Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Promoting Unique Business Ideas

by Mark

What started as an idea last August came to fruition in the past couple of weeks.  Myself and counterparts from three different organizations that I work with here in Mongolia developed and launched "Arkhangai's 1st Annual Unique Business/Product Idea Competition".  The aim being to foster an environment in our entire province that is open and welcoming for creative ideas to expand the types of businesses in the marketplace.

We opened up the application season March 1st with a goal of receiving 30+ applications.  After advertising via television, flyers, banners, and newspaper we closed the application period on March 31st.  We had received an incredible 56 applications from 15 different towns!  But we only had money/space enough for 10 applicants to attend the training portion of the competition.  We had to rate all of the applications so that we could choose the ten best to attend this second part of the competition - a week-long Business Plan/Proposal Development Training that would be mandatory for any applicant that was chosen.  During the week, the trainees would be given all the basic knowledge through lecture, projects, guest speakers, and multiple skilled trainers to develop their full business plan - including 10+ hours of one-on-one work with a consultant who would help them with the financials and other technical aspects of the business plan writing.

As an added incentive the ten trainees were in the running for the grand prize: 1,500,000₮ (roughly $1200).  But there was a catch...the money wouldn't just be handed to them in cash/check form.  Instead, this prize money could only be obtained in the form of re-imbursement for any interest payments made on loans necessary to implement their winning business plan.  Meaning, "Winner A" must actually start his business and make interest payments on his loan before he can approach our organization for re-imbursement.  (Some of you may be wondering just how far this money can go.  The average loan size needed to implement the business ideas proposed was about 6 million tugriks.  The highest bank loan interest rate is currently 1.6% monthly for 24 months.  That's a total of 2.3 million tugriks in interest paid using simple interest calculations.  So this prize money would cover roughly 65% of the costs associated with obtaining a loan!)

We structured our prize money this way in order to attempt to guarantee results and to see the establishment of our top unique business idea.  All but one of our trainees completed their business plan during the training, and three members of my staff rated their proposals using ten different criteria.  I just received the final results yesterday.  My staff was not able to choose just one winner - so instead we crowned two.  The prize money will be split evenly between the two winners.  But don't worry, both of the winning proposals only need approximately 3.5 million tugriks in loans to get started.  So that prize money should go a long way in recovering their costs!

I'm guessing that many of you reading this are wondering what types of ideas were proposed for this competition.  Well, I haven't looked at all of the applications that weren't chosen to attend the training...but I know there were ideas for magazine libraries and brown paper bag manufacturing.  But I can tell you about the top 10 ideas.  Enjoy the count-down:

#10 - Planting Chatsargana (small yellow berry used in fruit drinks) in Hairhan soum
# 9 - Toilet paper packaging
# 8 - Metal smelting for custom iron fence and roofing materials
# 7 - Using "yellow" milk to produce ice cream, jams, and candy
# 6 - Packaging Airag (fermented mare's milk) for use in ger camps
# 5 - Growing fodder for animals in Tsakhir soum
# 4 - Manufacturing cotton bags to replace plastic bags used in stores
# 3 - Packaging a form of boiled down animal meat product "stock" to be used in winter - I guess you just add water!
# 2 - Installation of electronic signs around our provincial center to replace all of the paper information boards - WINNER (most unique yet implementable idea!)
# 1 - Manufacture and sale of unique custom leather goods - WINNER (best business plan!)

I was part of the opening ceremony.  However, I was unable to lead any of the training sessions due to the fact that mere hours after this photo was taken my translator left for a 2 week trip to Russia.

One of the first activities was to have the trainees draw their unique business idea concept on paper and present it to the class.

This activity was showing the trainees how to set objectives to meet your goal.  They had to get from point A to point B using more than 2 different forms of movement.  But they had to tell us how they would do it before they attempted it.  (ie. 2 jumps, followed by 6 zigzag steps, followed by 5 hops, etc) This trainee was about to jump a short distance to achieve his goal.

At any given time we had 4-5 consultants wandering the training room helping people with their writing/planning.

After the first few days in the classroom, we moved to an Internet cafe in town that let us rent out their computers.  Here the trainees put all of their preparations/notes into an actual written business plan (with the assistance of consultants).

All of the attendees were given a Certificate for having completed the training.  This man happens to be our #1 winner as well.

The picture ended up being a little blurry, but this is the entire staff handing our #2 winner his "Батламж" or "Guarantee" saying he's entitled to 750,000 tugriks in re-imbursement money for being our competition winner!
Overall, the entire project was a huge success!  Yes, we had to change things as we went...but for the most part we were able to follow our project plan.  Thanks to funding from a United States Peace Corps SPA grant and to Mercy Corps Mongolia, and with funding and training assistance from the local NGO's Knowledge Network and Information & Education Center, Arkhangai's 1st Annual Unique Business/Product Idea Competition did happen successfully.  Ten different people have full business plans completed that they can take to the bank to receive funding for their ideas, and dozens more people were given the opportunity to express their ideas for what is needed in this aimag.  We've already begun talks on how to fund this project in subsequent years.  So here's hoping that Arkhangai continues to support the unique ideas of its residents!

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