How An Unlikely Foursome Competed In Harvard’s Top Business Plan Contest

Inside Harvard's Cumnock Hall

Inside Harvard’s Cumnock Hall


Daylight fades as the team closes their laptops, raids the i-Lab snack area, and makes the short trek to Cumnock Hall where they’ve reserved the seminar room for a practice run. Tomorrow (April 29) at 2:15 p.m, they’ll present their pitches privately before the same judges who scored them in the semifinals. Then, the assessment was based solely on their business plan. They’d received encouraging feedback and were selected as one of four teams to progress to the finals in the Business Track (the contest also awards prizes in Social Enterprise and Alumni categories). Now, they have the chance to bring their idea to life and convey their enthusiasm in person.

The team appoints Kakitsubo to do the introduction. “It’s fun having a Japanese guy explain arranged marriage – we should make him our mascot. What’s that Priceline guy again? He’s basically like him,” Agarwal says. The team puts a timer on and runs through the presentation, making notes as they go. It’s still a rough run; they divided up the slides only a half hour before. After they wrap up, Luptak fires off a few questions to prepare them for the judges’ interrogation period.  “What would you do with the money if you win?” he asks. Kakitsubo throws in buzzwords about customer development, marketing, improving the user experience, and accelerating growth – he mentions salaries for new staff. “Don’t say salaries – we don’t use the word salary,” Agarwal interjects. “We have ‘Ramen profitability’ – just enough cash to buy Ramen,” he adds, throwing in the latest startup lingo.


The team awaits their turn to present to the judges

The team awaits their turn to present to the judges

Agarwal is the first team member to arrive at Cumnock the next morning. He’s sporting a grey T-shirt, with easyBiodata’s logo, a namaste symbol, which doubles as an upside-down heart. His eyes scan PowerPoint slides on his laptop while his iPhone broadcasts a cricket match. “I’m so nervous I can feel my heart beating in my chest,” he says as the others trickle up in matching attire. “About the cricket,” he quickly adds with a chuckle. The presentation has been delayed, and the team drifts in and out of conversation – finally they’re called in. The cricket match has gone into overtime.

The fourteen judges, which include Polaris Partners’ Terry McGuire, Chris Shumway of Shumay Capital Partners, and Mike Maples of Floodgate, are scattered among two horseshoe-shaped rows in the conference room – their eyes drift from handwritten score sheets to the team.

Kakitsubo launches into the team’s pitch, haltingly at first but gaining confidence as he goes. Agarwal follows, noting the changes they’ve made – including a move to mobile to meet Indian users on their preferred platform. He draws a laugh with his “Indians love a bargain” line. Pritchett goes last, the relaxed polish of her client-presentation consulting days shining through. She leads with the team’s next steps and leaves the judges with a list of highlights – the big selling points that could boost their score.

The team emerges from the room visibly relieved. But only briefly. They still have to prepare a 90-second pitch to present at the New Venture Competition finale for the Audience Choice Award. Over a hurried lunch, they debate whether to go funny or serious. Pritchett points out that funny could backfire, while Agarwal and Luptak contend that humor is key to standing out. Kakitsubo has run home to pick up his wife – she’s spending their first wedding anniversary cheering him on at the competition, but he’s promised her dinner afterward.

With only half an hour to go, they ultimately opt to take the audience through their business – from inspiration to idea to (hopefully) investment.  Pritchett will do the honors, but Agarwal’s experience will be the vehicle. By explaining arranged marriage through an HBS student, they hope to dispel the stigma and to create a connection between the audience and their offering.

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