Ben Winters’ passion was clear: Fix the vision problems of children through therapy to help them better function at school and at home.

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But explaining that passion to others was much harder.

“Vision therapy isn’t something that is well-known or understood by a lot of people,” Winters said.

So last year, Winters, owner of the Washington Vision Therapy Center in Yakima, entered the Enterprise Challenge, a business plan competition organized by New Vision, the county’s economic development arm.

During the competition, he learned how to articulate the vision — no pun intended — of his business plan.

“The information that I got from the judges on how to communicate what it is we do has helped going forward,” Winters said.

Winters’ business plan impressed judges: they awarded him the $10,000 first-place prize.

But while the cash has long been spent, what he has learned from the contest has endured.

“All of us entrepreneurs are dreamers. The dreaming is not the hard part, it’s the planning,” Winters said. The Enterprise Challenge “forces the dreamers who have these great plans to really sit down and plan for success.”

Now in its third year, the business plan competition has attracted nearly 60 businesses looking to develop a marketable idea or get a boost on a still-new venture.

The Enterprise Challenge was part of a comprehensive effort to promote entrepreneurship in the Yakima Valley. In 2010, the first year of the competition, it was more difficult for New Vision to recruit companies to the Valley because of the economic downturn.

Then, it made more sense to focus on finding and building developing companies at home rather than putting more effort in persuading a gun-shy out-of-town company to build a new facility in Yakima.

“The contest was designed to cultivate some of those bright (new) companies,” said New Vision president Dave McFadden.

Rigorous judging process

While the contest was aimed at companies 2 years old or newer, it was not for those expecting a gentle shove into the business world.

Contestants had to go through a series of in-depth business classes and organize a trade show booth for community and business leaders. The contest finalists attended a one-day entrepreneurship workshop in Seattle organized by the Northwest Entrepreneur Network, a organization made up of entrepreneurs and others who support them, before working on a final presentation and business plan.

All this was done in just over three months.

This boot-camp process is a key strength of the Enterprise Challenge.

“They go through all the necessary things needed to be a successful business,” said Mike Broadhead, president of Central Valley Bank, who has served as a judge. “Even if they don’t win (the contest), they still win, because they get a background they don’t nomally get anywhere else.”

Still, it’s a challenging time for contestants.

“I never felt like I could relax and think, ‘That step’s done,’” said Lori Babcock, co-owner of Tieton Farm and Creamery in Tieton, which won the contest in 2010, just months after she and co-owner Ruth Babcock launched the business. “You always had to be on your toes. Those business and community leaders asking you the questions and going to the trade show are really putting you on the line.”

Business and community leaders are recruited by New Vision to judge during different aspects of the contest. A first group of judges looks at an executive summary of a business plan and provides feedback and selects who moves on to the next part of the competition. A second group of judges attends a trade show to choose finalists for the competition. Finally, a third group receives the finalists’ business plans and sits through a final presentation to determine the top three contestants, who will earn cash prizes.

For judges like Kathy Miller Parrish, owner of Miller & Associates Wealth Management in Yakima, it’s about making sure these businesses are equipped to be successful.

“It really tells a lot about an enterprise when you read a business plan,” Miller said.

Parrish believes having sufficient capital is a key indicator to the success of a new business, so if a business lacks complete information on its financials, that concerns her.

“It’s difficult to see how a business plan can work if you don’t have an adequate financial plan,” she said.

She does note that, most times, she can see improvement in the contestants’ business plans, particularly in listing financial information, as the contest goes on, especially after they go through the in-depth classes.

“I think even if they don’t win in the final, (the contestants) gain a huge amount of expertise in business planning and marketing,” she said.

Past contestants agree there are benefits outside of winning the cash prizes.

For Babcock, 53, being introduced to others in the business community was a huge boost as she and her partner were just starting out.

“I felt very supported by the community and very wanted,” she said.

Winters said his business plan has helped him even when things didn’t go as planned.

“You’ve got to be able to adapt, and the Enterprise Challenge essentially prepares you for that, too,” he said. “The judges are coming in and asking, ‘What if?’ It makes you consider the what-ifs.”

This year, Winters was a judge during the trade show for this year’s contest.

He thought he would be more sympathetic to the contestants, but to his surprise, he found himself asking the same tough questions the judges asked him last year.

“I knew what was expected of them and I wanted them to have their things together,” he said. “I hope it was beneficial to them.”

But judges were more than harsh critics. Jenny Simmons, co-owner of Jenny Mae’s Gluten-Free, a gluten-free bakery, said she can still turn to the judges she met during the contest a couple of years ago.

“We can make phone calls to those individuals and ask for advice and they’re happy to help you,” said Simmons, 41, the second-prize winner in 2010.

Boosting the local economy

Of course there’s the broader question — did the contest help New Vision find emerging companies that will help boost economic development in the Yakima Valley?

“It’s not surprising that we find a few that are doing well, a few that are getting off the ground and others where not much has changed since we saw them in our contest,” McFadden said.

Parrish, the business owner who has served as a contest judge, believes the Enterprise Challenge can help diversify the economy of the Yakima Valley.

“First and foremost, I’m thrilled we have new ideas that are percolating,” she said. “It keeps our economic development going in the right direction.” Now the contest has reach a point where it’s time to step back and see what can be improved, McFadden said.

McFadden sees opportunity to introduce new segments of the competition to reach out to different types of entrepreneurs.

For example, he’d like to build a contest that revolves around the development of a new product. A good example of such a development is that of Liberty Bottles, which manufactures 100 percent recycled aluminum water bottles in Union Gap (the company had already launched by the time the first business plan competition was held).

That kind of contest would not only attract new business owners, but would encourage existing local businesses to innovate in new ways, McFadden said.

He also sees an opportunity to reach out to younger aspiring business owners, especially with resources like the relatively new Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Central Washington University.

“That would bring a whole new energy level to the contest,” he said.

• Mai Hoang can be reached at 509-759-7851 or maihoang@yakimaherald.com.