– My College Business Plan

This post, along with the WhyNot? stuff below, reminded me of a business plan I wrote in college. I don't think about it much anymore, but it can provide some interesting lessons, so I think it is time to delve into the old hippocampus and share that experience with you.

In 1999 I was wrapping up my MBA, and in my Strategic Thinking course we were required to write a business plan. Dot-coms were all the rage, and we were supposed to come up with an Internet based business if at all possible. Most people were selling something online, but I wanted to do something unique. I racked my brain for weeks and I finally had an idea.

*** non-technical people may want to skip this next paragraph

I used to do signal intergrity work on circuits, which involved capturing waveforms on an oscilloscope and verifying that voltages were what they should be and that there wasn't too much noise. For those of you who haven't used an o-scope, the waveform displays changes as you move the probes around and look at different areas. You can freeze it two ways: 1) hit the RUN/STOP button or 2)set up a trigger to capture the waveform when all the trigger conditions are satisfied. Setting up a trigger is a pain in the ass if you have to do it for every signal and you have 300 or so to look at, so usually we would probe the signal and have someone hit the RUN/STOP button (although sometimes I could do it myself while I probed, but not always). I got tired of that and we had just received a new voice controlled word processing program in the lab which, according to the box could also work in Excel. Well, I did a lot VBA coding in Excel, meaning I could probably set up voice commands to execute code. I also knew that the o-scope could be controlled from a computer via the GPIB connection, although I had never done it. So, being the geek that I am, I patched all this together with code that let me issue simple voice commands to the o-scope and do things like execute the RUN/STOP button or change the settings so I could use my hands for probing circuits.

This setup became quite a novelty in our lab, and when the Tektronix salesmen came to sell us more lab equipment, we showed them the configuration and told them they should incorporate voice control into their products.

Anyway, I realized that there are tons of people out there with lots of good ideas, but no forum to get those ideas back to the companies that could use them. So I envisioned a website, which I called, where companies could solicit ideas and people could submit ideas. That was my business.

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I didn't want to rely on banner ads for my revenue, so I tossed around several possibilities. I thought of selling subscriptions to an ideas database, or publishing a newsletter with the best ideas. I thought users could target the ideas to certain companies or industries, and those companies could check out the ideas (if the signed an NDA) and then purchase them. In short, I wanted to be the eBay of ideas, matching together idea generators with idea users.

I got an A on the paper, and I entered the business plan in a contest. The contest was new so there weren't many entrants and I won first place, which was $1000. The sponsors talked with me about really starting the company, but I told them I had little confidence in my revenue models, and I saw no long term sustainable competitive advantage for the business.

A little less that a year later, I read in the Wall Street Journal about a new site –, where they were doing pretty much what my business plan described. I emailed the guys and told them about my business plan and they said they were hiring creative people but I told them I didn't they would make it and wished them luck. I watched the site for awhile, and sure enough most of the ideas they got were from crackpots. I was amazed at how many ideas there were for stuff that already exists, and how many posts there were that said things like "NEED INVESTORS, GREAT IDEA, GUARANTEED TO DOUBLE YOUR MONEY IN 6 MONTHS, CONTACT…". Eventually, they shut down and the website is now owned by another company.

Even though I didn't actually have any involvement in the business, I felt like I learned something from it because I got to see my idea in action. Could they have been successful? I don't know for sure, but I doubt it. I still think a market for ideas exists, but the business model needs to be different. Great companies have some sort of sustainable competitive advantage, which is what was lacking. Even if they had some short-term success, the barriers to entry were low and competition would have sprung up quickly to cut out any nice profit margins. The primary lesson, I think, is that there is more to business than a good idea. Companies need idea people. They shake things up, challenge assumptions, and are in general of great value. But the execution people are just as important, because an idea, if that is all it remains, isn't really that useful.

(I consider any ideas I post to now be in the public domain, so if you have a way to use this information to start a successful company, be my guest. But please keep me informed as to how it goes.)