By Tom Still

MADISON – An economic development rap against Wisconsin is that it’s devoid of entrepreneurs; that most people here would rather work 9-to-5 for a big company than start their own business.

The first Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest is exploding that myth – and helping to spread the message that Wisconsin is a state populated by its fair share of risk-takers and innovators.

When the deadline for entering Wisconsin’s first statewide business plan contest passed, about 330 plans had been filed through the contest web site in four categories – Business Services, Advanced Manufacturing, Information Technology and E-Commerce, and Life Sciences. The plans came from 234 individuals from all corners of the state, with 101 different communities represented.

The totals were surprising in this sense: Our most optimistic estimate within the Wisconsin Technology Council was that 200 or so plans would be filed. Then again, it confirmed what members of the Tech Council and even Gov. Jim Doyle had been saying all along: If you give Wisconsin entrepreneurs a chance to put forward their best ideas, they will do so.

So, what is a “business plan” and how does a contest help make such a plan a reality?

A business plan is a document that summarizes the operational and financial objectives of a business and contains the detailed plans and budgets showing how those objectives are to be met.

Because the business plan contains financial projections, forecasts about the performance of a business, and a marketing plan geared to the size of the opportunity, it’s an essential tool for business planning. For anyone starting a business, a business plan is a first step.

A contest helps flush out good ideas by offering prizes and chances for constructive feedback. For example, the three-dozen or so judges in the Governor’s Business Plan Contest will not only “score” each plan numerically, but provide limited written feedback on what they liked or questioned. A pool of volunteer mentors will be available for those contestants who survive the first round. Winners can receive cash prizes – more than $100,000 has been raised so far – or valuable business services.

The real value of a business plan contest is that it brings great business ideas to the attention of people who can help fund them – thus creating new companies and jobs for Wisconsin.

“Entrepreneurs are the change agents of the economy,” said John Byrnes, executive managing partner of Mason Wells Private Equity in Milwaukee. “In a capitalistic system, entrepreneurs build up new business models for the economy by introducing new economic paradigms based on new technology. Without entrepreneurs, the new knowledge created in a society will not be brought into the market.”

In other words, entrepreneurs are like new growth in an old forest. They are a natural part of the regeneration process.

For years, even decades, people in Wisconsin didn’t have to worry much about the regeneration of the state economy. Manufacturing was king (and still is) and jobs seemed to roll off the assembly line, despite high taxes, too much government red tape and the lack of a true “tech transfer” process. In today’s competitive world, the creation of new jobs and companies cannot be taken for granted. There must be established avenues for bringing new ideas to fruition as the old ways evolve — or die.

The Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest is one such avenue. If similar contests run by major universities and corporations are any guide, some of the best plans in the Wisconsin contest will attract funding from angel investors and venture capitalists. That will speed the transformation of plans into action.

For now, the Wisconsin contest is the only statewide business plan contest in the United States. That’s worth noting the next time someone cites a national survey that says Wisconsin is lacking in entrepreneurial drive. That spirit is there. It simply needs to be channeled.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, which is producing the Governor’s Business Plan Contest.