State Farm Shows Off Its Entrepreneurial Side

2 members of IDEO Chicago offer words of wisdom on pushing the boundaries of design and development in between lightning rounds of pitching during Next Door’s “Amplify’d” event.

 

I’m actually leaving my job tomorrow,” one brave entrepreneur announces to the audience.

He doesn’t appear to have any employees, dedicated office space and it’s unclear how much working capital he has.

But make no mistake. He’s making The Leap. Because what he does have is a promising piece of software with slick interface that delivers the most viable job candidates to recruiters.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. Last Thursday, 20 other startups made the cut to join him for “Amplify’d,” a one-day lightning round of pitches at State Farm Next Door. During the event at the part community workspace, part café, each participant had 5 minutes to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges from incubators, retail consultancies and business accelerators.

Think Chicago’s version of “Shark Tank,” but a little kinder and gentler (these are still the people behind the concept of being a Good Neighbor, after all).

As the participants gave their pitches, I could see the judges would have their work cut out for them in selecting one brilliant idea above all or even a few.

How useful would it be to have an app that helped me find everything in the neighborhood for my dog?

What kind of progress could a pair of multisensory gloves with sensors and lights make during interactive therapy for children with Autism?

How many times would I love to have a “Hold-On” button on my phone to tell the caller I would be answering momentarily?

In between the lightening rounds, speakers from IDEO Chicago, BodyShopBids.com and RentStuff.com offered some words of wisdom and war stories about obtaining funding. Like every entrepreneur (myself included), they had made plenty of mistakes between where they began and where they are today – and learned what to do differently. But despite all those miscalculations, false assumptions and disappointments, I’m fairly certain they wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything. Even when the alternative was the “sure, safe thing.”

 

And the winner is…

In the end, the winner of “Amplify’d” was a mobile app called FasPark that delivers real-time local information about street parking and provides a driving path for getting there. Which couldn’t be more fitting, considering we were in one of the hardest areas to find parking in the city.

Second place went to eduLaunchPad.com, a “next generation” college search site where families of college students can find the best potential opportunities for financial aid and potentially minimize the student’s loan debt upon graduation significantly.

The third place award was given to a former college professor turned entrepreneur who developed an educational app called Nidaba. Designed to send daily activities to the parents of K-12 students, the app incorporates social gaming, points and badges so that completing learning challenges is a fun experience for parents and their children alike.

In a way, State Farm was on the big stage too.

In my view, “Amplify’d” represented one of the bigger moments for State Farm Next Door in its first year of operation. At its most ideal, it’s a community hub for collaborating and holding business meetings. But events like this are the much-needed extra step to build credibility even further – an excellent opportunity for the company to show its support to the very same entrepreneurs who might be using its space regularly to brainstorm how to get their ideas off the ground. For the good of building Next Door’s brand presence and judging by the participation, I hope they’ll continue with events like it.

Finally, forgive me for briefly getting on the soapbox: “Amplify’d” got me thinking that if more corporations hosted events like this to give aspiring entrepreneurs a greater spotlight for potential funding, we’d further develop and strengthen another needed financial avenue to the small businesses that are often referred to as the lifeblood of the economy. Not to mention it’s good PR for the brand hosting it, other sponsors/judges and of course, the entrepreneurs themselves.

At the very least, it’s the kind of event that’s a lot more exciting than watching entrepreneurs fill out paperwork for a bank loan.

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