Seeds of success planted at S.J. Entrepreneur Challenge
Jan 18, 2013 (The Record - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Back in 2010, Mark Davis took his startup software company Kitenga into the semifinal round of the inaugural San Joaquin Entrepreneur Challenge.
No, he didn't take home to Tracy any contest cash or prizes. But the competition -- entrepreneurs pitching their business ideas to a panel of experts and live audience a la "American Idol" -- forced him to sharpen his focus on the value of his software to companies interested in dissecting vast quantities of data.
That helped lead to its successful sale last year to Dell Inc., where it is now part of Dell's effort to move beyond the commodity PC business and into enterprise software. Davis now heads Dell's Kitenga Analytics group, based in Santa Clara.
"The challenge was a great opportunity to try to identify the value proposition and critical business ideas that were essential to our later success," he said this week in an email.
Before entering the 2010 competition, Kitenga had already won several government research grants, but Davis was still unsure how to find-long term commercial success. Especially difficult was explaining the use of highly technical software based on an emerging technology.
"What we learned later on was that selling complex enterprise software involves presenting our solution and our value proposition over and over again," Davis said. "That realization began with the test of simplifying and clarifying our business for the challenge and continues to this day."
That's not an uncommon problem, said Mark Plovnick, president of the San Joaquin Angels, a group of private investors that seeks out early-stage businesses for funding and is the primary group behind the Entrepreneur Challenge.
"If you're a technical person and you've got a technical product, you've got to work really hard to present it in a way so the nontechnical people can understand it," he said.
"Most of the time, funding is going to come from these nontechnical types," Plovnick said. "So you need to communicate that well enough to get them to want to take it to the next level."
Kitenga's specialty is so-called big-data analysis, extracting valuable insights from stores of data too large and often so unrelated -- such as billing records, Twitter feeds or photographs -- to be handled by traditional database programs.
"Our target was always 'unstructured information,' meaning text and tweets and images and whatnot," Davis said.
"As a concrete example, a large pharmaceutical company wants to analyze their research reports to better understand and discover old research so as to not repeat past efforts. By extracting meaningful descriptions and ideas from those reports, they can be compared, discovered and made available to researchers," he wrote.
And even though the Entrepreneur Challenge did not pick Davis as a prize winner, Plovnick noted he was one of eight semifinalists.
"We're happy that we picked him out of the 80 (applicants) that we had in the first place," he said.
It was also a thrill to hear that Davis had successfully sold his company, Plovnick said.
"Because at the end of the day, that's what the challenge is all about. We want to help entrepreneurs get to the next level and ultimately start their companies and grow them."
This year's Entrepreneur Challenge, which offers $24,000 in cash and business services as prizes, is accepting applications through Feb. 3. In addition, there is a series of free workshops -- Tuesday in Stockton, Wednesday in Modesto and Thursday in Merced -- where contest officials will offer instructions and tips on how to submit a successful application.
The Stockton workshop will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. Tuesday at the Northeastern California Small Business Development Center, 56 S. Lincoln St. Information: (209) 954-5089.
Head-to-head competition will be staged Feb. 27 and March 20. Full information about the contest is available at SJChallenge.com.
Davis said he'd encourage other startup entrepreneurs to enter.
"Absolutely," he said. "Unless one doesn't plan to find and engage customers, one needs to practice, practice and practice the fine art of presenting to a diverse audience."
Contact reporter Reed Fujii at (209) 546-8253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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