Inside the Judges Chambers at Women 2.0

Last weekend, I served as a judge for the Women 2.0 business plan competition. Dozens of plans, submitted on a dinner napkin and supplemented by other materials, were vetted by a group of distinguished Bay Area investors, business leaders and entrepreneurs to determine five finalists to present at the conference. That’s where my fellow judges and I picked up the ball.

Each company gave a 10 minute pitch, took questions from the judges, and privately shared prototypes and demos with the judges. Our job, then, was to identify the winner, a tough job considering that the five finalists represented a range of ideas and stages of development. At the end of our deliberation, we selected Koollage as the winner. The company has developed a method for collecting and mobilizing diverse Web content.

Of course, any time judging happens behind closed doors, there are questions. How were the finalists chosen? (I don’t know) My plan was a favorite among organizers, so why wasn’t I a finalist? (Again, I don’t know.) Why did you choose Kollage? That I do know, and I promised I’d share some insight into the judges reasoning about each of the finalists. Doing so, I think, not only brings more transparency to the judging process, but also provides some lessons for young entrepreneurs.

The winner, Koollage, presented with a complete and smart team. They demonstrated pre-beta software, demonstrating that they could and were executing on their plan. They understand the market they’re entering, and though it is crowded and noisy, the judges were persuaded that Koollage has the opportunity to leverage the hype in their market to its benefit. The team was also very clear on what they would do with the prize and the funding they are seeking.

WebVet was a closely contested second. (We didn’t rank the runners up, but the voting methodology – investing virtual funds – raised the largest virtual investment after Koollage.) This Chicago-based startup has a team with deep experience in consumer brands and traditional media. They are appealing to a rich and big market: pet owners in the United States. The idea is a great one, but the judges had some serious doubts about the approach. WebVet licenses information databases and buys content from established writers. The site design is traditional “Web 1.0” and the model doesn’t leverage its users to create content or engage deeply in community. At the end of the debate, the judges believed this approach would burn more capital and more quickly than the company projects.

Gaiagy is another tough competitor, though I think every judge struggled to pronounce the company name. Years ago I learned the hardware that names that aren’t easily pronounced or spelled, no matter how clever, are big trouble for Web-based businesses. That, though, wasn’t the issue with this company. In truth, the judges were impressed with the company’s ambitions, but ultimately thought the plan to sell big-ticket eco-friendly products by connecting consumers to installers would be very difficult to build efficiently. The company plans to roll out its personal savings calculators for the Bay Area and Boston, but without a network of channel partners in line, they site will be reduced to selling commodity products, rather than high-margin appliances, solar and HVAC systems.

Skill Shop, a plan entered by two recent Haas MBA grads, is a smart idea. Aimed at HR planners and business managers, the SaaS offering aims to match employees with products, based on an inventory of IT skills and manager ratings. There’s potential in this idea, the operative word here being “idea.” The co-founders are so early in their thinking that they were unable to answer the judges’ questions about implementation and future product expansion well enough to win the judges over.

The last presenter in the competition was Passive Devices, a company founded by a now-17 year old East Bay high schooler. The company makes the SnoopTunes device that uses low-power FM to allow friends to share music from their MP3 devices. I first learned about the company nearly two years ago. At that time, the company was the daughter’s idea, the father’s coaching, and a contractor engineer who designed the device. Today, the company is still led presumably by the teenage CEO, but the father’s dominant hand is evident in running the business. Now, the device is a vehicle for an advertising play that is not well described, the team is not fully formed, and daughter is planning to go college next fall. While the judges like the idea of a teen-age entrepreneurs deeply familiar with her target market, there’s just too many open questions – Who’s really running the company? Can the IP be protected? How does the advertising model work, really? — for our comfort.

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