The $100,000 Idea

Microsoft's $100,000 business idea challenge; Google's push to help businesses better use its ads; a venture capital firm's tools for tech entrepreneurs; and more

A Major Push for the Small-Business Market

Microsoft recently opened nominations for its "Ultimate Challenge," a nationwide small-business plan contest that's part marketing push, part business-idea roundup, and part American Idol. It coincides with the launch of Office Accounting Express 2007, Microsoft's new home-based and early startup business financial management software, which is downloadable for free. If the product is as well thought through as the contest, then Office Accounting Express could present a challenge to Intuit’s (INTU) QuickBooks, which is the major accounting entry for early-stage businesses.

The most innovative business idea will receive $100,000 in business startup money, a Manhattan-area storefront for one year, rent-free, and infrastructure and accounting software to help run the business. Participants have until Jan. 31 to submit their idea online at the contest Web site, They can also meet Microsoft (MSFT) reps and local business leaders and get help with their entry at one of the events that make up part of an RV tour that began in New York City's Times Square on Nov. 28, and will stop in Las Vegas, Denver, Chicago, and Atlanta. Submissions will be judged and scored on marketing approach, financial and logistic feasibility, originality, and public interest.

The judging panel will include Carolyn Kepcher, Donald Trump's former assistant on The Apprentice, along with entrepreneur Liz Lange, founder and president of Liz Lange Maternity. Lange says she will be looking for plans that make a lot of sense and fill a need, and that include plenty of heart and soul. "If you don't have passion, you're not going to be able to weather the difficult first year or two of starting a small business. It's hard to pursue dreams and start new things, and there's not a lot of community around it," says Lange.

After an initial screening, the judges will review the highest-scoring applications to determine the four finalists, who will be announced in February. The public can then vote for the winner, who will be chosen and receive a prize package in March.

—Jeffrey Gangemi

What's the Cost of Obtaining a Customer from a Google Ad?

Google (GOOG) is focused on answering that question to help small businesses better use its advertising. Right now, "we have trouble. We don't know where [prospects] are in the sales cycle," Marissa Mayer, Google's vice-president of search and user experiences, told a Harvard Business School audience in November. Currently, advertisers bid for keywords and pay for clicks. "Ultimately, we'd like to get to a place where the cost of conversion and the cost of sales is what people bid on."

On the information-gathering side, she said the Google personalized home page, which enables business owners to consolidate research and schedules, is the fastest-growing segment of Google tools. And "thousands of developers" are programming applications, known as Google Gadgets, for distribution via the online search engine.

To view Mayer's entire talk, go to

Dreaming of a Better Golf Club, Tennis Racket, or Baseball Bat?

You can get a sense of the manufacturing process for these items by viewing videos at a National Association of Manufacturers blog,

Put Your Business Model or Invention Under the Microscope

Venture-capital firm Prometheus Equity Partners has posted a variety of online tools at for technology entrepreneurs. The business-model tool provides guidance for the razor-and-blade and subscription business models, and even for pyramid scheme and multilevel marketing models. The invention tools include an example of a marketing analysis of a potentially patentable product, to determine worthiness of filing. There's also a technology rollout plan, a business plan outline, and guidance for assembling a technology team.

The Raw Milk Wars Move to Canada

Canadian government agents staged a predawn raid on Glencolton Farms, a raw milk producer outside Toronto, a few days before Thanksgiving, confiscating milk, computers, and records. The farm was following the same approach as many American dairy producers—distributing milk via cow-share arrangements to avoid prohibitions on retail sales of raw milk (see, 11/27/06, "A Raw-Milk Raid Leads to a Special Thanksgiving").

The authorities had left the farm alone for 11 years, since a previous legal encounter. The owner, Michael Schmidt, promised back in 1995 that he would go on a hunger strike if the government came after him again. He's now in the second week of that strike, consuming only a glass of raw milk each day as nourishment. (Click here to read his statement.)

One Travel Site Take a Tip from Retail Buying Clubs

CFares, a venture-backed company, is taking a leaf from the playbook of retail buying clubs such as Costco by charging a membership fee. For $50 annually, the company says members will gain access to airline wholesalers and travel agencies offering fares below those published on many airline sites.