The University of Denver’s Shark Tank Experience

September 18, 2013

Private University Magazine

Dr. Stephen Haag is a Professor-in-Residence in the Department of Business Information & Analytics in the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business. Formerly, he served as Chair of the Department of Information Technology and Electronic Commerce, Director of the MBA Program, and Associate Dean of Graduate Programs. Dr. Haag is the author or co-author of 48 textbooks, mostly in the IT field. Outside the classroom, Stephen’s consulting activities are concentrated within the federal government including NASA, The Air Force, Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Personnel Management, and the NSA.

Dr. Haag has created an inspiring and innovative Gateway to Business course,designed for anyone interested in majoring in Business. Haag explains that about 700 students completed the course in its first year, which included forty students per section with seven faculty members covering those sections. They piloted the course during spring semester before it was “rolled out in grand scale the next year.” Tasked with finding a fresh way to approach a course that would incorporate the concepts and principles of business–as any survey course would–along with some exiting, real-world applications for those principles, Haag designed a business proposal for the course. Of course, Haag is quick to share the accolades. He notes, “While I am ‘the face’ of the Gateway course, it really does belong to the Daniels College.” He makes it clear that the course is not a credit to him alone but “to the entire business school faculty.”

Effective Teams and The Madden Challenge
The course would cover the “3 A’s of Learning–Affective Development, Academic Development, and Application Development” and culminate in a business plan and a product. Within 72 hours of presenting the course to a few University of Denver alumni, they had a check for a full five years of course funding from a talented local businessman. John W. Madden Jr. is a successful real estate developer, and he created “The Madden Challenge” for these students to accompany Haag’s course design.

Additionally, students aren’t just divided into makeshift teams based on last names or random selection; they also can’t have more than five in a team, or Haag believes some members may fall into “social loafing.” Furthermore, they are learning “how to work in teams and how to manage teams”–invaluable tools for Business majors who will “need team collaboration skills” to be successful.

“Everything we do is very, very purposeful,” Haag explains. All students are given various personality and learning styles tests, and all students are provided with those results. With these methods, students can consciously build a team that is balanced by various work styles and modes of thinking. They could also construct teams of diverse members who would mesh well together. After the testing was completed and results were shared, they held an held an “Open Mic Night,” where anyone with an app idea had sixty seconds to sell his or her concept to the crowd. That way, students could connect with their passions and interests as well, rather than falling into “a blind grouping.”

While the course has trained these students in the principles and concepts of business and setting up a competitive business plan, they are also being taught app prototyping tools. By the course’s end, these student-teams can create a functional prototype to accompany their ten-twelve page business plan. The Madden Challenge has the same premise as the television show “The Shark Tank”–where winning teams (decided by a faculty committee) present their app and business plan to a select group of successful local business people who can choose to provide seed money for a portion of this business.

University of Denver faculty members serve as mentors for their students here as well, to ensure students broker smart and fair deals with these “angel investors.”

Mentorship That Continues After the Competition
“They all wanted a shot at swinging for the fences,” Haag adds, and the disappointment he witnessed was “the worst part of the course.” However, whether these students were the ultimate Madden Challenge winners, all had the same opportunities to create and develop their own unique app,an experience that will set them apart from many other first-year Business majors across the country. Additionally, though only one team could win for fall and one could win for spring, many of the other student groups have continued faculty support after the challenge, so they could pursue this passion after the class ended and perhaps be put in front of angel investors at another point in their process. This same sentiment is echoed by Dr. Dan Connolly, the Senior Associate Dean for Academic Programs, an administrator Haag credits for providing the leadership that helped them develop this powerful course. Though Connolly notes that it may be cliché to say that “everybody is a winner,” in this case that cliché may also be true. In this powerful, experiential course work, whether they secure seed money at this point of the process or not, “this healthy competition presents a challenge that will benefit all students.”

Connolly also notes that the Real World of business is also highly competitive but also highly collaborative. Additionally, the angle here is far from cut-throat; it’s about students “benchmarking against themselves” which encourages challenging themselves and even a certain level of risktasking.Moreover, this challenging atmosphere allows them to see all aspects of business, including what they don’t yet know. He adds, “It’s not all about winning the prize.” 

