UVA Darden’s Start-Up Now Conference Answers What Makes a Successful Entrepreneur

22 November 2013

By Amy L. Halliday

“Is entrepreneurship something that stable people do?” asked Jonathan Aberman, the founder and managing director of Amplifier Ventures, speaking to a packed room at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. His question might have seemed rhetorical, but it provided some insight into this venture capitalist’s decision-making process. In evaluating early-stage deals, he said, he looks for evidence of patterns of behavior that are known to lead to success. He asks, “Is the entrepreneur crazy enough to be an entrepreneur, but not dysfunctional?”

Call them crazy, or call them creative and bold, aspiring and experienced entrepreneurs convened at the Darden School 8 November 2013 for the fifth annual Darden Entrepreneurship Conference, organized by Darden’s Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the School’s student-run Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Club. Among the roughly 400 attendees were students from 15 colleges and universities and two local high schools. Eleventh-grader Dylan Hunt, who founded an entrepreneurship club this fall at Western Albemarle High School, is studying both micro- and macroeconomics. “Entrepreneurship seems more fun than finance as a way to apply economics,” he said.

This year’s conference, “Start Up Now,” began with the annual Darden Concept Competition, which featured pitches from 10 ventures, chosen from nearly 40 applications. The first-place winner, announced at the end of the conference, was Lamarca, which matches up-and-coming handbag designers with the trendsetting consumers who want their products. In essence, the business creates crowdfunding campaigns for the designers, who produce their handbags only if a certain number of customers sign up to purchase them. “We like the use of crowdfunding in this project, and we like the market the business is going after,” said Vince Talbert (MBA ’96), the co-founder of Bill Me Later and one of the three judges at the event. Lamarca’s founders, Sarah Sanchez and Anika Brown both Second Year students, won $3,000 and a spot in the U.Va. Entrepreneurship Cup, the university-wide concept competition, to be held on 22 November 2013.

Second place in the Concept Competition went to Suraksha, a company founded by Second Year student Arshir Ghuman to market a food storage bag in developing countries that addresses the problem of spoilage by protecting against moisture, pests and extreme heat. Suraksha also won the audience award. The third-place winner was The Old Ball Coach, a football coaching simulation game developed by First Year student John Reyes.

Presenters at the conference included experienced investors and founders and others who are part of the larger entrepreneurial ecosystem. Batten Executive Director Sean Carr led a session with Jay Armitage and Jason Cooper, whose documentary film Kickstarted tells the stories of entrepreneurs who have raised money for their projects on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter.

“We get at the hidden side of crowdfunding,” Cooper said. A tremendous amount of pressure comes from both asking for and getting money from the community, he explained. “Everyone is watching. It’s hard to live up to their expectations.”

Crowdfunding involves a steep learning curve, commented Armitage, who spoke of the “30-day slog” he and Cooper went through in raising funds for their film on Kickstarter. The nonmonetary benefits, though — particularly the community of funders rooting for you — are even more valuable than the capital, they added. Kickstarted is scheduled to be released in summer 2014.

In a session focused on the role of ethics in new ventures, Chuck Newhall, the co-founder of New Enterprise Associates, one of the largest early-stage venture capital firms in the United States, spoke of the core values that have guided NEA since its inception more than 35 years ago. Barbara Dreyer, a venture capitalist with NEA who went on to co-found Connections Education, a provider of virtual learning content, stressed the importance of employee tenure and sharing success with employees at all levels. When asked by a student in the audience whether to pursue entrepreneurship or new-venture investing, Dreyer said, “Life is going to happen to you. Learn as much as you can from whatever you’re doing, and don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what you’re not doing.”

Charles Lunsford, CEO and chair of CrossRoads Equity Partners, also had some advice for would-be entrepreneurs. Lunsford recounted his experience buying Old Virginia Candle Company in 1999. He knew nothing about candles, but after much trial and error he grew the $3 million business to more than $50 million through product and brand development and contract manufacturing. “Ten percent is about what happens, but 90 percent is about how you react to that,” he noted. After being introduced as the new CEO to the stunned workforce at Virginia Candle, who had not been prepared for the change in leadership, he asked a mentor how he should help his new employees through the transition. The mentor gave Lunsford this advice: “Look people in the eye, talk to them, ask them about their families. But most important — smile.”

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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Sophie Zunz
Director of Media Relations
Darden School of Business
University of Virginia