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Scott Litman and I have been traveling in each others orbit for the last five years. In 2005, my wife Lisa and I met Scott and his business partner Dan Mallin when we entered the inaugural edition of the Minnesota Cup entrepreneurship competition, which the pair co-founded. At the time, the Cup was an unknown entity, but after receiving more than 600 entries that first year, Litman and Mallin soon confirmed their suspicion that Minnesota is an untapped reservoir of start-up activity. Type 1 Tools, our original product line of diabetes education tools that would eventually become HealthSimple, went on to place third in the 2005 Cup—a pivotal milestone in the development of that business. Litman and Mallin then became key advisors to Lisa and me as we navigated the complicated waters of our business acquisition with Johnson & Johnson in the years to follow.

In it’s five-year history, the Minnesota Cup has become a highly anticipated, and wildly competitive, fixture in the local business calendar with more than 1,000 entries last year and more than $100,000 in prize money on the line. In addition to their leadership of the Cup, Litman and Mallin have founded Magnet 360, a Twin Cities-based network of marketing services agencies. With the 2010 Cup deadline approaching (May 21), I thought it would be a good time to check in with Scott Litman. The following exchange is taken from a recent email conversation. Read the rest of this entry »

One of the intriguing stories swirling around the Super Bowl last week was the fact that Pepsi, a mainstay of Super Bowl advertising, chose not to participate in the high-buck (and high-exposure) affair for the first time in 23 years. The more interesting side to this story is what Pepsi has chosen to do instead of running Super Bowl ads. The Pepsi Refresh Project will dole out a reported $20 million dollars to people, businesses, and non-profits with ideas that will have a positive impact in one of six categories: Health, Arts & Culture, Food & Shelter, The Planet, Neighborhoods and Education. Project ideas are posted to the Refresh Project website, and the public has the opportunity to vote on their favorites on the program website. The top ten vote-getters every month advance to a review process and have a shot at grants ranging from $5,000-250,000.

I first learned of the program several weeks ago when I got a Tweet urging me to support the Nada Bike Frame project which has a goal to get 1,000,000 young people to use bikes for transportation, and to teach them how to build their own bikes. At the time of this post, Nada was ranked 10th in the running for $25,000 in funding.

Aside from being a shrewd strategic marketing move—Pepsi made a powerful brand statement simply by not sleepwalking through the annual big-brand parade—the Refresh Project might signal a new trend in how corporations connect with their customers. And with more than 1,000 project ideas already submitted, Pepsi seems to have tapped into a desire among their customers to improve the world around them in creative ways. The social media strategy at play here will undoubtedly be studied: the program Facebook page has well over a half-million fans, and the front-running project proposals are clearly leveraging social media to promote their idea.

For designers or creative professionals looking to get some seed funding for a breakthrough product or social change idea, I see the Pepsi Refresh Project as a potentially game changing concept. If more corporations follow the lead of Pepsi by converting their marketing dollars into seed funding, we could see a major change in the entrepreneurial landscape. In a time when traditional sources of funding have dried up, this innovative form of alternative funding could add a much needed boost to struggling entrepreneurs. And the crowdsourcing aspect falls right into the sweet spot of designers, because our ideas will come from a creative perspective.

Hank Wasiak, of the blog Asset Based Thinking in Action, wrote a very thorough analysis of Pepsi’s move from a strategic perspective. Click here to read Hank’s post.

Picture 2The New York Times had an article Wednesday about a new documentary film called Ten9Eight which is about a group of teens competing  in a business plan contest run by the nonprofit group Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE). Filmmaker Mary Mazzio followed twenty-nine aspiring entrepreneurs, ages 13 to 19, all of whom have had to overcome huge obstacles, as they vie for the competitions $10,000 grand prize.

The film brings up the always puzzling question of how and when to teach young people about business and entrepreneurship. NFTE has an admirable mission to provide entrepreneurship education programs to young people from low-income communities. The film opens November 13 in select cities and will likely pop up on cable TV in the future. Check out the trailer here:

Elsewhere on the NY Time Small Business site
As I was perusing the Times’ site for the above post, I came across Bruce Buschel’s refreshingly light-hearted essay about writing business plans. Buschel, a restauranteur in Bridgehampton, NY, says “I believe in plans. I do. They focus the mind and sharpen the concept. I just don’t believe in believing in their predictions. Man plans, God clicks to Comedy Central.”

trophybBusiness competitions can be a great way to jumpstart your entrepreneurial aspirations. Regardless of whether you win the competition or not, there are many potential benefits to participating in the process (although winning doesn’t hurt either). For those of us with the tendency to procrastinate, a competition deadline can be a hidden gift—a way to force us to knuckle down and crank out that business plan or executive summary that has been bouncing around in our head. Additionally, some competitions can provide an introduction to resources that are outside of your existing network. At the very least, this is a low-risk way to test-drive your pitch.

A couple competitions I have been following on Merge have recently announced winners. The Minnesota Cup is an annual business competition that Lisa and I participated in back in 2005 with HealthSimple. 2009 brought an expansion of the Cup with newly created divisions to categorize the more than 800 entrants. The Cup requires entrants who progress to the second round to submit a complete business plan—which in our case was one of those hidden gifts. We did not have a business plan until then and it proved to be a valuable document that contained the answers to many questions we encountered as we built our business. Here are the 2009 Minnesota Cup winners:

CoreSpine Technologies received the 4th Annual Minnesota Cup first prize package, which includes $50,000 in seed capital, consulting by Wells Fargo and professionals from area law firms, accounting firms, PR & marketing, business organization services from the Maslon law firm, one year of access to “HillSearch” from the James J. Hill Reference Library, a scholarship to attend The Collaborative’s upcoming Minnesota Venture Finance Conference and a national news story over the ARA Content Network.

