Interview with Ami Kassar about “Pitch George” competition

On November 22, ideablob is sponsoring the “Pitch George” competition. It’s an opportunity for young entrepreneurs to present their business idea and get great feedback from an impressive panel. The event is open to high school students, undergraduates, graduate students, and alumni. The judges will include metropolitan entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and GW alumni. In the final round of judging participants will receive their final ranking along with cash prizes up to $1,500.

I had the chance to interview Ami Kassar, Chief Innovation Officer of Advanta and ideablob.com about the “Pitch George” initiative.

Cristian: Hi Ami, Welcome. Tell us a little bit about yourself

Ami: I escaped business school to launch Shop2Give, a philanthropic web startup in 2000. After the bubble burst, I moved east to join Advanta Bank Corp where I’m currently the Chief Innovation Officer. When I’m not focused on innovating, I’m spending time with my wife and kids.

Cristian: What about Advanta?

Ami: Advanta is one of the largest issuers of credit cards to small businesses in the United States. At Advanta, I lead a team comprised of a multi-disciplinary force of creative thinkers committed to helping small business owners and entrepreneurs. I purposefully seek out the impractical and improbable in order to push the boundaries within the company and the financial industry overall.

Cristian: I know that Advanta came up with the “ideablob” concept, but apart from that, what’s special about Advanta?

Ami: ideablob is an example of Advanta’s commitment to innovation and finding creative ways to help small businesses. We’ve been around for a long time and our innovative spirit keeps us going.

Cristian: You came up with the ideablob idea. What is this all about and how does it work?

Ami: Ideablob is a supportive community where entrepreneurs and small business owners share and grow their business ideas. Every business, every invention, every new product, every new marketing campaign starts with an idea.

Like seeds, ideas need to be nurtured in order to grow…they need attention, support and exposure. Ideablob helps provide this exposure to a large and supportive group.  People submit business ideas; community members give and get advice and then, each month, the community votes for the best idea to win $10,000. The contest affords a great platform for advancing your business and marketing yourself.  And, the contest is an innovative concept – an “American Idol for Small Business” on the web – frontrunners change daily and it’s fun to be a part of this dynamic process and to support your peers in their endeavors.

Cristian: Who exactly should participate?

Ami: There really is no typical ideablob community member.  Winning ideas have ranged from inventions, to non-profits, to traditional startup enterprises. We had a woman (Naomi Bar-Yam- January 2008 winner) from Boston who won for her idea to create a mother’s milk bank in New England and a student from Penn State University (Aaron Fleishman- February 2008 winner) who is working on improving access to health care in rural Africa.

Cristian: Who are the judges?

Ami: The ideablob community/user base. It’s an “American Idol” of sorts – entirely peer voted – for the small business set.

Cristian: Any success stories so far?

Ami: Besides the winners mentioned above, we have another winner (Chris Elam- December 2007 winner) who has recently received a total 1.25 million grant toward his initiative Misnomer Dance Theatre. Elam garnered the support of the ideablob community for his idea to establish an interactive web site for performing artists.  The common thread of all our winners is that they exhibit a passion for their ideas and a willingness to see them through that is distinct to successful entrepreneurs.

Cristian: Have you noticed any changes in the ideas presented and discussed with the current crisis?

Ami: Energy efficiency and the economy are the two big things on the minds of blobbers these days.  However, socially and environmentally conscious ideas are very present on the site…these social enterprises are often for profit but with a purpose. In fact, nearly 80% of the finalists and winners have been “social entrepreneurs.”  For the most part people are looking to start something and want to get their idea out there to the community.

Cristian: What exactly is bloblive?

Ami: Bloblive is a free face-to-face event that gives entrepreneurs and big thinkers the chance to bounce their business ideas off each other in a live setting. When’s the last time you pushed someone else’s idea further or helped it reach its full potential? Bloblive gives you that chance.

Cristian: You told me you are sponsoring an event at George Washington University called “Pitch George”. Please explain.

Ami: Pitch George” is an opportunity for high school students, undergraduates, graduate students and alumni of GW to pitch their business ideas to a panel of professionals. It is a great way for young professionals to get feedback from a panel of successful metropolitan area entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and GW alumni. Not to mention, a great way to sharpen up their pitching skills.

Cristian: What are the main judging criteria for the contest?

Ami: The panel will evaluate the participants based on their business idea & context, the idea content & quality, and their presentation style.

Cristian: Applications for Pitch George are already closed; can you say a few words about the participants?

Ami: The participants are current GW students, alumni and local high school students. I’m sure it will be a great group of students, and we look forward to awarding the ideablob.com cash prizes to the most promising graduate and high school students.

Cristian: Any advice for small business entrepreneurs looking to start a business in these tough times?

Ami: Follow your dreams! We have more and more users everyday who continue to share their ideas with the world.  The economy has ups and downs; we hope to help entrepreneurs and small business owners through these up and down periods by providing valuable knowledge, and resources.

Cristian: ideablob.com won People’s Choice DEMOgod™ Award in 2007. Tell us more about this.

Ami: Advanta was the only winner selected from nearly 70 demonstrators at DEMOfall for the enviable People’s Choice DEMOgod Award. DEMOgods are selected “for their ability to clearly articulate the jaw-dropping significance of their debuting technologies despite the pressures of a jaded audience, a make-or-break level of expectation, and a glowing red six-minute count down clock,” according to the show’s producers. Attendees at the event were encouraged to cast their votes for their favorite demonstrator. The People’s Choice Award celebrated the demonstrator that captured the imagination of the entire conference.

Cristian: Who are the ideablob expert advisors? (name a few)

Ami: We feature different guest advisors every week, and we look for knowledgeable entrepreneurs who give valuable feedback to our users.  This week’s adviser is Tom Taulli. Tom is an analyst, author and the founder of BizEquity.com. Besides writing for Forbes.com, Motley Fool and MarketWatch, he also has a weekly column for the AOL Small Business Channel. Tom is the author of various books on finance, including The Complete M&A Handbook (Random House) and Investing in IPO’s (Bloomberg Press). In addition to his writing, he has appeared on high-profile television venues such as CNN, CNBC and Bloomberg TV, and has been quoted in the various print media sources such as the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and LA Times.

Cristian: Is ideablob targeting only US entrepreneurs?

Ami: Yes, at this time the cash prize is only for US participants, but that doesn’t mean someone in Australia couldn’t give valuable feedback to someone here.

Cristian: What was the most interesting project so far on ideablob?

Ami: All of the ideas are interesting to me; that’s the beauty of ideablob.  I’ve seen crazy ideas, as well as dozens of socially aware ideas.

Cristian: On a different subject what is KivaB4B?

Ami: KivaB4B empowers U.S. small businesses to assist entrepreneurs in developing countries by matching the contributions of Advanta cardholders dollar-for-dollar, up to $200 per month.  That means every dollar contributed has double the impact. KivaB4B combines the power of Kiva.org, the microcredit lending portal, with the small business community. That’s what makes it a business for business (B4B) enterprise.

Cristian: Just to get things easier to understand, can you share a KivaB4B success story with us?

Ami: Check out our website at kivab4b.org.  We profile a different small business owner every week who each has their own success story on how Kiva and KivaB4B has impacted their lives.