Posted on by Jon Colgan
Editor’s note: In May 2014, CellBreaker won the NC IDEA grant. Recognizing the scarcity of written anecdotes from past applicants about their experiences, NC IDEA asked CellBreaker founder and CEO, Jon Colgan, to share his tips for winning the NC IDEA grant. This is one of a multi-post series in which he recounts his experience applying, competing in, and winning the NC IDEA grant.
NC IDEA grant winners tend to be entrepreneurs that seek advice. This tends to hold true in any startup competition. A Carolina Challenge judge once told me, “if you’re looking for advice, ask for money; if you’re looking for money, ask for advice.” This is why, as an NC IDEA applicant (and even well before), I sought advice from both outside reviewers and past NC IDEA grant applicants.
Outside Reviewers include anyone not “inside” your business who may participate in the NC IDEA applicant review process, and not just folks who actually handle your application, but also anyone who could possibly be consulted about you, your startup, or your startup’s market–domain/industry experts, seasoned entrepreneurs, and investors, just to name a few. The more you seek advice from outside reviewers, the better you’ll understand their various perspectives. This step is essential for preparing to run the gauntlet that is the multi-round NC IDEA application review by anonymous judges. All applicants participating in each round get feedback–both praise and criticism– but nothing can make up for time spent seeking advice before submitting your application.
The Role of Outside Reviewers Associated with NC IDEA:
It’s important to understand the precise role outside reviewers play in the NC IDEA process. Their primary role is to provide pointed feedback to applicants. Seeking advice from outside reviewers on the front-end allows applicants to hone their applications before NC IDEA takes a look. This was immensely valuable to me, because CellBreaker had a lot of moving parts, and the feedback highlighted for me what a third-party would care most and least about. So, it allowed me to tighten up the information and explanations I presented in early drafts of my NC IDEA application. Their secondary role is to provide NC IDEA a broad spectrum of insights and opinions to consider. This part is kind of like focus groups for market research. The opinions and insights outside reviewers convey through feedback gives NC IDEA a frame of reference for how seasoned business minds feel about what you present in your application. So, your goal in interacting with outside reviewers is primarily to listen and revise.
I urge you to take the spaghetti approach when seeking advice from outside reviewers; that is, throw a bunch of noodles at the wall and see what sticks. Take advantage of any startup resource you find, especially if it’s free, not a huge time-drain, and vetted by another entrepreneur you know and trust–this last one is the most important. Well, here. I’m an entrepreneur, and some example resources that I’ll vet include accelerators like The Startup Factory, incubators like Groundwork Labs, economic development organizations like CED, startup events like ExitEvent, angel investment groups like RTP Capital, and early-stage VCs like IDEA Fund Partners. What do each of these resources have in common (other than me vetting each of them)? They’ll all talk to you for free, and they’re all in the business of reviewing startup concepts and evaluating them.
People Will Listen
At ExitEvent, you’ll rub elbows and drink beer with hundreds of fellow entrepreneurs on a monthly basis. You’ll talk shop and people will listen; it’s like the opposite of your family dinner table in that respect. The Startup Factory, Groundwork Labs, and IDEA Fund Partners hold weekly office hours for entrepreneurs like you to come in and talk about the challenges you’re facing. These sessions are free. All you have to do is be competent enough to not waste their time with naivety and schedule a slot within their standing, weekly office hours. Lastly, there are several monthly and quarterly pitch events where you can stand in front a room full of investors and spectators and cut your teeth on the formality of pitching your startup. You’ll get immediate feedback and, more importantly, you will have broken the ice with every person in the room. So naturally, you could follow-up with any person you wish to get to know better after the pitch event. These events are free, and all you have to do is sign up and wait to be selected. So, just like the double rainbow prompted us to ask, what does it all mean? Bottom line: get in front of people and talk about what you’re working on. With all of these free resources, you have no excuse.
Let me repeat an important point: You should seek advice from outside reviewers well before you apply for an NC IDEA grant. Why? The lessons you learn by seeking advice will have no bearing on your NC IDEA application review unless you’re able to digest and incorporate them into the application before it’s submitted. It’s a practical point. Work hard on early preparation so you can rest easy with confidence at “crunch time,” and also so you don’t have to wonder what reviewers are thinking. You have already confirmed that you have a good idea, because you sought advice before.
