By Tom Still

MADISON – As the unemployment rate in Wisconsin ticks higher, some talented but out-of-work people are pondering the ultimate way to avoid the next layoff notice. It’s called entrepreneurism, which is a fancy word for starting a business venture and striking out on your own.


It’s not easy, and it’s a bit scary for most people, but it’s also true that past U.S. recessions were crucibles for some of today’s most familiar companies: HP, General Electric, Sports Illustrated, McDonald’s, Trader Joes, MTV, CNN, LexisNexis, Microsoft, IHOP, Hyatt, Burger King, Applebee’s and Olive Garden, to name a few.


Is the next HP vision gathering dust on a shelf in Hurley? Is the next Microsoft idea scrawled on the back of a napkin in Mosinee? The Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest is designed to bring those ideas and more to light – and to help aspiring entrepreneurs write a plan that makes sense to the marketplace.


Saturday, Jan. 31, is the final day to enter the 2009 Governor’s Business Plan Contest – the nation’s first statewide, tech-based business plan competition.  The contest’s Grand Prize is worth $50,000 in cash and services, but many past contestants say the real “prize” was the plan-writing process itself.  Here are some reasons to enter:


·       You don’t have to be Tolstoy. The first phase entry is no more than 250 words, so there are no stresses about writing “War and Peace.” At least, not right away.

·       It’s free. There is no cost to enter, other than your time.

·       No stamps? No worries. All entries are accepted through The second and third stages of the contest also take place through that Internet portal, culminating in a 20-page plan.

·       Your chances of winning something are pretty good. If past contests are any indicator, roughly one in 14 entrants will reach the finalist round. That’s better odds than a Super Bowl bet.

·       Contestants meet some interesting people. The 50 semi-finalists may attend a half-day “boot camp,” where they’ll meet potential investors, successful entrepreneurs and others with start-up experience.

·        Your idea will get some valuable exposure. Semi-finalists may post their executive summaries on the Wisconsin Angel Network web site for secured review by accredited investors. Also, leaders in Wisconsin’s business press may see news value in your story.

·       Finally, and most important, many past winners have been successful. Most finalists from 2004 through 2008 report they’re still in business and attracting investors, partners and clients to their ideas.

Since its inception in 2004, more than 1,300 entries have been received and nearly $850,000 in cash and in-kind prizes has been awarded.  In 2008, 17 finalists won cash prizes.


Entries are made in one of three categories: Advanced Manufacturing, Business Services, Information Technology or Life Sciences. Entrepreneurs may enter multiple ideas, so long as each idea is separate and distinct.


According to a fall 2008 survey of past finalists, more than half of those who responded have received financing for their plan through a variety of sources – including angel and venture capital. About three-quarters of those who responded reported the contest led to an increase in public exposure for the company.


Starting a company during a recession can be like vacationing during off season. You’re competing with a smaller crowd and the prices can be better. Then again, starting a company is never a day at the beach: It is hard work that begins with a great idea and a business scheme to match. And if you start a company, your next boss will be the toughest you’ve ever known. That’s because you will be investing your own money and, with luck, support from friends, families and other founders.


If you have a start-up idea, give the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest a try at Who knows? The next company born during a recession might be your own.


Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.