Blog: Diane Durance

And the winner is... Diane Durance, executive director of Great Lakes Entrepreneur's Quest, is here this week to discuss the GLEQ business plan competition for aspiring entrepreneurs. In June, one start-up will win the $100K SmartZone award. In a time when there's talk of taking the nickel out of nickels, a few Gs can mean the difference between boom or bust.

Post 1: In Praise of Contests

As you'd expect from someone running a business plan competition, I'm a big fan of competitions -- make that a huge fan. And it appears I'm not alone. Even the Obama Administration is using contests to spur innovation within its ranks.

I didn't always feel this way. In fact, when I first took the position at Great Lakes Entrepreneur's Quest, I firmly believed the value of the entrepreneurial education programs we offered exceeded the slightly dubious value of offering cash awards to winners in a contest.  Oh boy, was I wrong. I wasn't seeing the big picture.

I had my eyes opened pretty quickly, when I met with a member of the GLEQ Board of Directors -- Bob Skandalaris. Bob is a remarkable Michigan-based entrepreneur, author, and philanthropist. He wrote Rebuilding the American Dream; Restoring American Jobs and Competitiveness through Innovation and Entrepreneurship. He's the founder of Noble International Ltd. and Quantum Associates, among other companies, and responsible for establishing the Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. A key driver in the success of the WU entrepreneurial program is (surprise!) the Olin Cup Business Plan Competition.

Here's what I learned in my first meeting with Bob: Big Prizes are important, but not for the obvious reason. It's not because $100,000 helps a start-up more than $5,000, although it does -- it's because  big prizes get attention and trigger a positive cycle of activity. I know for a fact he's right. We'll be presenting the $100,000 SmartZone Award for the first time at our awards event on June 10.

The SmartZone Award was announced when we launched this round of the GLEQ Business Plan Competition. In response, we had 302 entrepreneurs register for the competition, up from 175 in the fall. More and better plans lead to more engagements with coaches and mentors, more attendance at educational and networking events, more interest from investors, more support from sponsors, and more publicity. And if Bob's experience proves out here, we'll see the deals get done -- leading to greater participation on all fronts next time around -- and ultimately, a healthier economy in Michigan.
Done right, with a strategy to use a contest as part of a more comprehensive ecosystem of entrepreneurial support -- business plan competitions work on multiple levels. First and foremost, they work with human nature. People love to compete and win -- and most people are amazingly deadline driven. We love to win money and have our plans validated. Entrepreneurs especially, because they're passionate about their ideas and desperate for money.

Having deadlines spurs action. Think about 8 a.m. Friday, March 5, 182 entrepreneurs were registered to participate in the competition. By the 5 p.m. deadline, 302 were signed up. I guarantee that those 120 entrepreneurs did not find out about GLEQ that day. Like many of us, they took action when the deadline was looming.

Contests are also a clever marketing gimmick. You don't have to spend a fortune to get the word out about all the entrepreneurial programs, organization,  and events going on in Michigan. Which is a huge challenge, because there are a lot -- and the names are confusing (SBTDC, EISEM, NEF, BBC, SmartZones, to name just a few). When you announce  $100,000 awards -- word gets around.

Instead of all of us desperately seeking  entrepreneurs -- they self-identify. Once we know who they are, it's easy to let them know what's going on. GLEQ sends out a monthly calendar of entrepreneurial events to 8,000 addresses, we support university business plan competitions and direct our readers to membership organizations, educational programs, and opportunities to get in front of investors. 

So next time you hear about a business plan competition and think it's frivolous, remember GLEQ. We'll be presenting  $250,000 in awards in June -- in a competition that is engaging 302 entrepreneurs, 130 coaches, and 100 investors in a cycle of activity that's advancing entrepreneurial activity in Michigan.

Tomorrow: Do You Have 'The Right Stuff' for Entrepreneurship? You'd be Surprised.