By Cliff Ennico
As my readers know, twice a year I judge the Connecticut Business Plan Competition (www.entrepreneurshipfoundation.org/contest.html), where students from business schools and undergraduate business programs throughout Connecticut compete for cash prizes and mentoring from leading business experts, in a format very similar to the popular “SharkTank” television show.
This spring’s event featured 13 teams from throughout the state. Here are some of the ideas the students came up with, and my own “judge’s notes” describing their strengths and weaknesses.
Concept # 1: A “boot camp” where students in China planning to attend U.S. colleges can attend “mock classes” with American instructors to understand better what will be expected of them.
Strengths: Aside from the language barrier, the classroom experience in America is often a difficult adjustment for the millions of Chinese students who attend U.S. universities. For example, students in China are not required to prepare for class: all material is dealt with during the class itself, and there is less emphasis on independent study. The market for this service could be potentially huge.
Weaknesses: High costs due to the need to maintain facilities in China and provide room and board for the U.S. instructors who teach the “mock classes.”
Concept # 2: An online lease brokerage firm focusing on short-term rentals of inner-city storefronts to “pop up businesses”.
Strengths: Virtually all inner-city communities have vacant storefronts, many of which become boarded-up eyesores. Local landlords would be attracted to a service that would help them find short-term or month-to-month tenants for these spaces such as “pop-up businesses”.
Weaknesses: Most of these leases are likely to be extremely below market: the service will need to generate heavy volume in order to be profitable.
Concept # 3: A social media application designed to connect high school and college students with local companies seeking mentoring relationships.
Strengths: Job-hunting sites such as Monster and LinkedIn do not focus on mentorships (as opposed to internships).
Weaknesses: Most midsized and large companies already offer some sort of mentorship program in co-operation with local schools, and smaller employers cannot afford to devote management time to mentoring programs. The benefits of mentoring cannot be quantified so one wonders how the site will evaluate and rank these programs.
Concept # 4: A website ranking hotels, motels, inns and bed-and-breakfasts on their “eco-friendliness.”
Strengths: Hotel-finding sites such as Travelocity and Expedia are just beginning to consider eco-friendliness in their online listings. Younger travelers especially prefer to stay at “green” hotels that follow sustainable practices.
Weaknesses: Defining eco-friendliness is difficult because it means different things to different people, and must be weighed against other factors. For example, a hotel that gives guests the option not to have their bedsheets changed every day is creating a smaller carbon footprint, but may well have a higher incidence of bedbugs and other vermin than hotels that wash all sheets every day.
Even tougher will be verifying that the information a hotel puts down when completing the site’s online questionnaire is accurate without on-site inspections.
Tougher still will be figuring out a way to make money from this website. People will no doubt use the website when researching hotels, but will probably prefer to book the hotel on one of the “major” travel sites where they will get the best deals. This business might make sense as a nonprofit “Consumer Reports” type site funded by donations and government grants.
Concept # 5: A mobile smartphone application designed to track and monitor class attendance.
Strengths: Professors hate taking attendance manually, and students cutting classes will ask a friend to act as their proxy when attendance is taken, so headcounts are often inaccurate. A smartphone application with a geo-locator guarantees 100% accuracy in headcount for class attendance.
Weaknesses: The usual concerns about privacy for smartphone applications that disclose your location at all times. Also, you just KNOW that students will be looking for ways to hack this thing.
Concept # 6: A line of shampoos and other pet grooming products for – wait for it – chickens.
Strengths: Chickens and other barnyard animals are growing exponentially in popularity as household pets. Not only are they affectionate and relatively easy to care for, but you get free eggs and, eventually . . . .
While most pet chickens are kept in backyard coops, many households are bringing the animals indoors, especially during the winter months. This creates a market for shampoo and other grooming products designed especially for chickens and barnyard fowl. Chickens actually enjoy a bath every now and then . . . who knew?
Weaknesses: While the formula for pet shampoo can be a “trade secret,” there is nothing about these products that can be patented. One suspects that the product is much the same as one you would use for dogs and other household pets. Given that there is nothing to prevent large pet care companies such as Ralston-Purina from developing their own line of chicken products, the key to this plan’s success will be to “grow big fast” and establish brand identity in the hopes that a large company will acquire them quickly, and hopefully not for “chicken feed” (couldn’t resist that, sorry).
Next on this company’s agenda, a spa for chickens. No roosters allowed.
Cliff Ennico (www.succeedinginyourbusiness.com), a leading expert on small business law and taxes, is the author of Small Business Survival Guide, The eBay Seller’s Tax and Legal Answer Book and 15 other books. Follow him at @cliffennico.