Texas Venture Lab Preps Entrepreneurs

2015 Texas Venture Lab Scholarship Competitions winners: Omar Garza and Tenaj Ferguson

2015 Texas Venture Lab Scholarship Competitions winners: Omar Garza and Tenaj Ferguson

For many entrepreneurs, success hinges on the here-and-now. To fill a gap or capitalize on a trend, you need to get to market first. Such drive may garner headlines, but it doesn’t necessarily produce a sustainable enterprise. Inspiration is only a footnote if it isn’t followed by execution. When it comes to innovation, second wave solutions, buoyed by better financing, marketing, and distribution, often outpace their predecessors.

In a ‘fail fast’ era, it may seem counterintuitive to slow down. But steady isn’t slow. Testing isn’t delaying. And learning isn’t a luxury. In fact, many MBA students grow their startups as they take classes, using the curriculum and faculty support to freshen their strategies and focus their efforts.


That was the strategy used by Courtney Leffall, who’ll earn his MBA from the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business in 2015. Two years ago, Leffall was weighing entrepreneurship against business school. A Dallas native and certified financial planner, Leffall stumbled across McCombs’ Texas Venture Lab Scholarship Competition, where he could pitch his startup idea for a chance to win free tuition to McCombs.

At the time, Leffall was working on the “Grillmobile.” A sports fan, Leffall struggled with lifting heavy barbecue grills onto the truck bed for tailgating. What’s more, he found it difficult to keep a grill tied down and upright on the way to games. His father, however, had invented a mounting system that locked a grill in place on the truck bed. The system offered unusual flexibility. “You can swing it out making it easy to access the grill,” Leffall notes, “and it swings back and locks in place over the wheel well, thereby making it much easier to load it on and off.”

Courtney Leffall

Courtney Leffall

Intrigued by the chance to test his idea, Leffall submitted Grillmobile to the competition. After being selected to be a semifinalist, he presented Grillmobile to the competition judges, eventually becoming one of two full scholarship recipients.

For Leffall, his win reinforced that he was onto something. “I went in thinking, ‘I have an Idea. This might work. Let’s give it a shot…[After winning], I learned that my idea was worth something. If Texas thinks it’s a good idea, maybe I should move forward.” Even more, it gave Leffall the confidence to join McCombs’ MBA program. “There was validation at both ends: The idea could stand on its own and [McCombs] thought I would be competent enough to execute it.”


However, winning the Texas Venture Lab Scholarship Competition was only the beginning of Leffall’s journey. Deciding to continue his Grillmobile venture during the MBA program, he worked with professors and even engineering students to improve the quality, branding, and viability of his venture. “Courtney did what we hoped he’d do,” says Rob Adams, a management lecturer at McCombs who also serves as the director of Texas Venture Labs. “He took Grillmobile into every class he had. When he was taking marketing strategy or small business finance, he was working on this. He was constantly using the business as the deliverable for whatever the course material was. Part of what we try emphasize with students is that your full-time MBA not only [allows] you to accelerate the opportunity and road test, validate and test [your solution] out, but you’re also getting an MBA at the same time.”

For Leffall, linking his studies with his startup helped him extract what was important and internalize what he was learning. “One of the big advantages that the [Texas Venture Lab] scholarship gives you,” Leffall notes, “is you get to directly apply what you learn in class to your business and it makes it a lot of more real and tangible. It makes more sense.”

Courtney Leffall and his father on the Food Network’s Food Fortunes

Leffall also capitalized on the vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem of Austin, Texas, where he worked with investors and outside organizations to fully vet Grillmobile and learn various nuances of startup life. He also used his time at McCombs to iron out his business plan and compete in competitions to strengthen his pitch. At the same time, Leffall began to cast a wider net, going national by auditioning for ABC’s Shark Tank. Eventually, he landed a spot on Food Fortunes, a reality show on the Food Network. The show, which aired on March 30th – Leffall’s birthday no less, earned Grillmobile strong reviews (and a prospective investor). As with the scholarship competition, Leffall’s appearance on Food Fortunes made the next step in building his business less intimidating. “Now that I’ve gone through that, it not only validated my idea, but I’m more prepared to go on national TV and pitch [it].”

To Adams, Leffall’s story illustrates the goal of McCombs’ entrepreneurship program. “Someone like Courtney [will] be able to launch his deal once he graduates. He’ll pick up his diploma with one hand and hopefully have a check from an investor with the other hand and go do it.”