Monday, August 14, 2006

Moot Corp

Part one: the road to...
What do a niche television network, martial arts,, apple-martinis, New York blizzards, cockroaches, outdoor hotel swimming pools, Texas and a “bright and attractive team” have in common? Everything!

This is a story of turning the New Business Development project, part of the MBA, into an amazingly valuable and fun experience.

As any venture capitalist will tell you; “it all starts with the right team, willing to invest in its own business”. Indeed it does. With brains and charm from Australia (Nina), respectful and quiet ‘joie de vivre’ from Belgium (Gauthier), a distinguished gentleman from Canada (Chris), energy from Mr. California (Nikesh) and creativity and unique humour from the Netherlands (Koen) the board of ZenTV was complete. Our knowledge and understanding of the industry was somewhat concentrated, that is to say, only one person really understood both the TV business and the world of martial arts – that is the only reason why he was the CEO (along maybe with the fact that putting this specific team together was all his doing). We decided a crash course in media (and yes, some of us took a crash course in martial arts too) was imperative. What better way to do it than spending a week in New York attending various international media conferences. What better time to do it than roughly mid-Hilary term when the MBA was getting a bit slow anyways...

Media talk, interviews and meetings during the day, then back to the hotel to brainstorm and write up the business plan in a most comfortable lobby while being served the best apple-martinis and bloody mary’s in town. Somewhere in the warm swath of alcohol and hotel appetizers a concept and a unity was born. It was a good run, being an entrepreneur. Nobody sleeps in NY and neither did we; we learned a valuable lesson: it never hurts to “bounce some business ideas” off our target audience (females 20-35) in the heart of the City’s nightlife. One of the worst blizzards on record ushered out of New York (24 inches in 24 hours) and back to the then grey climbs of Oxford, the business plan firmly in tow.

Part two: Moot Corp, Austin Texas
Nikesh: “Nina, what is our IRR?”. Nina: “What do you want it to be Nikesh?”. Yes, we were ready for some serious business plan competition. After thorough preparation, with Jonathan Black’s support, we felt incredibly fortunate to be chosen to represent our class at the Moot Corp global business plan competition. Around 30 universities from around the world come to Austin each year to compete and they call it the Super Bowl of business plan competitions (it was even mentioned in the West Wing – season 5, Episode 5 – “A constituency of one”). A quick two day stopover first in what we anticipated would be our home for the coming years, Los Angeles, or to be more precise, Beverly Hills. We met with one of our advisory board members and ‘checked out the neighborhood’ (while waiting for Nikesh’s love life to take a new turn) until it was time to leave our ‘gallon-per-mile’ consuming SUV behind and head for Austin.

The competition lasts three days. The first day has practice rounds, when all teams get a chance to do a mock pitch to polish the presentation even further. Chris’s great poise in answering questions and convincing judges that our proposed ‘alternative life style’ was ‘cool’ and ‘in’ provided us with great feedback.

In the afternoon all teams participated in a ‘Venture Showcase’. Armed with a stand, gadgets and elevator pitches we tried to impress whomever we could, doing last minute blowup prints of the logo, and recruiting staff from other booths to be part of the ‘Zen crowd’ and distributing ultra-chic, and well-received headbands and wristbands.

The second day was the real deal. Pitch in the morning, feedback in the afternoon. Only the top team from each 5 team group moved through to the next round and unfortunately we weren’t among them, but competed in a separate ‘money round’ on day three. Feedback was constructive, (meaning confrontational) but competing against second year MBAs, part-time students fully dedicated to their new venture meant that our 3-month preparation (in parallel with the MBA) wasn’t up to par. Chris was wise enough to ask if there was anything we should not change. A long silence followed until the one female judge spoke in all her wisdom “well, we feel you are all very attractive, and that this could really work for you....”. Wow! We probably could’ve established that with a video-call from Oxford, but nevertheless, we enjoyed our attractiveness over great food and drinks, strategizing over how we would grow the business ourselves and Nina giving a completely new meaning to the word ‘cockroach’.

Getting a chance to go to Moot Corp is truly unique and positive experience. To have any chance of winning the competition, the business idea has to be at a much more advanced stage than a SBS NBD project can reach in three months time. All competing teams have finished marketing samples and posters, product prototypes ready, distributor and marketing contracts signed, patents pending, received VC funding, etc... Having said that, understanding what exactly a VC is looking for will bring you a long way. Promise gargantuan IRRs, but not too unrealistic, eliminate any idea of risk and exemplify the exit, and who knows next year, Oxford may be bringing home the prizes.