Ten weeks ago, most of the roughly 100 students enrolled in Carleton University’s BUSI2800 course didn’t even know each other.
The 4U Navigation Systems team was the winner at the demo day for Carleton's BUSI 2800 entrepreneur class
On Monday, the students, now in groups of three or four, presented the business ideas they developed in that short period of time.
The demo day was the culmination of the course, which deals with the early stages of startups.
The first part of the course, according to instructor Tom Duxbury, is about creating and finding opportunities.
“Their first job, to really get the creativity going, I give them an almost impossible task, and that is to come up with 50 viable business ideas in the first month of the course,” he said. “I tell you, at the first few lectures … their jaws are dropping, they’re looking around thinking, ‘Maybe I should find another course.’”
Mr. Duxbury said that after a bit of prodding and guidance, the students start to really look at the world and brainstorm problems that need solving before they inevitably come up with their 50 ideas.
After all that, the students have to discard 45 of those concepts.
Mr. Duxbury concedes that in the early stages, the definition of “viable” is more flexible than it might be later on.
“You can’t propose time travel,” he said. “On the other end of viability, they can’t come up with a chip wagon outside the university centre either,” he added, noting that one of the most bizarre ideas in his five years of teaching the course came from a student who proposed an underground casino.
“We kind of draw the line at illegal activities,” Mr. Duxbury said with a laugh. As it turned out, the casino was intended to literally be located underground and was therefore a totally legal pitch, but the idea still didn’t make the cut, he said.
Trimming 50 concepts down to five is a tough task, he said, but it teaches the students how to negotiate and analyze their ideas.
The students then post their five plans on a class website for peer review before paring their lists down to a single one.
“We’re asking people to toss their babies out of windows, which is how the real world works, right?” Mr. Duxbury said. “You have to be able to make hard decisions about what you’re going to work on and what you aren’t and which have the best chances.”
The students then develop a business model for their minimum viable product, which Mr. Duxbury said is used in startups to test assumptions about who the customer would be, the price they’d be willing to pay and whether the value proposition makes sense.
“The important thing is they get out of the building. It’s not just a theoretical exercise,” he said. “They actually have to get out and do some research and actually look a customer in the eye.”
During Monday’s demo day, each team set up booths around the room before splitting up. Half the team stayed at the booth pitching their product while the other half reviewed the other products. Mr. Duxbury, his teaching assistant and all the students received voting tokens, and after the final peer review, a winner was selected.
In the end, 4U Navigation Systems came out on top with its plan for a watch-like device equipped with vibration sensors.
“We’re trying to basically replace the guide dog,” said 4U team member Mohamed Mahmoud.
Drone Media, an aerial photography business, finished second, followed by OUNCE, a cocktail-mixing app.
Mr. Duxbury cautioned that the top three as voted by students might be completely different than a seasoned entrepreneur’s picks.
“They don’t necessarily align, but it is good because the students talk to each other, they critique each other, they really egg each other on. They’re really supportive,” he said.
Mr. Mahmoud said he was surprised by his group’s win, conceding he and partners Jessica Rowe and Menan Vadivelpillai have a lot to learn.
To that end, they will be pitching to Carleton’s Lead to Win accelerator on April 16, and Mr. Mahmoud said they have a lot of work to do leading up to the pitch date and beyond.
“It has to be perfect. That’s our problem,” he said. “Right now, we need people from mechanical engineering, electrical engineering students, to try to help us put it together. With (the) visually impaired, we can’t take any risks with that.”
He said the team plans on working on the business all summer, which is music to the ears of Mr. Duxbury.
“If they can work at their own startup instead of flipping burgers, that is tremendous,” he said. “We’re trying to get people to work on their own startups instead of becoming employees.”