve on the jury for the 2022 competition.

For Rainey, the competition’s greatest reward is witnessing the process by which student-participants like Danielson become business professionals.

“Personal growth is moving to see,” he says. “Students go on stage with all their fears, anxieties and doubts. The transformation that occurs in just a few hours is something to behold.

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