My Business Plan Competition Adventure (Part II)

Read Part 1 of David's story here.

New Venture Challenge: the beginning

All 29 teams chosen to move onto Phase II were required to take the New Venture Challenge (NVC) class. As a law student, I expected this class to be much like John Rodkin's class (at the law school): case studies and 101 on "how to create a pitch deck." But the NVC "class" was far from what I was accustomed to. From day one teams presented before a panel of venture capitalists ("VCs") and entrepreneurs, who were all eager to hear what we (each team) had to present and willing to give us constructive feedback on how to improve our business concepts. And from day one the judges' scoring was taken into account for determining which teams move onto the NVC finals. (YIKES!)

My team, Masala Wala, pitched an Indian quick-service restaurant business. Our idea was a bit odd because the typical VC-backed business is very techy. The only techy thing about Masala Wala (to this day) is our cash register, the ability to place orders over the Internet, and our use of twitter/facebook/blog for marketing.

A long while back in the Fall semester, before the NVC had even started, I had searched out and spoken with a bunch of Chemistry PhDs and engineers to see if we could develop a novel, technology-based "cure" (VC idea) for an evident "pain" (VC problem). Though I came across some REALLY cool technology and ideas, none of them really jived and made my blood rush. But Masala Wala was different - from the moment I heard the business idea, my heart pounded. Having grown up in the restaurant industry (my parents have been in the restaurant business for a very, very long time), I've always sort of secretly harbored dreams of developing the next food empire (like McDonalds). Masala Wala was basically doing for Indian food what Chipotle had done for Mexican food and Panda Express for Chinese food. Given the success of Slumdog Millionaire and the increasing American appreciation for Indian culture and food, it made sense to me logically as well. So I joined teammates Julian, Rohini, Ravi, and Aditya in founding and establishing Masala Wala - Fresh Indian Food!

NVC: the middle

Our first presentation was fairly good - but not entirely impressive. We had 20+ slides and no food to present to our judges. A big part of our shortcoming was lack of time for preparation. Ironically, in the beginning the law students had a much better idea of how to make a successful business presentation than the business school students. This was because all law students participating in the NVC (there were three of us in total) had already passed through John Rodkin's class, and therefore had experience pitching at least one business.

One judge, from Silicon Valley, actually said, "At [UC] Berkeley, we don't allow food concepts into venture capital competitions... Indian food is practically everywhere... I really don't see a new value proposition here." To be honest, we were pissed off by that comment - while giving us the same substantive feedback, he could have been far more kind and constructive. But my teammates and I didn't let our reactions show. We knew that if we were going to win any VCs and skeptics over to our side, we had to take all criticism (even the really ugly kind) with grace.

After the presentation I went up and spoke with the "Berkeley judge," thanked him for his "helpful" feedback, and I asked him about his background. I listened politely until I heard him mention a top Silicon Valley law firm. I told him that I'm a law student and that I have an offer to work for that law firm. He seemed surprised and impressed. I then asked him if he was working with any interesting investment opportunities right now, and we ended up talking for 30 minutes. At the end of the conversation, he gave me his business card and invited me to lunch. =)

My teammates had pegged me as the "networking guy" and put me in charge of marketing. In my mind, our goal during each presentation was to make Masala Wala fanatics out of the judges - the key was to create a buzz. Thus, after each presentation, I made it my priority to go talk to two types of judges: (1) the ones that seemed to LOVE us; and (2) the ones that seemed to HATE us. I didn't care so much about the lukewarm ones because they don't love us enough to invest  much, nor hate us enough to discourage the other judges from investing. The ones that LOVE us had usually loved us from the get-go, so they are easy to work with and make fans out of. But the ones that HATE us, I knew hated the idea, NOT the people. So for the HATERS my motive was to help them see that at the very least, even if this business concept is still less than perfect, the management team is "perfect" and investment-worthy.

