UI's Venture Schools helps entrepreneurs decide if their business idea is worth pursuing
Monday, October 27, 2014

You think you have a great idea for a new business. Your friends think you have a great idea for a new business. Your family thinks you have a great idea for a new business.

But what about other business owners, the people who really know how to run a business? Do they think you have a great idea for a new business? A University of Iowa program offered around the state will help entrepreneurs answer that question, and see if there’s room in the market for that great idea.

The next session of Venture School will be offered next spring in Iowa City/Cedar Rapids from Jan. 20 to Feb. 27, 2015; in Council Bluffs from March 29 to May 5; and Davenport/Quad Cities from March 3 to April 17. A session is also planned for Sioux City later in the year.

The program is called Venture School and it’s an intensive six-week course where people with what they think are great business ideas work with experienced mentors and possible investors to test those ideas and see if they really are great.

“We’re evidence-based entrepreneurship, not faith-based,” says Kurt Heiar, a lecturer in the university’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center and lead instructor for Venture School.

Venture School is based on a model developed by the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program, Stanford University, University of California Berkeley, and Columbia University. The idea is to take the discovery phase of building a business—when the entrepreneur gathers the information that’s needed to determine if there’s enough of a market to turn an idea into an actual going concern, a process that often takes a year or more—and take care of it in just a matter of months.

For instance, one requirement is for participants to find potential customers in the community and ask them what they think.

“It’s a de-risking process,” Heiar says. “By the end of the program, they will know what the need is, who has that need, and what your market looks like.”

The program also pairs participants with serial entrepreneurs or investors, and they help guide less experienced to find the information they need to make a decision.

Kurt Heiar
Kurt Heiar

“Our mentors offer frank feedback and identify a legitimate business opportunity as opposed to what’s a hobby,” Heiar says.

Businesses that want to participate in Venture School are selected based on their ideas, Heiar says. Each team must have a minimum of two individuals participating, and their business idea must be translatable into an expandable business model, if they determine there’s a business worth further pursuit.

Heiar says participants should be coachable and not take criticism personally, and be able to find answers themselves.

“We don’t give anyone answers,” Heiar says. “We’ll make suggestions, point you toward people you should talk to, but the participants have to take ownership in the process.”

The classes started in the summer of 2013 and have been offered in Iowa City, Des Moines, and currently in Cedar Falls, with 37 teams comprising 113 entrepreneurs participating so far. The ideas they’ve been developing have been for such diverse businesses as a medical device manufacturer, medical service provider, retail stores, software and app developers, even an artists’ colony.

One of the businesses to come from the class is BloomSnap, an online floral retailer that participated in Venture School’s Des Moines program that ended Oct. 3. The company sells flower bouquets to budget-conscious consumers who don’t have time to wade through a website loaded with photos of bouquets that may or may not look like that when actually delivered.

Lyndsay Horgan and Shawn Harrington
The UI John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center’s Venture School program helped Shawn Harrington (left) and Lyndsay Horgan get their BloomSnap business off the ground in Des Moines. Photo courtesy of Harrington and Horgan.

Through the Venture School exercises, company founders Lyndsay Horgan and Shawn Harrington found they had not sufficiently defined their market, and their message was too detailed.

“Our messaging wasn’t hitting the right target,” says Harrington. “We were talking too much about lower level detail, things the consumer didn’t value.”

They’re now tweaking their message to focus more on what the consumer wants without going into details that don’t motivate consumers.

“We learned the time saving benefit was really what consumers thought was the biggest benefit,” Clark says.

They discovered, too, that their refined consumer message also helped them refine their pitch to those who might potentially invest in BloomSnap.

“There’s a lot fewer follow-up questions now and more follow-up discussion because we do a better job of answering their questions during our presentation,” Harrington says.