Andrzej Puncewicz paced the hallway in circles, his arms tightly crossed. Every few steps, he stopped to stare blankly at the view of the Chicago skyline, then bowed his head to start another lap. He and the other finalists in the University of Chicago Booth Global New Venture Challenge had just given the final presentation of their business idea, and were waiting for the winner to be announced.
Puncewicz and his partner, classmate and fellow recent graduate Aymeric Billet, were among the seven teams that made it to the last round of judging in the school’s business plan competition, which is specifically designed for Executive MBA students from Chicago’s three global campuses. The competition is the culminating capstone project of a satellite class that helps students prepare a business plan and practice presenting it to investors. The seven finalist teams gathered at downtown Chicago’s Gleacher Center on Thursday, March 15, to give their last pitches to an elite panel of Booth alumni, including entrepreneurs, angel investors, and business advisors.
Puncewicz and Billet won this year’s competition and the $5,000 prize with their pitch for Drink Different, an alcoholic cider designed to rival the offerings of mainstream beer and flavored alcoholic beverage or marketers. They told the panel of 14 judges that they planned to focus on distribution in Poland, with a particular market focus on young, affluent, party-going women. With six months of research and product development completed—along with the $200,000 they have already contributed to the venture—they plan to release the drink to 25,000 beverage retailers in Poland, break even one year after launching, and turn a profit one year after that.
The idea for the product came about after the two met during classes on Booth’s London campus. Casual conversations revealed that Puncewicz’s family has owned apple orchards in Poland for more than 50 years. Billet, who is from Western France, noted that alcoholic cider has become increasingly popular among Europe’s yuppie crowd. The pair put those two factors together, and the result became Drink Different.
At the finals, judges examined the pair’s proposal, drilling down into every nook and cranny of the business plan. They even asked about the missing social media strategy and the overly feminine branding that could turn off male customers. Guy Turner, ’10, managing director at Hyde Park Venture Partners, questioned the complex distribution strategy: “Why couldn’t you just put this in a couple of bars in a few towns and test it out like that?” According to the team’s market research, the Drink Different target audience does not drink at bars, Puncewicz answered. Most tend to drink at home before going out.
Each team at the Challenge finals went through the same meticulous scrutiny. The questions and comments came rapid fire to uncover possible strategic flaws: “How big do you see this becoming?…You know, there’s this other company doing the same thing…Here’s what’s missing in your plan…So, let me get this straight…That market penetration projection is insanely high…Is Amazon doing this?”
Deliberation among the judges became even more intense after the finalists had presented. They were looking for the idea that had been the most clearly presented, held the strongest market opportunity, and competitive advantage. They analyzed financial projections. And they considered whether the team members had the core competencies to pull it off.
“There’s something there for each of the seven teams,” deputy dean and Joel F. Gemunder Professor of Strategy and Finance Robert Gertner told the finalists before announcing the winner. “There is true potential across the board.”
Puncewicz’s anxious posture and worried face turned to relief when Drink Different was announced as the winner. “They developed a product that was simple and good, so they can focus on sales and marketing,” said Mike Moyer, ‘04, an author and serial entrepreneur, who has traveled to London several times over the years to coach students in the competition.
This type of focused vetting is exactly why such a competition is valuable to aspiring entrepreneurs. “It helps [leaders of] companies understand what components they need,” Moyer added. “You don’t get this kind of feedback in the real world.”
As students enroll in the Executive MBA Program from all over the world, the GNVC allows them to combine business ideas with their global perspectives and real-world experiences, which often total more than 10 years. “Other countries are becoming more entrepreneurial,” said Kathleen Fitzgerald, adjunct assistant professor of management and the director of academic support at Booth’s London and Singapore campuses. “You do an MBA to learn to run a business. At Booth, we want to cater to that.”
That’s exactly what Puncewicz and Billet took from the GNVC experience. “I set up a consulting business five years ago, but to create a new venture selling a product, you have to know all areas of business,” said Puncewicz. “The GNVC tied together everything we have learned.”
Photo by Matthew Gilson