In entrepreneurial circles, there’s been a lot of debate about business plan competitions, with wide disagrement about whether they create any value or are worth the time that’s put into them. Entrepreneurs like Steve Blank have even started their own competitions to break out of the traditional “business plan” mold.
Many complain that the current breed of competitions is nothing more than a beauty contest. And to an extent I agree; no fledgling business wants to be known for a good looks and inadequate substance. But as a participant in numerous competitions (including Rice University’s, Wake Forests’ Elevator Competition, Accelerate Michigan, and the Michigan Business Challenge), I have observed three distinct benefits that these competitions provide for entrepreneurs.
The 2011 Are You a Human team holds a giant check from the Rice University Business Plan Competition
- Deadlines. Deadlines drive action. I am constantly pulled in multiple directions (businesses, school, family, church), and dedicating time to work on just one thing is scarce. But if you’re working on a startup in conjunction with several other activities, the structure a deadline provides is essential. Competitions force our team to concentrate our efforts and get stuff done—even pulling all-nighters if needed. Even if you’re working on a startup full-time, a deadline can help add some pressure to doing customer discovery, launching, or getting a pitch ready for investors.
- The lesson that it’s more important to learn than to win. Be forewarned: if winning is your only focus, you might be inclined to leave important information out of your pitch and only present the details that makes you look best. True, those numbers can impress judges and tell a hypnotizing story, and they might even lead you to win some money. But you don’t want to get addicted to big numbers in fancy presentations at the expense of real data. The real value of a business plan competition lies in discovering a viable business model for your idea, or discovering that there isn’t one. Competitions are also an opportunity to build your network, as judges are usually either potential customers or potential investors. The late nights and fierce rivalries of competitions are only a glimpse of the rocky road many startups face as they get going, so take criticism, look at the holes in your vision for the company, and engage with experts in your field.
- Validation. Business plan competitions provide the most value for fledgling businesses that need an opportunity to focus very early on and determine validity. For them, there can be huge value in getting a chunk of change that will allow for some more runway. On the other hand, for businesses that already have funding or a proven market, business plan competitions can be distractions that kills progress. They may be awarded $2,000 or even $1 million, but the time and energy put into the event could have equaled a potential customer or finished prototype worth 10 times that amount. It’s a trade-off, and a balance must be struck.
Yes, business plan competitions can stall progress or be distractions, but they can also provide real rewards. If you’re thinking about entering one, don’t throw away the good with the bad.
Give a businessman a database report and you’ll satiate him for 5 minutes. Teach him how to use a tool to find the information himself, and he’ll be satiated for a lifetime. Well, maybe not that long, but at least you’ll get a chance to write code for a change instead of “SELECT * FROM.”
Much of my time here is spent developing internal tools for other employees to use, or trying to “program myself out of a job.” There is never a shortage of projects to work on. There are more users to manage, more games to create, more customizable functionality to add, and more ways of anaylizing our data every day. And if we’re going to continue to grow our user base, I can’t be writing queries by hand everytime we want to know what account is associated with what email. That’d be absurd.
The tag manager is just one of many beautifully-designed internal tools we use each day, in this case to look up information about customers’ email addresses.
Developing tools for others to use allows them to interact with parts of the system they would otherwise be unfamiliar with. I’ve written tools to manage which customers get served which games, tools to manage what emails we send out, and tools to display hundreds of bananas in a browser. I’d rather not be a code monkey completeing monotonous tasks, so these tools let me move on to more interesting things.
Like watching a video of a man getting hit in the face with a fish.
“Tech support.” Are there any two more dreaded words in the English language? Since the dawn of the computer age, support has been a hated job and the butt of lame jokes. When I was first told that part of my job would involve doing support, I almost vomited. Here are just a few of the pleasures I thought I’d be subjected to:
- Answering the same questions over and over again
- Being “yelled” at (a.k.a. emailed at in all caps)
- Being asked to do impossible things
- Praying for the sweet release of death
Yes, I was decidedly unexcited to start doing support. But it turns out I was completely wrong. Here’s why.