That brings us to past NC IDEA applicants. Whether they’ve won or lost doesn’t matter for seeking advice. Talk to anyone who will share their experiences and their lessons learned. And this part is important: ask to read their past applications. The NC IDEA grant competition proceeds through two rounds of paper-application review before anyone ever sees your face. So, writing matters an awful lot. It’s a necessary condition for advancing. Treat this writing piece as you would any new writing style assigned to you in school. It makes little sense to just jump in until you’ve framed this style’s particular rules and quirks, and those according to a typical reviewer of this writing style. You should learn it all. The easiest way to do this, I think, is to look at past applicants’ applications, to pay attention to the feedback reviewers gave, and to note whether this application resulted in a win or a loss.
I’m grateful to Justin Beard of SnapYeti for letting me pore over his Fall 2013 winning NC IDEA application. If you know Justin, this won’t surprise you, but–to give you an example of the kind of nuance you would only pick up by reading a past applicant’s application, by reading Justin’s application, I learned which sections to inject with personal passion, and how to do it. Justin is a high-energy guy; he’s stoked about his startup; and his application reflected this really well. Although figuring out how to let your passion shine through in your writing isn’t easy, it’s critical for the NC IDEA application, and Justin did me a solid by letting me learn from his application how to do that. Two other past NC IDEA applicants (and winners) that gave me solid insights were FokusLabs founder, Rich Brancaccio, and current NC IDEA judge, Bill Bing, who actually wrote this excellent article on how to write a solid NC IDEA application. Be bold and seek past applicants out. There’s no reason to enter the NC IDEA grant competition with no idea of what to expect. Given the pay-it-forward ethic of most NC entrepreneurs I’ve known, not tapping into that would be squandering resources. Don’t squander resources. Seek advice.
Three birds, one stone. I suspect that every entrepreneur who has won an NC IDEA grant gets this metaphor. I’ll explain.
Seeking advice is not just about writing a strong NC IDEA application. The bigger picture is that you’re an entrepreneur, and your ultimate goal is to build a strong business. The NC IDEA grant’s value is merely instrumental to that end insofar as it funds a crucial part of an already strong business plan. If you’re not already in the habit of seeking advice from advisers and business folks whose expertise is appropriate to your company, then you’re probably not ready to apply for an NC IDEA grant. If you haven’t invested the time to hone your business plan through the friction of objective feedback, then you probably don’t have a strong business plan. Thus, the NC IDEA grant would be of little value to you. Seeking advice is the stone, and the first bird is honing your business plan. Get in the habit of seeking advice long before you think about the NC IDEA grant.
It’s also about the value of a network. So, the second bird is the invaluable relationships that seeking advice yields. If you’re habitually networking to find folks who could help you, then you’ll probably get way more than just advice. Usually, folks who give the most insightful advice are also either the kind of people you need to know or the people who know the kind of people you need to know. You’ll find potential partners, investors, and gatekeepers to whatever it is your business needs to move forward–and, perhaps, more importantly, they’ll find you. They’ll become acquainted with you as a person and the business you’re building, and that familiarity will thus enable them to dispense better advice and to know and offer more precisely the kind of connections that you need. Joe Procopio recently wrote about the difference in value of advice from someone familiar with your context and advice from someone unfamiliar. Cultivate familiarity with your network, and you’ll get better advice and connections.
Now, let’s say that you’re already in the habit of seeking advice, you’ve honed your business plan, and you’ve built a solid network of folks and resources that add both resilience and wisdom to your early-stage business plan. You’re ready to apply that habit to the process of preparing your NC IDEA application. Prepare a draft of your application, send it out to your network for feedback, then revise. Do this until you’ve addressed every hole in your business plan.
If you’ve been at it for a while, it’s hard to look at your business with a fresh pair of eyes. Objective advice highlights your business’s weaknesses better than you can. Getting feedback from your network, then, is essential to seeing the holes in your application. For addressing a hole, your options are to either fill the hole with a strong response or identify the hole as a lingering weakness, ideally, one that the NC IDEA grant could negate. For example, you might say that your admitted weakness is that you have no market-ready product and no funds to get it market-ready. Then you show how the NC IDEA grant could get your product market-ready. According to NC IDEA program manager, Andrea Cook, showing how you’ll use the funds to shore up a weakness is among the most important things to convey in your application. Application reviewers actually ask themselves something like, of the 100+ applications under review, for which applicants will the NC IDEA grant make the biggest impact? So, you actually do yourself a favor by highlighting a clear weakness and showing how the NC IDEA grant is the impetus to a clear solution.
The totality of all the months’ and years’ worth of advice you’ve sought will enable you to strike a compelling balance in your application between ambition and practicality. Ambition is essential to get reviewers to care, and practicality is essential to get them to believe in you. Applicants seasoned enough to strike this balance are prime candidates for the NC IDEA grant.