Haag, likewise, is not focused on winning teams alone. Haag sees his role as educator as a long-time mentor for all of his students. He explains,“The course has a specific start but should never have a specific end.” Haag wants his students to see their goal as not necessarily securing a job with an established company but to “create employment upon graduation.” He wants his students to have a unique opportunity to leave college knowing, “I am employed. I am my own employer.”

Though Haag notes there was “some trepidation” among faculty who would be teaching app design, they all responded amazingly well to the challenge. Interestingly, none of the students were intimidated at the idea of prototyping an app, though this would be a completely new experience and skill set for most of them. Haag notes, “They are all digital natives—born in The Digital Age.” Haag adds that the angel investors are “blown away” by what these first-year students are capable of creating in such a short time.

Joshua Ross is a highly successful Denver businessman who has taught the course as well, and be believes Haag has done an outstanding job of “making a concept a reality,” as well as selling the concept to faculty and securing funding. Because he is a businessman first, and only recently an educator, Ross recognizes the immense value in these “real-life connections” being made in the classroom. He thinks many undergraduate courses aren’t supplying the connections these students need and focus more on “chunks of information.” As such, he sees the University of Denver students as having a definitive edge, when most students are coming out of undergraduate programs with an understanding of concepts and theories but no practical experience. In addition to being able to put together a basic business plan, they can discuss at great length with a potential interviewer a specific project they have worked on.

They can talk about apps, the difference in operating systems on iPhones and Androids,who has market share, and the globalization of smart phones; they can even demo their own prototype with the polished and professional presentation skills honed in that same classroom. As someone who has hired a great many people, Ross recognizes the value of these students who bring marketable skills immediately. He notes, “From day one, they can start doing actual work,” and these are freshmen only a few weeks into their first semester of college.

The Madden Challenge Winners
Danny Zimny-Schmitt is a freshman double majoring in Environmental Science and Business. He recalls thinking Business 1000 “would be no more than a bland introductory required course complete with more Facebook pages open than lecture slides on the students’ laptops.” Luckily, for Danny and his peers, they instead had a life-changing experience and met an exemplary mentor in Dr. Haag. Danny shares, “Stephen was an amazing teacher who worked hard to bring different topics to life and convey the message of what an awesome opportunity the Madden Challenge was for all of us to apply our business skills and (maybe) develop an app that would make us money someday.”

At “Open Mic Night” in January 2013, Danny presented his idea for BeHeard, an app design based on his idea that “basic political transparency was a staple requirement of any functional democracy.” He proposed a smartphone app that offered concise bill summaries followed by a simple “yes/no opinion” vote option that could be shared with their Washington representatives. Because fate intervened in the form of Winter Storm Triton, their team presentation was rescheduled for Memorial Day weekend, so Haag encouraged Danny and his entire team to take a new DU course taught by Avi Stopper, “The Messy Startup.” Danny explains they were given a chance to more fully develop their idea and even “reached out to politicians via email for their opinion of the app idea.”

Danny adds, “I believe that there is tons of entrepreneurial spirit among my generation and that a program like this would be beneficial to add to many other universities’ business schools, as it fosters the innovation and creative and critical thinking we always hear politicians talking about in speeches but rarely giving the average college student or citizen a chance to fully participate in. This class provided that chance, and I hope we can successfully move forward and really make some waves in the future.”

Grant Wilkinson, the leader of the other Madden Challenge winning team, created an app they called myBackpack, which serves as a virtual backpack for notebooks, planners, PDF books and other digital tools. Though the app itself is free, Wilkinson and his team would offer in-app options including “Passing Notes” which allows readers to transfer digitized notes, a Mathematics package with a protractor and ruler, and an “English package” with a dictionary, thesaurus and grammatical tools.“The app itself will be free,” said Wilkinson. “The in-app options will be an additional cost.” 

Grant applauds Haag’s course as a way to introduce students to business concepts in an “experience-based, applicable way.” He also praises Haag and the gateway organizers for “connecting subject material to real world situations” and offering “the amazing takeaway of presenting in front of investors.”