My most difficult moment Monday as a judge at this year's Wharton Business Plan Competition -- aside from when I realized there wasn’t time to run out for a Pat's cheesesteak -- was when one of finalists whose plan didn’t win top-three honors asked me after the awards ceremony, "Where did we go wrong?" Parents and friends looked on dejectedly.
Business 2.0 sponsored the competition, and as a Wharton alum (MBA '94) I offered to serve as a judge. I was joined in judging duties by an impressive group of venture capitalists, corporate-strategy folks and entrepreneurs, like Sienna Ventures’ Dan Skaff and Microsoft’s Salman Ullah. We received eight finalists' plans by mail. Each group had about 30 minutes to pitch us in person.
There’s a list of all the company ideas here. (I’ll respect other judges' requests that our deliberations would be off the record, so nothing on that.) We picked as the winner an outfit called InfraScan, which is trying to commercialize a portable scanner for detecting head injuries -- potentially saving money on needless, more expensive CT scans and saving lives by allowing faster treatment. They got $15K in cash, plus legal and accounting services.
What I told the young man who asked me what he did wrong was that he did nothing wrong. Whether he or his company or any of the others who presented go on to great things will not be determined by a business plan competition. If Page and Brin showed up pitching Google, our judging team would probably have flunked them (Yahoo had search sewn up, right?). There are a million reasons why any venture (or any business initiative, for that matter) won’t make it -- there are as many for winner InfraScan as there are for the others. Yet there is only one that makes it succeed, which is the will and determination to try something, fail, and get back on your feet. That shows up not during a business plan competition, but after it.