The second-place winner,, receives $10,000. The third-place winner, Klodas Foods: Fibre and Beyond, receives $5,000. The second and third place winners also will receive business support services from contest sponsors. The student winner, Zipnosis, will receive $5,000. was co-founded by Sue Kruskopf, a principal at Minneapolis agency Kruskopf Coontz, who also created the site.

For ten years, the Sappi Paper Ideas That Matter competition has been a way for designers with big (or just really good) ideas to get seed money to bring their idea to life. I don’t have much detail about the 2009 recipients, but the list looks intriguing. Included are design industry big-shots Winterhouse and Pentagram, and an entrant from the AIGA San Francisco chapter.

Over the last couple decades design education programs have been bombarded with wave upon wave of industry changes that they, in turn, must respond to and integrate into their curriculum. In the late eighties, for instance, it was the advent of the computer as a design tool, then a decade later the internet emerged as a prominent new medium. Now there are a whole new set of skills that are expected of designers entering the field, including interactivity, motion graphics, and design thinking. For me, design thinking really reflects the evolution of communication design from the craft-driven discipline of the 20th century to the strategic-oriented consultation that most of us provide to our clients today (whether they ask for it or not). Ultimately, design thinking is at the core of the entrepreneurial activity that I focus on with Merge.

So how do design educators address this important emerging area without simply “tacking it on” to an already crammed curriculum?


BusinessWeek Podcast featuring Nathan Shedroff

One of the programs solving this complex puzzle is California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Nathan Shedroff is the president of CCA, which launched the MBA in Design Strategy Program in 2007, and in this BusinessWeek podcast he discusses the new role designers are expected to play.

itm10years_logo2Sappi Ideas That Matter deadline approaches
Thanks to Joe Isaak for reminding me that applications are due for the Ideas That Matter program. Now in its tenth year, this program awards grants of $5,000-50,000 to help designers develop ideas that benefit the world around us. Recent recipients have included Marcia Lausen of StudioLab, University of Illinois Chicago and Design for Democracy, and John Bielenberg of Project M. The deadline for submissions is July 17, 2009.

better1I was intrigued by a recent link on Swiss Miss for a site called The Better Project, which offers a social networking venue for solving societal problems. Users create a “project” by listing a problem—which could be massive in scale like “public transportation,” or modest like “Washington Square Park”—then fellow users offer solutions and vote on the best ideas. As ideas emerge as promising (or at least popular), users are given the opportunity to join with others to engage in working toward a solution.

TBP is a creation of web developer Arc90 and grew out of Kindling, a business-focused software tool for generating ideas and community in the workplace.

I see some conceptual synergy between TBP and microfinancing (which I wrote about a couple weeks ago in a post on March 28). TBP appears to be in its early stages of growth, but the idea that social networking is moving into the realm of social change is exciting. And it offers a potential model for nurturing—and even funding—design-related entrepreneurial ideas.

Speaking of “better:”
Check out the 2009 Open Architecture Challenge for designing a better classroom. Obviously there is an architectural emphasis to this competition, but visual communication is such a strong part of learning and the classroom experience, it seems like there is an opportunity here for communication designers to offer some impactful solutions. Designer/enterpreneur Hilary Cottam of Participle is listed as a juror.

trophybThanks to Gaby Brink at Tomorrow Partners in San Francisco for forwarding this link to the DiabetesMine Design Challenge. DiabetesMine is a respected blog and online community for people living with diabetes. This brings up a topic that I’ve touched on a few times previously in Merge: business competitions.

I wrote in an earlier post about the experience Lisa and I had in the Minnesota Cup, a business competition here in our home state, which was a pivotal experience in the development of HealthSimple. We submitted our business plan in the inaugural Cup in 2005 and were thrilled to be selected as a finalist among 607 business plans that were entered that year—eventually we took the third place prize.

I think these competitions can be a huge opportunity for entrepreneurs, but only in part because of the potential for financial reward. For Lisa and me, the Minnesota Cup introduced us to a network of people in the business world whom we would not otherwise have been exposed to. Among them, lawyers, bankers, publicists and successful entrepreneurs, many of whom became valued advisors as we built our business. Our finalist status also added credibility to HealthSimple as we were trying to establish key partnerships. Additionally, our participation in the Cup forced us to hunker down and write our first formal business plan for HealthSimple—a task we had been avoiding, but which proved to be of undeniable value for us.

(note to Minnesota designers: the 2009 Minnesota Cup is just getting underway—it would be great to see a wave of design-driven business plans in the competition this year)

One important note about business competitions with a design focus: the issue of communication designers providing services on a speculative basis is a very sensitive and complex one in our profession. AIGA has played a strong role in clarifying this issue and providing resources for designers to use in discussing the issue. For the record, I don’t consider the DiabetesMine contest to be a conflict in this way. DiabetesMine is not soliciting designs to be implemented by them for business gain (the way an organization might with a logo competition)—they are merely trying to support and nurture innovation in this important area.

Please send me links to other business competitions and I will post them on Merge.

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