The Wharton Business Plan Competition: Wait, we still have one of those?

Scott Bierbryer WG’14, Co-Founder of VeryApt

“Please move slowly and don’t break anything,” says my Jewish mother

In a tech ecosystem that idolizes Facebook (“move fast and break things”) and Y Combinator, the Business Plan Competition feels particularly anachronistic and maybe even damaging to innovation. I couldn’t disagree more.

Virtually all the finalists have working prototypes and traction

Picture 1
Hypothetical Snapchat from Joseph Wharton from the last time most people assume we needed business plans. I figure he wears one of those green accounting visors, so I added that.

To be a contender in the WBPC, real work has to be put into your business to demonstrate traction. My company, VeryApt, a personalized apartment recommendation platform and review community, failed to advance past the initial round in 2013, driving us to create the MVP and execution plan that ultimately led to our third-place finish in the 2014 competition.

Today, we are live in 10+ markets and thousands of renters find their perfect apartment on VeryApt each year. Three key components from the WBPC have driven our success:

1. Feedback: 50 professionals from all the fields relevant to our business tore our plan apart in a way that hundreds of customer and VC pitches could never accomplish. From this, we built a stronger revenue model, product, and narrative to improve our unit economics, customer experience, and fundraising approach, respectively.

2. Mentorship: WBPC assigned us a mentor who became a true partner. Not only was his advice instrumental in the competition, but he became an investor and introduced us to Josh Kopelman, who kick started our Angel Round through the Startup PHL Angel Fund (along with Wharton startup Tesorio).

3. Validation to ourselves, not the judges: The biggest risk to a Wharton startup is that it never starts at all. The chance to perform thorough research on your concept and address tough questions gives you the confidence to know that your opportunity is real, even if someone who spends 15 minutes with your business doesn’t think so. This is why Wharton companies such as Warby Parker and CommonBond become so successful despite in many cases not advancing past the Semifinals.

VeryApt MVP from the WBPC in 2014 (left) compared to VeryApt today (right)
VeryApt MVP from the WBPC in 2014 (left) compared to VeryApt today (right)

A whole business plan now in 140 characters or less in a pitch deck

If you told me as an MBA student at Wharton that one day VeryApt would have a six-person team and also have artificial tree stumps for seats I would have never believed 50% of that statement.
If you told me as an MBA student at Wharton that one day VeryApt would have a six-person team and also have artificial tree stumps for seats I would have never believed 50% of that statement.

The WBPC may not be the most appropriately named. Although now a pitch deck instead of a 25-page plan, the hallmark of the competition is still solid, revenue-generating businesses backed up by thorough research. The WBPC is well-designed to supercharge participants with feedback, mentorship, and validation – as well as acting as a forcing function to turn your ideas into real products.

Since the Business Plan Competition, VeryApt has raised over $1M in angel and venture capital and achieved profitability in our core markets. The finalists from my 2014 cohort show similar progress through the WBPC approach – they have raised over $5M from top-tier investors (Slidejoy, Abaris, Admitsee, Identified Technologies), bootstrapped businesses that are disrupting markets (Senvol), and make a mean sandwich (Matt and Marie’s).

Whether they’re in the finals or not, amazing companies will emerge from this year’s WBPC, and I couldn’t be more excited.

Headshot 200Bio: Scott Bierbryer WG’14 is a Co-Founder of VeryApt, a personalized apartment recommendation platform and review community, based in Philadelphia. VeryApt was founded at Wharton along with Co-Founder Ashrit Kamireddi WG’14 and placed third in the 2014 Wharton Business Plan Competition.