The entrepreneur

Scott Block has always been interested in entrepreneurship. As an undergraduate , he looked for opportunities to get involved in start-ups at the University of Maryland, and he helped a few other students build Web applications for their own business ideas. Over time, he saw how difficult it was for those entrepreneurial students to connect with others like them on campus.

Two other students, Avi Eisenberger and Justin Searles, shared Block’s frustration. The three decided to work together to solve the problem by creating a place for student entrepreneurs to come together online, share ideas and track their ventures. The team created a platform and app called VentureBoard.

The pitch

Block

“VentureBoard helps students who are thinking about starting a business find the resources, team members and mentors to launch a venture.

“Universities are encouraging students to start companies, but things are still disconnected. We wanted to give students a place to find each other and connect, and then have the resources they need to organize their business plans as they evolve.

“The site’s users create profiles that others can search to find potential co-founders and early employees. Then they can use our platform to organize start-up tasks and delegate responsibilities among team members. We also have built in a collaborative business model tool so entrepreneurs can organize and update elements of their business plan in a way investors can understand.

“Universities pay a subscription fee to offer our service to students. We piloted VentureBoard with the University of Maryland this past fall and tweaked the system for students this semester. North Carolina State has signed up and it is rolling it out to students this semester. We are also in the process of customizing VentureBoard to launch at the University of Virginia through the student entrepreneurship club there. For now, our primary target will continue to be university clients, though we eventually have our sights set on expanding to nonprofits and the enterprise space.

“We have found the distribution process to universities to be a lengthy process — sales cycles are long. How can we tackle this and scale up as quickly as possible?”

The advice

Elana Fine, managing director, Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship

“University sales cycles can be very difficult to navigate when trying to scale up quickly. Saying universities are your target is not specific enough. Try to really narrow your target market to the universities most likely to sign up for your service. The best candidates are universities with well-funded entrepreneurship centers that place a big emphasis on helping students launch and grow businesses vs. more theoretical business plans. They should also be centers that serve a large population of students and universities where entrepreneurship is a core part of the mission. Identify the top 10 universities that fit these criteria, similar to the universities where you’ve already had success.

“You’ll find that the market within universities is really very niche. Because of that, think about how else your product can be used. Economic development associations and business incubators are good targets.

“In general, getting a product to a university is difficult. Your product has to address a pain point where funding is available. It also has to be something students want. Get students to start using your product and act as advocates to the universities. You might also look at getting a corporate sponsorship for a product so the university doesn’t have to foot the bill . It also helps if your product addresses an area where there is a lot of activity going on in general. That can help increase your relevance beyond your initial targets.”

The reaction

Block

“Focusing on the correct universities is great tangible advice for us. I think as we get success stories from our initial schools, more and more universities will be willing to jump on board. We’re definitely planning on expanding to economic development groups because we know our platform is valuable to any entity working to help entrepreneurs.”

» Looking for some advice on a new business, or need help fixing an existing one? Capital Business and the experts at the University of Maryland’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the Robert H. Smith School of Business are ready to assist. Contact us at capbiznews@washpost.com.