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37signals's cofounder, Jason Fried, discusses entrepreneurship with professor Linda Darragh

SeedCon Conference sparks start-up fire

What happens between getting a bright idea and implementing it? This year’s 13th Annual SeedCon Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Conference aimed to help aspiring entrepreneurs both feed the fire and give concrete ideas to help them develop their plans into new businesses.

Students and alumni from Chicago Booth joined members of the business community on November 17 and 18 for two days of workshops and networking at Gleacher Center and Venue SIX10. Organized by students in the Entrepreneurship & Venture Capital Group, and sponsored by several Chicago businesses, the annual event gives students the opportunity to pitch their ideas for a share of $70,000 in services to help start their business.

“Chicago Booth is a well-established player in the Chicago entrepreneurial community, and each year attendance at SeedCon has grown,” said Tracey Keller, associate director of marketing, communications, and external relations for the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship, which co-hosted SeedCon. “More and more members of the community are joining students to hear from high-level speakers and investors who are at the forefront of entrepreneurship.”

Booth has a strong history of fostering entrepreneurship among students, alumni, and the greater Chicago business community. Since 1996, the entrepreneurship program has grown from a mere three courses to a robust offering of 26 classes today, and both Entrepreneur magazine and the Princeton Review have called it one of the best programs in the country.

Its offerings include the Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge (NVC), “the best business school business-creation competition in the world,” said Steven Kaplan, Neubauer Family Distinguished Service Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance during his keynote address. “The progress that occurs during the NVC process is stunning.”

SeedCon has often served as a prelude to the NVC. Competing start-up teams can hear directly from successful entrepreneurs about launching, scaling, and everything in between. For example, this year, during a panel on how those without a technical background can launch technology or web-based companies, Bryan Johnson, ’07 (XP-76), discussed how he founded Braintree, a company that helps businesses process online payments. The company won the first-place NVC prize in 2007 and today is number 47 on the 2011 Inc. 500 list of the fastest growing companies.

For Johnson, the key driver was initiative: “Those who show initiative will reap the benefits over those who don’t. If you can take the first step to actually build something, there will be a lot of people who will be willing to push it along. Initiative has so much value.”

For panelist and Evening MBA Program student Bob Gillespie, the key is developing a strong vision and strategy. “You have to be able to grab people and say, ‘Here’s what we’re doing; here’s where we’re going. Let's go,’” said Gillespie, cofounder and CEO of InContext Solutions. The company creates virtual 3-D retail stores for companies like General Mills, Johnson & Johnson and Coca-Cola to test consumer’s shopping habits.

The panel was moderated by Full-Time MBA Program student Coco Meers, whose online beauty company PrettyQuick placed third in the 2011 NVC competition, and also included Sima Thakkar, founder and CEO of Good Indian Girl, which provides instructional videos on Indian traditions for second-generation immigrants.

Though the panelists did not themselves have the backgrounds to build and maintain their companies’ technical infrastructure, Johnson said that he realized early on the importance of finding the right “technical anchor.” “I’ve never been a programmer, never had any education in computer science. When I started hiring talent, the question was, ‘How good is this person?’” Johnson said. “I didn’t find true anchored technical talent until I hired six developers. By that time I was able to gauge not only how well they code, but their understanding of security, systems, and scalability.”

Gillespie remembered when he and his cofounder were looking for a designer to create 3-D store replicas. “We literally didn’t know a thing. We got on the phone with one guy, and he’s talking about the poly counts and the texture maps and the bitmap size,” Gillespie said. “Afterward, we both said ‘I don’t know what the heck he’s talking about. Let’s hire him.’ Now, we send [applicants] a programming test before we even talk to them. It’s been a fantastic way to weed people out.”

Developing technical knowledge does not have to be the entrepreneur’s main priority, panelists said. As Gillespie finishes his MBA in December, he said the financial accounting classes have been more useful than anything else. Johnson said that, in the beginning, the only thing entrepreneurs have to pitch is their vision.

Later that day, a team of Booth students learned that their presentation had been awarded first place in the Fast-Pitch Competition. A panel of venture capitalists, established start-up founders, and business leaders served as judges for the business ideas of eight teams. The winning company, SnuggleCloud (now Couple Fire), provides a more intimate platform for long-distance couples to stay connected, including mood tracking, calendars, and activities, and received $70,000 in start-up resources.

“We told our story about the pain of long-distance relationships,” said Shivam Srivastava, a first-year Full-Time student from Delhi, India. “This was a great forum to go through the business process.”

— Kadesha Thomas
Photo by Beth Rooney