Nineteen hopeful entrepreneurs competed in the San Joaquin Entrepreneur Challenge on Wednesday, each with just two minutes to win over a panel of investors and business geniuses for their shot at $24,000 in cash and prizes.
When the dust settled, only eight finalists remained.
And I'm quite happy to say that I'm one of them – though I can't quite remember how I got there.
I certainly remember preparing — countless hours spent reciting my two-minute spiel ad nauseum. I remember taking my display board in hand, climbing the steps to the stage, and adjusting the microphone. And I recall someone shaking my hand and saying I did a good job after sitting down.
But the time actually spent on stage, pitching my business before a panel of distinguished judges? I can't remember much more than flashes, random moments here and there.
I'm going to chalk it up to nerves. But I've been feeling much calmer after learning I'll compete in the second round on March 21.
From the moment I first learned of the SJ Challenge, I thought the first round's two-minute length would be the hardest for me, personally. While competitors pitched easily comprehensible concepts like a Facebook app for restaurant menus and an iPad keyboard, my own business looks to market a new type of collectible wargame.
The second I say “wargame,” I lose many listeners, despite the genre's surging popularity. Once I explain it's a physical board game, not a video game, I get more blank stares.
I can't just say, “it's an app,” and move along. I have to describe the particulars of competitors, the size of the market, and what on earth a wargame even is.
And last Wednesday, I had to do all of this in two minutes.
I don't mind the challenge, though. It forces me to be more vigilant, to work harder to ensure that even a person who has never played a game in their life can plainly see that my idea isn't just a good idea – it's a business which refuses to be dismissed as “some game,” and an idea that deserves a legitimate shot at winning.
Of course, by Wednesday's “first round” of the competition, all of the competitors had already proved the merit of their businesses.
About 60 competitors entered a preliminary, written round of the competition, offering up a lengthy look at financial projections, market analyses, problems, and solutions. From those entries, 19 round one competitors were selected to give two-minute “elevator pitches” on Wednesday.
All of the ideas were interesting, from a fashion blog to an electronics rental business. As I listened to pitches, the difficulties of making it through round one only became more apparent.
I can't quite explain my emotions when my name was announced among those advancing.
In the seconds before my name was called, I believe “sheer horror” may be the most descriptive term. And immediately afterward, “unadulterated joy” may be apt.
But now, I know it's back to the grindstone, putting in the hard work to ensure I do my best on March 21.
I'm proud to be one of two Turlockers in the second round, joining Kid Time Fitness Company owner Tanaia Green.
Green's business, offering athletic classes to children, has been in business since January 2010. She hopes to use a portion of the prize money to work on expansion, bringing Kid Time Fitness Company to more after-school programs around the county.
“There are a lot of places that we could be that we just aren't right now,” Green said.
We'll be competing against Eric Hadden, who has developed an online reservation system for small businesses, Cliff DeBaugh, with a lighting system to make homes easier to locate in times of emergency, and Krystina Jackson, who looks to market a line of trendy wheelchair accessories. Also in the finals are John Paoluccio, with a new way to reduce odors escaping sewer vents, Willie Kelly, with a wheel rim protector, and Bob Jacobson, who has, essentially, a one-button emergency cell phone for seniors, which notifies up to eight caretakers.
All represent stern challengers, to be certain.
But the competition has become sterner too, with each competitor now tasked with delivering a five-minute speech on their business. Then, competitors must answer five minutes of questions from the judges, who are sure to suss out any shortcomings.
The issue with this question and answer period, Green and I have both noticed, is that our friends and families already have heard all about our businesses. We're left seeking new faces to challenge us in the run up to the March 21 competition, in hopes of preparing ourselves for whatever queries may come.
From there, the top four competitors will be selected by judges and an audience vote for a final round of competition that same night. Those four will be tasked with solving a series of challenging business situations.
After two years of operating Kid Time Fitness Company, Green said she thinks she'll be able to handle that final round quite well – should she make it through the five-minute presentation.
“I feel like I've already encountered a lot of interesting situations,” Green said.
Then, at long last, two competitors will be named as the 2012 San Joaquin Entrepreneur Challenge winners, taking home a share of $24,000 in cash and prizes.
Regardless of how things turn out, I can say without a doubt that participating in the San Joaquin Entrepreneur Challenge has been one of the most interesting and informative experiences in my life.
But it'll certainly be a bit more interesting if I make it to victory lane.
To contact Alex Cantatore – or to support your fellow Turlockers Cantatore and Green – purchase a ticket to the second round of competition at http://sjchallengemarch21.eventbrite.com/ , attend the 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. March 21 event at the Stockton Golf and Country Club, and vote for Turlock's finest.