Lessons Learned: Transitioning from School Competition to Full-time Startup

Kevin George and Scott Holand are the co-founders of HireCanvas and recipients of the $75,000 Rennert Prize, awarded by the judges’ in the New Venture category of NYU’s $200K Entrepreneurship Challenge. HireCanvas is a mobile career fair management tool improving the career fair experience.

After competing in the New Venture category of NYU’s $200K Entrepreneurship Challenge, our worlds changed. With or without the win, my co-founder, Scott Holand and I had already committed fulltime to our startup, HireCanvas. As we set out to build a meaningful business, we learned 3 critical lessons about transitioning from competition deadlines to growing a young startup.

Setting meaningful goals – don’t delay priorities for today’s issues.

Immediately after the competition we definitely had a ‘so now what?’ feeling. We had plenty to do but the Challenge was the guiding force of our first eight formative months. The Challenge required deliverables on strict deadlines, and now it was in the rear view mirror. So what did we do all day? In the first few weeks the answer was: attempt to put out whatever fire we thought was hottest. We needed a list of leads for customer development? Quick, email our network. We needed a new landing page? Quick, begin redeveloping it.

We were working hard but we needed to be more effective and make sure we were  working towards key milestones. To focus ourselves, we listed our business' 5 biggest risks and what we could do to mitigate each one. When we reconciled it with the day’s to-do list, a lot of the things we were scrambling to finish didn’t seem so important anymore. It was a humbling exercise that reminded us to look at the big picture. I’d recommend it to anyone.

The difference between we will and we have – get it done.

The customer development, prototyping and market testing we did during the Challenge had a huge impact on our trip to the finals but business competitions inherently have a lot to do with planning and vision, a.k.a. what you will do. During a post-Challenge coaching session with our finals judge turned mentor, Brian Cohen put it best by politely saying ‘this isn’t a business school competition anymore.’ He was reacting to a verbal agreement for future work that we proudly shared and he correctly implied that it hadn’t happened yet and without a signed contract it meant zilch. It was a start, but not an accomplishment.

This really struck a chord with me. His comment was simple, obvious and about something very specific but it applied to everything we did. It became the inspiration for this post which I hope encourages others to forego some of the mistakes we made. Our lives weren’t about prepping for the quarterfinals anymore. We needed to put on our big boy clothes, meet potential customers and really prove traction.

Differentiating from competition – appealing to judges versus potential customers.

During a business competition, it’s fairly unlikely that another team will compete with an almost identical idea. In a competition, differentiating means showing traction, market validation or team strengths to a group of judges who are probably not all experts in your niche. But in the free market, potential customers will stack you against like products and existing processes. Potential customers don’t care where you think you fall on a value versus cost graph. It takes practice to take tough questions about your product from someone who is experienced with all the alternatives.

Frank Rimalovski and the NYU Summer LaunchPad program drove this point home, encouraging us to have as many customer conversations as possible, field the tough questions and throw them back. You end up converging on what could improve existing alternatives and what it could take to really win customers over.

At the time of this post, Scott and I have spent more calendar months working together inside of NYU’s $200K Entrepreneurship Challenge than we have outside of it. Everyone should give an entrepreneurial competition or program a try especially at NYU, home of an incredible network of mentors and resources. If you continue working on that venture, I hope sharing the way we learned to focus our high level goals, act like professionals and differentiate from our competitors saves you some of our growing pains.