This is the image that came up when I searched for “tech support.” Sadly, no one at Are You a Human is as good-looking as this guy.
1. Support makes people happy.
It’s a surprising paradox that customers often like you more if you successfully help them with a problem than they would if they had never encountered that problem in the first place. It’s all about expectations: we don’t get excited when a product we buy works—after all, that’s what we expect. But we do get excited when we get great support, since we so often expect the opposite. Our customers are often thrilled to get a quick, friendly response from a real person, and it makes me happy to see them happy.
2. Support provides a direct connection to our customers
Doing support is about more than responding to problems on a case-by-case basis. Over time, talking to our customers every day gives me a sense of what parts of PlayThru are working well and what parts can be improved. Vanilla games and BuddyPress support are just two of the features that came about because repeated support requests told us you guys were interested in them.
Plus, it gives our customers a direct connection to us, and that’s an area where we can really shine as a small company. Email most companies and you’ll get a response from a random employee who probably won’t know—or care—much about your problem. It’s different with us. Have a problem with the WordPress plugin? There’s a good chance the guy who wrote that plugin will be the one to email you back.
3. People are nice!
When I first started doing support, I expected that people would be angry. We all get pissed off when technology gives us problems. And sure, some people do write in using language that’s unprintable on this blog. (A personal pet peeve: when people send angry support requests with fake emails, like firstname.lastname@example.org. Why waste your time and mine writing in to support if you’re going to make it impossible for me to respond?)
But for the most part, the people I talk to are all extremely patient and gracious. Would it be going too far to say that doing support has restore my faith in humanity? Yeah, that probably would be going too far. But still.
So there you have it: the amazing true story of someone who actually likes doing support. The next time you need tech support—from anyone, Human or not—don’t forget that there’s a real person on the other end of the computer. Oh, and the first person to write into our support telling me that they’ve read this blog post will get a special prize. Let the games begin!
Starting a company is very risky. It is cliché at this point to say, but the basic truth remains. What does very risky mean?
- Rarely having a burnrate of more than 6 months.
- Deferring your loan payments for multiple years.
- Not being able to tell your significant other if the company is going to succeed or implode.
- Not saving any money, at all.
It is certainly not for the money that you join. My fellow graduates of the Ross School of Business have a median income of $110,000, and I can guarantee that is far above what I make now. Yes, there is the dream/hope/plan of building a successful company that will be bought or IPO for yacht-buying money, but if that is your sole motivation, you will surely fail.
The reasons I joined Are You a Human, however, far outweigh those risks.
I get to choose who I work with. And I choose to work with this ragtag crew of misfits and dreamers. How many hours of your life are you at work? I get to spend those hours with people I truly enjoy hanging out with.
I am passionate about our product. This is not about a paycheck. It’s about creating something new in this world that has a positive effect on our users, ourselves, and the Internet as a whole. These chances are few and far between.
The learning curve is steep and fantastic. Every job should continuously teach and challenge you, but being your own boss beats all other opportunities. Nothing gets done if you don’t put it in motion.
Whenever you join a startup, make sure it’s for the right reasons.
We like to joke that CAPTCHA provides a criminally bad user experience, but here’s a report about insecure CAPTCHAs enabling actual crime. From security researcher Dancho Danchev at the Webroot Threat Blog:
Just how challenged are cybercriminals when they’re being exposed to CAPTCHAs in 2013? Not even bothering to “solve the problem” by themselves anymore, thanks to…an automatic registration tool which undermines the credibility of Russia’s major free email service providers by allowing cybercriminals to register tens of thousands of bogus email accounts.
Danchev goes on to explain how this easily-available tool uses a relay attack, in which each CAPTCHA’s image is passed along to a human solver, to enable Russian cybercriminals to register thousands of fraudulent accounts. They can then use those accounts to send spam or register malicious domains.
Screenshot of one CAPTCHA-solving tool
This is just one more area in which PlayThru puts CAPTCHA to shame. Unlike traditional text CAPTCHAs, PlayThru isn’t just a test that’s looking for a correct answer. Our games require direct user interaction, so they can’t be passed off over the internet for someone else to “solve” via a relay attack.