Before the Start-Up Starts, Young Entrepreneurs Learn about Pitfalls and Pitches

Posted: March 31, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

students at YEA
By students and for students, the Young Entrepreneurs Academy brings aspirants together to network and learn practical business skills from seasoned entrepreneurs.
Photo by Laila Jadallah

By Jennifer Edgerly

Facebook. Ben and Jerry’s. Microsoft. Virgin Records. Google.

You might not immediately see the connection between these companies, but after looking more closely, you’ll find there is one unifying characteristic – all of them were started by entrepreneurs under the age of 30.

Hoping to follow in the footsteps of entrepreneurs like Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Virgin Records’ Richard Branson, high school and undergraduate students gathered for the fourth annual Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA) at Mason on March 21.

Some of the students who attended already consider themselves to be entrepreneurs and are running businesses ranging from pet care to manufacturing and distributing books, while others were hoping to learn the rules of the game to give them a competitive edge down the road.

Embracing the Entrepreneurial Spirit

Started by students in the Mason Entrepreneurs Club, the YEA brings aspiring entrepreneurs together to learn practical business skills and apply the entrepreneurial spirit in pursuit of their career goals.

Participants gain firsthand advice and insights from seasoned entrepreneurs on strategies for successful business development and also network with their peers to explore opportunities for future ventures.

students at YEA
Budding entrepreneurs ponder their “elevator” pitches at the Young Entrepreneurs Academy.
Photo by Laila Jadallah

“It’s exciting for us to see students coming together, sharing ideas and embracing the entrepreneurial spirit during the YEA,” says Sam Wilson, Mason senior and president of the Mason Entrepreneurs Club.

“Whether you already have a few business ventures under your belt or are just starting out, the YEA provides an excellent opportunity to learn more about entrepreneurship and how to create a successful business.”

Cohosted by the School of Management and Entrepreneurship at Mason and sponsored by the Entrepreneur Center @NVTC, the academy provided a full day of activities, including breakout sessions and panel discussions, led by Mason experts and successful entrepreneurs.

Mason alumnus Dan Sims, MBA ’07, founder of the Agency Speakers, and Timothy Gammon, president of Better Homes LLC, shared stories of their highs and lows while establishing their own companies. Gammon even relayed a memorable anecdote about a period of time he spent sleeping in a tent.

The panelists emphasized the importance of organization, time management and a well-thought-out business plan. They discussed the need for entrepreneurs to be passionate about their work and focus their energy to get the company off the ground. And they encouraged the participants by pointing out that most successful entrepreneurs have failed at least once — but persistence typically pays off in the end.

“I found the panel discussion to be one of the most inspirational and motivational parts of the day,” says West Springfield High School sophomore Michael Rybinski. “Hearing about their experiences and getting their insight into what it takes to be an entrepreneur is invaluable.”

Second-time YEA participant Kerwin Stevenson, who was in town for the week from California, echoed Rybinski’s thoughts. “Knowing that they went through tough times when they had no money and no clients, but that they didn’t give up and came out on top, shows us that with a lot of hard work and dedication we can be successful too.”

Pitching in an Elevator

One necessity to growing a new business idea is funding, and these days most funding comes from venture capitalists (VCs). Many VCs believe that an entrepreneur should be able to describe their business idea within the span of an elevator ride.

mentors and students at YEA
From left, Jim Wolfe, entrepreneur in residence, School of Management; Larry Chambers, Julianne Pearson and John Larkin, members of the winning “elevator pitch” team; Judy Costello, executive director of the Business Alliance of George Mason University; and Yan Ling, assistant professor, School of Management.
Photo courtesy of The Entrepreneur Center @NVTC

For this reason, the YEA implemented an “elevator pitch” competition this year, requiring groups of students to describe their business idea to a panel of judges in under two minutes.

Before the teams selected business ideas, John Casey, director of the Fairfax Small Business Development Center, explained the difference between a solid opportunity and an exciting idea. Casey led a panel discussion about evaluation criteria that can help assess the market environment for the product or service, the window of opportunity and other critical components of the proposed new venture.

“I was really impressed that even though we provided the teams with a list of sample business ideas, they didn’t need to use them,” says Ian Mooers, Mason’s director of entrepreneurial and business development support programs.

“All of the teams instead chose to use a business idea that one of the members of their group already had. That allowed each team to use a completely unique idea for their pitch.”

The winning team’s idea was FireSpot, a secure Wi-Fi connection provider. Other elevator pitches the judges heard were for a company that would cut down on textbook costs for college students by allowing them to download sections and chapters of textbooks online, a luxury pet resort and a manufacturer of underwater accessory kits for MP3 players.

For Mason sophomore John Larkin, having his idea chosen as the winner was about more than presenting a good pitch, it was validation. Larkin, who founded Larkin Ventures LLC in 2004, started FireSpot in 2005 with two partners, including Mason alumnus Andre Christian, BS Systems Engineering ’00.

The other members of Larkin’s pitch group were eighth-grader Julianne Pearson from St. Bartholomew School in Bethesda, Md., and freshman Larry Chambers from Mount Vernon High School in Alexandria, Va.

“Having the opportunity to work on my elevator pitch with the other team members, for a company I am already fully vested in, was a great experience for me and brought in a fresh perspective to how we do business,” says Larkin.

“Being recognized as the winner of the competition reinforces our belief that there is a need for the service we provide.”

As the YEA wrapped up and organizers and participants discussed their favorite parts of the day and what they might like to see implemented for next year, the budding entrepreneurs were left with some sound advice from Jonathan Aberman, VC and managing director of Amplifier Venture Partners LP.

“When selling your idea to anyone, always remember: The idea is what will get them interested, but how you plan to make money is what will get them to invest.”

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