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Journal reporter reflects on success in Entrepreneur Challenge
alex cantatore.
Journal reporter Alex Cantatore gives his semi-final round business presentation at the San Joaquin Entrepreneur Challenge. Cantatore was named the challenges runner up, winning $7,000. - photo by Photo courtesy of Helen Ripken

When you work for something, really put your whole self into it, it's a bit hard to accept when it's all over.

But after months of hard work, the San Joaquin Entrepreneur Challenge – a “Shark Tank” style business plan competition, with over $24,000 in prizes – has drawn to a close. It's over.

No more skipping the Super Bowl to perfect my written application. A close to the ceaseless repetition of sales pitches, perfecting a performance for those two minutes that count. The end of sleepless nights spent questioning my presentation, asking how I could make it better, and wondering: would it be good enough?

The oversized $7,000 check, proclaiming my fledgling game development company as runner-up in the challenge, proves it was.

“Only runner-up?” you may be asking. “Wasn't there something more you could have done?”

I'll admit, I would have loved to take home the gold – and the $17,000 grand prize. And I've spent the last few days reliving the challenge over and over, thinking if there was a way to win.

But then I remember: out of more than 60 applicants, I finished second. And I'm $7,000 richer, which is no small sum for an impoverished journalist.


Proving games are big business

I was a long shot from the start.

Games are a niche market, one which most adult professionals don't inherently understand. And my game, ShardWar, fills a niche within that niche.

Essentially, I've developed a collectible wargame – a grander version of chess, crossed with the best aspects of collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh!, or Pokémon. It's drawn rave reviews from fellow gamers, but isn't something easily explained to those who don't come from gaming backgrounds.

I fought an uphill battle to convince a panel of judges – bankers, venture capitalists, college deans, and city executives – that my game isn't just some game: it's a business with a legitimate plan, which stands to set the gaming world on fire.

My chances were worsened by my status as a true start-up. I have no sales, no distribution contract, and no funding. What I do have is a prototype, excellent testimonials, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the gaming industry.

I knew I had to work harder than anyone else in the competition, just to stand a chance.



The competition kicked off back in February, when I submitted a written application to the challenge organizers. I spent weeks perfecting that application, ducking out for long stretches of a visit with my girlfriend's sister to make sure my message was clear, concise, and written so that judges had no choice but to stand up and take notice.

Then, from 60 entries, I was selected as one of 19 competitors in the first true round of the competition. We would deliver a two-minute elevator pitch – and that's all we could do to make an impression on the judges.

I easily spent 30 hours working on those two-minutes – driving my girlfriend insane with my incessant babbling.

It paid off, as I made the jump to the final eight, competing Wednesday evening at the Stockton Golf and Country Club. We were asked to prepare a five-minute PowerPoint presentation – and be prepared to answer five minutes of judge's questions.

I redesigned my PowerPoint several times, rewrote my pitch ad nauseum, and bugged everyone I knew to ask me questions about my business in preparation.

My nerves were rattling as I stood up to deliver my speech – especially since I drew the short straw and had to start the event off – but from what I remember, the pitch went pretty well. Of course, none of the judges questions lined up with my prepared responses, but the hundreds of hours I've spent researching came in handy, as I was able to respond quickly and with solid facts and statistics. Again, I thought my responses were good, but things were out of my hands at that point.

From eight, the judges would cut to a top four. As they prepared to announce those four, I had no idea who would make the cut – all eight were strong competitors.


The Top Four

Fortunately, my wait was short – I was the first to be announced as a finalist.

My three competitors all had strong ideas. John Paoluccio offered a manhole odor eliminator – essentially able to inexpensively remove the stink that wafts up from sewers. Cliff DeBaugh presented an emergency light which turns on when calling 911, helping paramedics locate homes. Willie Kelly displayed his wheel protection product known as “Willie Rims.”

Unfortunately, fellow Turlocker Tanaia Green, owner of Kid Time Fitness Company, didn't make the top four. But it certainly wasn't because of her spot-on presentation; she earned my vote for the top four.

We final four were tasked with solving a challenging business situation on stage, in five minutes, with no preparation time. Our performance, in conjunction with our past presentations, would determine the overall winners.

DeBaugh was asked how he would meet a massive order, in a limited time frame. Kelly was presented with a fictional employee who had started a competing firm. And Paoluccio was asked, theoretically, to sell 51 percent of his company to an investor with deep pockets.

The judges were, shall we say, not kind in their assessment of my colleagues' responses. I was nervous as ever as I took the stage for the final time.

And then, I was told the board of directors had – quite fictionally – decided to oust me from my position as CEO, bringing in an outsider to lead the company.

At first, I panicked. But I talked through the situation, asked for feedback as to why I was being canned and what made the new employee better.

Gradually, as I spoke, I warmed to the idea: as an owner, I want the best for my company, and if this new leader was a business genius who could take things to the next level, then I'd be all for it. Just so long as I still have a role in the part of the business I love the most: designing and playing games.

I just answered as best I could, but the judges loved it. All five said I'd answered perfectly, offering not a single follow-up question or suggestion for improvement. Even the mistress of ceremonies commented on how much she liked my answer.

In the parlance of our times, “Nailed it.”


The winners

And so, we reached the portion of the evening when winners were announced. I had a quick cup of coffee, but I think that only made my nerves worse.

After what seemed like an eternity, the winners were announced: myself, as runner-up, and Paoluccio, the overall winner.

I shook hands and thanked people, I'm sure of that much, but the moments after winning remain a blur.

As I look back, I can't help but relive the experience over and over, thinking if there was much I could have done to have won.

In the end, I think Paoluccio took the top prize because his business is considerably further along than mine. His opportunities for financial success are undoubtedly grander – there are far more manholes in America than gamers. And most people understand smelly manholes a lot better than wargames.

All in all, I can confidently say he deserved to win. And I am incredibly grateful to have been chosen as runner-up.


Looking Forward

That's the end of this story. But it's just the beginning for my business Parks and Wreck.

With my winnings I'll be able to make some serious progress with the game. What started as just a thought six years ago will be closer than ever to a state where real production and nationwide distribution are within my reach.

I'm not sure what the future holds for ShardWar. But I hope to share it with the world, and all of the great readers who have joined me through this journey.