Business plan competitions are like interviews for your business: you only have a short amount of time to make a game-changing impression. There are serious payoffs, too—from validating your business idea to receiving mentoring and other tangible prizes. Frequently, cash or in-kind awards celebrate a variety of dimensions, heralding winners for best overall business model, best technology application, best social venture, etc.
So, where do you actually find these events? There are nationwide conferences that house startup competitions all over the country, and there are also plenty of smaller, local business plan competitions. Universities host competitions frequently, too. For instance, the University of Illinois’ Cozad New Venture Competition offers over $100,000 in prizes to student startups, awarding prizes to teams across many categories. There are also national challenges, such as the Department of Energy’s National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition, that are offered only to undergraduate and graduate students.
But regardless of whether they choose to compete, what can all entrepreneurs learn from these competitions?
An upcoming competition can serve as a catalyst for starters to update their elevator pitches. Founders face a mountain of tasks, from everyday operations to hiring employees, but preparing for a competition makes you pause and refocus. When was the last time you looked at the big picture, or thought about how you present your startup? Even without a looming entry deadline or upcoming pitch, it’s important to step back and regularly reassess your startup’s presentation strategy.
Competitions also highlight the importance of your startup’s image, and encourage you to focus on honing your branding strategy. From the start, this increases your credibility—and by all means, avoid common PowerPoint sins like having too many words or graphics on your slides.
Good competitions attract good publicity. During the competition, you can maximize your exposure via media coverage and event photos by being friendly to photographers or reporters on site. Help them out by posing for photos and providing quotes or contact information for follow-up queries. Outside the confines of a formal competition, think about it this way: you have the opportunity to help photographers and reporters do their jobs. Give them a reason to take your snapshot or tell your story by pitching your startup well.
During the actual competition, you’ll notice that the best presenters clearly connect with audience members. From the first to the final round, the winners’ pitches are effective because they give the audience a vision of what the business will be, whether this happens today or years into the future. Additionally, top presenters understand that the audience is likely to have diverse backgrounds and knowledge, and tailor their pitches accordingly. Individual judges or attendees likely aren’t intimately familiar with specific markets, technologies, or the problem that your startup solves.
Regardless of their background, listeners need to understand how you create and capture value, regardless of whether the answer is simple. In the real world, potential customers may not need to understand the intricacies of your business model. All the same, helping them understand how you create value is an integral part of making a strong sell.
Each round of competition provides lots of feedback, and your startup can benefit from the judges’ many perspectives. As you iterate quickly between rounds, an additional challenge is staying true to the course. You can’t please everyone—whether it’s a judge or customer—all the time, so sort through the judges’ input. Successful startups quickly adapt, whether in a competition or within their markets.
As the actual competition begins, watch other teams and their presentations to learn from your competition. Treat it like a real market, and remain aware of competitors’ products, marketing, and business plan strategy. Similarly, you can improve your own pitch by seeing how other teams effectively (or ineffectively) convey their ideas and respond to any questions they receive. Whether you’re gunning for a prize or your next sale, listen and adjust as you start pitching.
Regardless of the scoring, you can still win the networking lottery by the end of the competition. Organizers invite investors and industry professionals to attend the competition as judges, partially due to their impressive resumes and experience. To maximize the opportunity, make sure both your personal and company brands are polished and accessible online. Even though it is a competition, connect with talented peers who are pitching other companies. At minimum, it is an opportunity to share ideas. If you need additional skills, use it as an opportunity to round out your startup team with other individuals who are already passionate about entrepreneurship. By meeting with other participants, you can preview areas of expertise and presentation styles in a way you wouldn’t necessarily be able to do during a job interview.
Whether you choose to compete or simply observe, the lessons from business plan competitions extend to all startups. Either way, keep your eye on the real prize: creating a successful company in the long run.