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Economy & Business

'Cram Challenge' allows entrepreneurs to make final push

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 29, 2013: It may not be quite the fast food-fuelled all-nighter of most youthful memories, but cram sessions aren’t just for university kids anymore.

“It might be relevant for college students who do it more often,” said Travis Sheridan, assistant vice president for innovation and entrepreneurship at the St. Louis County Economic Council, “but I think a lot of us could use a good cram session from time to time.”

And for those who haven’t yet finished their applications for the upcoming St. Louis Startup Challenge, that time is now. The deadline for applicants in the annual event, which is designed to boost local entrepreneurs, will pass at 5 p.m. Thursday. To encourage participation, SLCEC is sponsoring a Challenge Cram, a dedicated time the day before for latecomers to finish up their entries to the competition.

“We are inviting everybody in, having nice local pizza from Imo’s and drinks from Nawgan,” Sheridan said, “and getting these applications completed for the startup challenge.”

Now in its fourth year of funding from Edward Jones, the contest will eventually cull initial entrants down to a set of 30 who will do a complete business analysis and give a pitch to judges. Three winners will be selected in early October with the top finisher picking up $50,000 in prize money, with $30,000 going to second place and $20,000 for third. Awardees will also receive professional services and incubator space in the council’s recently rechristened STLVentureWorks network.

While the Startup Challenge has been around for a while, the cram session is new.

“It’s really based on the fact that each year we’ve done this, we’ve looked back at previous years and we’ve seen that a lot of applications come in at the last minute,” Sheridan said. “We thought, ‘Well, why don’t we try to coordinate that a little more? Have some fun around it and instead of somebody working late into the evening in their home, at Bread Co, at Starbucks, let’s get everyone together and build some camaraderie around it.’”

Sheridan said it isn’t unusual for an entrepreneur to come in late and ask for more time.

“There are a number of reasons why people have started the application but haven’t finished it yet,” he said. “Some might say that entrepreneurs are always known as procrastinators, but I like to think that they haven’t finished it because they are perfectionists and want to make sure all the t’s are crossed and the i’s are dotted.”

Sheridan said that he expects the creative juices to flow during the event. RSVPs will be taken right up until start time and about 20-30 people have already said they will be there.

“We’ve invited people to bring their laptops, their brains and their ideas,” he said. “We have plenty of seating, a classroom and a lounge area all set up. A lot of the staff will be around to answer questions if people get stuck on certain parts of the application.”

There is, of course, always a social aspect as well.

“It will also be a chance for the competitors to see and meet each other,” Sheridan said. “I liken it to the early stages of 'American Idol' where everyone is sort of camping out ready to fill out applications and impress the judges.”

Sheridan notes that that kind of activity can keep operators of potential startups in contact with others who share similar aspirations and problems.

“All too often entrepreneurs work in isolation so it is good for them to be able to collaborate and bounce ideas off one another, even if it is something as simple as looking at what makes for a competitive application,” he said. “It’s really laying the groundwork and playing into the theme of what entrepreneurs go through and finding a way to show that they are not alone.

“What wakes them up at two o’clock in the morning wakes their colleagues up, too,” he added.

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