Throughout the NVC class, my team made two presentations. By the time our second presentation rolled around, we were experts at making judges believe in our concept. It helped that we had delicious and amazing wraps for the judges to taste-test. We had also consulted many experts, including a vice president of McDonalds and the founders of Homemade Pizza Company. But the real ace in the hole was the amount of work and practical research that my team put into launching our business.

We had shopped for real estate, gone through the four-round hiring process at Chipotle (to learn more about their HR), held numerous taste tests throughout the city, consulted professional chefs to refine our menu, acquired the help of a professional graphics designer to develop our logo, and also sat at numerous restaurants to count checks and foot-traffic. Though I can't list them all, we did plenty more than this.

NVC: the end

A week after my team had made our second presentation, the judges and professors announced the top teams chosen to move onto the finals. By this time, several investors had already expressed interested in our concept and in Masala Wala. But winning this competition meant it would be much easier to convince future investors into giving us money. When we saw our name among the list of finalists,  we only had one week to prepare for the finals, and EVERYTHING had to be perfect: our food, our business plan, and above all, our pitch/presentation.

We met every day for 5-6 hours to run through our pitch and improve our presentation skills. Michael Moyer, a judge who LOVED us, had seen our presentation and offered to help us improve it. Mike encouraged us to make our presentation as close as possible to a theatrical performance. We incorporated humor, movement, facial and hand gestures as well as choreography (where we stand and position ourselves at various points in the presentation).

D-day came Thursday of last week. It started with a continental breakfast and introduction of each of the 30 VCs. And as is typical of business school folks, the event started immediately without any "pomp and circumstance." We were scheduled to present fifth. After watching the first two teams presents, my team left to go cook and prepare our taste-test dish.

BTW, here's some detail about the room layout. The presentation room was shaped in the form of an amphitheater. It had three huge screens in front of the room, as well as a small flat screen TV monitor facing the presenters, so that the presenters can see what is being projected on the three large screens behind them. The business school had prepared a "spill out" room with a live feed for those students and observers who couldn't fit into the presentation room.

It took my team an hour to prepare 48 taste-test wraps. We were fortunate to be scheduled as the fifth team, since we would be up right before lunch. When the clock struck 11:15, my team swarmed into the presentation room with our taste-test wraps. We gave wraps to each of the judges, distinguished guests, and faculty. Any leftovers went to students and audience members.

Our presentation began soon after we served our food. It went well. Everyone laughed at our jokes and responded well to our gestures. I came out thinking that we had a decent shot at winning first place. While other teams were making the usual techy presentations, we had a fun-factor to our Indian food.

After our presentation, my team sat through five other presentations. After the last team presented, the judges had the results in hand within 30 minutes. During the cocktail reception, where the winners were to be announced, a judge approached me and said, "You'll be pleasantly surprised!" I was convinced that we'd be in first place.

"The third place winner.... Masala Wala!" I was shocked. Though I smiled throughout the handshaking, award receiving, and picture taking process, I was still shaken by the fact that we weren't first place. Third place is good, and I have no qualms about that. But in some ways, to get to where we were already, it was necessary to believe in our concept whole-heartedly. And believing something whole-heartedly means that we had to believe it to be number one.

My team is now $7000 richer. We decided to reinvest the prize money into the company. The next step is to secure more financing/investment from the fans we garnered through this process. =)
Keep your fingers crossed for us!

[David sent me this just after he had finished packing. He is now on the road, heading out to Silicon Valley for the summer. Good luck, David! - Anna]


David Yi attended Middlebury College and graduated with a degree in Political Science and Chinese. A Peace Corps volunteer in the People's Republic of China, he also acquired extensive experience teaching and training college and post-college level students in China and Korea. David then returned to the United States, where he founded oneAsia, a non-profit organization committed to encouraging unity and volunteerism among Asian nations. He soon had two jobs: running a non-profit by day and teaching the LSAT by night. David is currently a 2L at the University of Chicago Law School.