Every semester, students taking entrepreneurship courses at Cal State Fullerton present their business plans to a group of (mock) investors. These investor panels are comprised of members of the local business community who have extensive experience in a variety of different disciplines and industries. Many of the panelists have also been involved with a number of start-ups. The diversity of the investor panel allows the students to get a wide variety of perspectives. For example, my panel this semester consisted of top-level executives from the entertainment, media, consulting, technology, and automobile industries. These executives had extensive experience in the areas of marketing, finance, sales, and management.
Despite the knowledge that nobody on the panel will cut a check, the stakes are still quite high for the students. They have spent much of the past three months investigating, researching and refining their initial ideas and turning them into viable businesses. They have narrowed their focus to a target market, determined how to best market their product/service to this target market and created detailed financial statements to support the potential of their business.
This is the third time that I have been a part of this process. I feel a bit like an elementary school teacher watching his students perform in a holiday recital. I’ve taught them everything I know and now I can only stand back and hope that they shine. I’m proud to report that the students shined very brightly. Their business plans definitely had holes in them. Nevertheless, they took their feedback well and handled all of the panel’s questions with poise, confidence and intelligence.
In the process, I also learned a few things:
· The primary concern investors have is whether they will get their money back (and then some). They want to see that everything the team is saying results in the business having enough cash to give the investors their promised return on investment. One way to achieve this objective is to show the projected ending cash balances of the business.
· Customer surveys are good, but they have a big problem. Many customers will say great things about a product/service in a survey or focus group. Many will even indicate that they are likely to purchase it. But when asked to actually do so, many will not follow through. One way to see if this is actually the case is to ask potential customers to “reserve” a product/service. It does not have to require any money to be transferred, but it signals a much stronger commitment to purchase as compared to a response on a survey or focus group.
· There is nothing wrong with starting small. Selling goods at a swap meet or county fair is an excellent way to test the waters and see if there is sufficient demand to justify putting your life savings (along with the hard-earned money of others) into the business.
· Present with confidence. Investors sense this confidence, and it gives them confidence that the team can execute. It was no coincidence that the business idea that received the most praise was the one where all the team members had internalized the material they were to present and looked very comfortable in front of the audience. In fact, the team looked like they were having fun. Although some have a natural ability to captivate an audience, more often than not, this is something that comes with lots of practice. (I know for a fact that the aforementioned team practiced extensively.)
Dr. Atul Teckchandani
CSUF Entrepreneurship Professor