Competing to be ‘Entrepreneur Idol’

Times Staff Writer

They don’t usually teach this in business school: When it comes to launching companies, style can matter as much as substance.

The budding capitalists at Stanford University on Friday held “Entrepreneur Idol,” a takeoff on the Fox Broadcasting talent show.

Instead of singing tunes by Bon Jovi or Burt Bacharach, 48 students each had one minute to pitch their best business ideas. The winner would land $2,000 in seed money and connections to a top-level venture firm -- but first had to win over a panel of four venture capitalists and one technology blogger.


Stanford has long fed Silicon Valley’s start-up factory, with students going on to create such notable companies as Google Inc. Charles River Ventures, a firm with offices on Menlo Park’s Sand Hill Road, sponsored the event to embed its name in the brains of the future titans of business with whom it might one day work.

But the firm also wanted to go beyond the traditional business school education -- preparation, financial analysis, market research -- and teach the students something about selling business concepts in the real world.

“If I can’t connect to them personally in the first 15 seconds, they’ve lost me,” said George Zachary, a Charles River partner.

As the organizers set up the event in a classroom at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, there was a scramble to figure out the timer and find an Internet connection for one of the judges, Michael Arrington, editor of the influential blog TechCrunch.

“I don’t mean to be a pain,” he said. “I just can’t be offline. Ever.”

The students came in one at a time, some in sandals and shorts, others in khakis or business suits.

Linus Liang, 25, a first-year graduate student in computer science, held up a diapered baby doll.


“What if I could tell you how you can save 4 million babies a year?” he asked. His idea: create a low-cost incubator that could help infants in developing countries.

Aman Naimat, 23, another computer science graduate student, first pitched a consumer site. He came back a few minutes later to pitch a video piracy idea. “I have no business model,” he said. “I just came up with this idea yesterday.”

Jeff Piper, 29, a second-year business student, offered software that sifts important e-mail from the rest. “E-mail interruptions reduce people’s IQ twice as much as smoking pot,” he said.

Rajni Rao, 25, a first-year business student, proposed doing for Indian food what Taco Bell has done for Mexican. “Help me diversify the American palate,” said the potential chief executive of Little Taj.

Dan Abelon, 27, a second-year business student, said the problem with online dating was the work required to create and sift through profiles. His solution -- SpeedEDate, an online dating site using video clips and live webcams.

The scores were tallied. SpeedEDate made the cut, as did Little Taj.

The five finalists pitched again. Robert Zhang talked about his idea for lighting made with organic material. “It’s the biggest breakthrough since Thomas Edison,” he said.


“I’d use fewer words in your pitch,” Zachary said.

Andrew Sypkes, a 30-year-old business student who is hearing impaired, pitched a way to sell hearing aids. Zachary, channeling Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell, called the pitch “personal and authentic” but then criticized it as “a little flat -- rehearsed.”

“I didn’t get a sense you would do anything for this business,” Zachary said. “I didn’t hear: ‘This is not an iPod. This is an EarPod!’ ”

Arrington warned Rao about Little Taj, saying he had lost money investing in a restaurant during his Stanford Law days. “I’m always wary of Stanford business students pitching restaurants,” he said. “I hope to try it out before it goes out of business.”

Liang brought out the doll again for his pitch. Charles River partner Saar Gur called the prop “questionable.”

But as with “American Idol,” the viewers decided. The crowd of rejected contestants and student spectators clapped and cheered the loudest for Liang, who took home the $2,000 grand prize.

He just smiled to the audience, then scurried to the judges for more advice.