Thursday, 3 April 2008

Breathing Fire in the Dragons Den

Yesterday I got to play at being a "dragon", judging a business plan competition organised by Simfonec and Queen Mary University of London. It's interesting being on the other side of the fence and having aspiring entrepreneurs pitching to you rather than the other way round. I must have pitched to more than 100 investors in my time with a record of something like 95 "NO's" and 5 "YES's" (mind you, the 5 Yes's have added up to about $40m raised!) so I felt a lot of empathy for the young folk pitching.

I say "young folk" because up until recently I thought I was a "Whizz Kid". However last time I spoke to a group of 1st year undergraduate business studies students at City University and mentioned I had done my MBA at their business school, it turned out that none of the 100 or so students in the room had been born when I was doing my MBA. So it appears I am actually a "Whizz Man", possibly even just a "Man".

Ten teams pitched their ideas to a panel of 5 judges. Five of the teams were business studies students and five teams came from the computer science side. You could tell who was who without asking. The business studies guys grab your hand, looked you in the eye, wore trendy suits and had developed great brands and idea but perhaps lacking a bit in substance behind the scenes. In fact two of the brand ideas I saw were not far off the level that one would normally pay a London design agency £50k to develop for you. The computer science guys didn't let me down (being a tech guy myself). The opening line in one case included reference to MAC Addresses and BIOS. They had sort of had a go at branding in the way that only tech guys armed with powerpoint can have a go at branding. But in several cases they had actually built the software that they were describing, rather than just talking about it. Now if we could just get the two groups together and mix them up a bit we might be on to something.

I don't think I'd make a very good dragon really though. I'm too much o nthe side of the entrepreneurs. I want all their ideas to suceed and I hate asking the nasty, cynical, crushing questions that you have to ask as an investor. When I see that spark of excitement in their eyes I want to fan it, not put it out with a clever "it will never work" put down. Oh well, I'll stick to building companies for now.

The two winners were really good. I could easily have invested in either of them. I'm not sure I am allowed to talk about the ideas themselves but just to say if they actually launch the services then on the one hand you will never have to worry about losing your PC again and on the othe hand if you are wandering around Sloane Square and wondering what to do with your child for a couple of hours - your problem is well and truely solved!

So, I reckon creative thinking and entrepreneurship is alive and well in the universities here. There is enthusiasm and talent. All we need now is an early stage venture capital industry to get behind them....

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