Lessons Learned from Chicago Booth's New Venture Challenge


Melissa Harris is a business columnist at the Chicago Tribune and executive MBA student at Chicago Booth. She is active in the first Chicago Booth women’s leadership program, Booth Women Advance. Below she writes about her experience competing in the New Venture Challenge at Chicago Booth.

I applied to Chicago Booth – and Chicago Booth only – to participate in the school’s New Venture Challenge, recently ranked No. 4 among U.S. startup accelerators.

To participate, Booth students must hold a minimum of 10 percent equity in their business and submit a seven-page feasibility study to the program’s directors and judges. The study determines whether the business is admitted.

This year about 80 teams applied and around 30 were admitted. The field was then narrowed to 10 finalists. In addition to the feasibility study, the program requires a business plan, two presentations, strength to withstand mountains of public criticism and, most importantly, a product.

This is not a business plan competition. If a company has a plan but no product, it’s unlikely it will advance to the finals. Thus, a team must include marketers capable of selling the product and coders capable of building it.

In my experience this year as the chief executive of an NVC team, it’s a lot harder to find the coders. So, in hindsight, the first thing I’d do is recruit a technical co-founder. With an idea in hand and a CTO on board, the next step is to recruit a marketing/sales team, a lawyer and an all-star advisory board.

Selecting and recruiting the team is the most important pitch of the competition. You’ll need incredibly dedicated and competent people to stand up a company in just a few months. You also better like them because you’ll be seeing more of them than your family in the near-term. 

At stake is prize money, pride and, in my case, my reputation. As a business columnist for the Chicago Tribune, I knew and admired many of the program’s coaches, including Chicago Booth Professor Steve Kaplan, Answers.com co-founder Mark Tebbe, and venture capitalist and former 1871 CEO Kevin Willer. I wanted to learn from them. I also wanted to prove that I could do more than write about start-ups. I could launch one.

That has been more difficult than I imagined.

My first idea blew up nine days before the feasibility study was due. The team stuck with me and pivoted. Classmates moved into my house, working for three days and two nights to conceive our company, AttnGrabbers. 

Then our CTO got an amazing job opportunity, which required him to pull back. We were about to hire a replacement, a University of Illinois senior, when we found out there was a hiccup with his work permit. (He’s not a U.S. citizen.) After working with our attorney to try to find a solution, I concluded there was no legal way to hire him. When I retracted the job offer, he volunteered to assist for free.

These highs and lows are sometimes compressed into one business day. On the same day we woke up to glowing press for AttnGrabbers, we learned we did not make the finals.

We’re not sure what’s next for AttnGrabbers. Our developer is continuing to work on the software in his spare time while I search for a corporate partner. At a minimum, the team is going to stay connected through a Plan B, which all of us can work on while maintaining our day jobs.

No one is quite ready to jump – especially now that we fully grasp the emotional ups and downs that come with running a startup.

The biggest benefit of competing in the NVC is that you get to experience these glories and disappointments in a safer environment than the marketplace.

Yes, you get scrutinized, but at least you don’t go broke.


Melissa Harris, XP-85