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Student Proposal for Car-Buying Site Wins W&L's Business Plan Competition

A business plan to match new-car buyers with dealers nationwide won Washington and Lee University’s fourth annual Business Plan Competition.

The competition is part of the capstone course in W&L’s Entrepreneurship Program, which began in 2009 and is taught by Jeffrey P. Shay, the Johnson Professor of Entrepreneurship and Leadership. Seniors have to create a business plan from scratch, starting with the idea and then integrating everything they’ve learned from all the business courses they’ve taken. The business plans are then judged by a panel of entrepreneurs who are W&L alumni.

Stephen Lind, visiting assistant professor of business administration and leader of the oral communication initiative at W&L’s Williams School of Commerce, Economics, and Politics, critiqued their presentations ahead of time.

Members of the winning team: Kathleen Yakulis, an accounting and business administration major, from Pittsburgh, Pa.; Nathaniel (Nate) Reichel, a business administration major, from Nazareth, Pa.; George Cauffman, an accounting and business administration major and philosophy minor, from Malvern, Pa.; and James Lewis, an economics and business administration double major, from Tampa, Fla.

Their business plan, which they dubbed Price Pounder, would create a platform for purchasers to buy a new vehicle at the best price through a reverse-auction website, where an exclusive dealer network would bid to sell their cars online at the lowest price.

The original idea came from Yakulis, who said she has always been entrepreneurial and thought this idea would solve the traditional car-purchasing problem of having to visit different car dealers to negotiate a good price.

“I always thought that you could come up with a business idea, and if it was a good idea, you could create a business,” said Yakulis. “It surprised me how critical it is to have a business plan. You need to put your idea on paper and think about all the different components so you can have a comprehensive plan ahead of time.”

The students spent six hours a week creating the business plan; as deadlines approached for different stages of the project, they sometimes stayed up until 2:00 a.m. to finish.

The business plan had to include the advantages being brought to the consumers—car buyers—and also to the car dealers. The students looked at outside forces and their competition in trying to figure out how to be viable. They needed details about how they would market the business and acquire funding, and had to show whether the business could expand in the future.

“We definitely had our speed bumps along the way, especially at the beginning,” said Yakulis. “We had visited car dealers, and they were really excited about it, but we had to work out what the reasoning was behind their interest. So we did further research to get concrete numbers as to what it costs them to acquire customers.”

At the competition, the W&L alumni “asked some pretty intense and very direct questions, such as how we would market it and our steps to launch the business,” said Reichel. “We had to back up our answers with data and market research. Most of it we had already done beforehand, but there were a few things we had to go and work out.”

“It gives students an opportunity to receive feedback and talk about their business plans and to change anything before the presentation the next day,” noted Shay.

“This was the first time I’ve put together a business plan and had it critiqued by professionals such as the alumni and Professor Shay,” Reichel continued. “I learned that actually making an idea become reality is a whole new ball game in the amount of time you have to put into the project and all the different perspectives you need to take in terms of figuring out the whole picture.”

Reichel added that he would love to see the entrepreneurship class offered before the senior year so that younger students might have the time to pursue making their business plan a reality.

While members of the Price Pounder team shared the first prize, second place went to Spot Vending, a proposal for vending machines that provide healthy snacks to busy New Yorkers. Advanced Facilities Technologies, a mechanism that holds toilet seats in men’s restrooms upright when not in use, was third.

Members of the Spot Vending team were Campbell Burr, a Johnson Scholar and a business administration major and a creative writing minor, from Chevy Chase Md.; Brendan McGoldrick, a business administration and accounting major, from Erdenheim, Pa.; Mark Sowinksi, a Johnson Scholar and business administration and history double major, from Greensboro, N.C.; and Dillon Myers, a business administration and Chinese double major, from Foxborough, Mass.

The Spot Vending team found their first obstacle was choosing a viable idea from the many different products they thought of. “It’s interesting that when you take an idea and tear it apart and think long term, you realize that your first thoughts aren’t necessarily accurate,” said Burr. “Background research exposes a lot, and we learned from doing that.”

The students said they learned a great deal from the experience. “It surprised me how long it can take to become an expert in a field and how much you can still not know,” said Sowinski.

“I learned how to create financial statements I hadn’t done before,” said McGoldrick, “and the market research we did for this was so much more intensive than what we did in marketing class. The entrepreneurship class is one of my favorite courses at W&L. I loved it.”