Startup competitions are booming. Across the nation, hundreds of these events promise millions of dollars in launch capital, access to veteran venture capitalists, the chance to hone your pitch in front of well-connected judges—and sometimes, all three.
Competing against dozens or hundreds of other entrepreneurs can be intimidating. Here is advice from three past winners, including their tricks and tips for knocking your next pitch out of the park.
1. Iterate, Iterate, Iterate
Ashok Kamal, CEO and co-founder of green marketing consultancy Bennu in New York City, is a veteran of high-profile business competitions. In 2010, he and his two co-founders entered their plan for a business into the Merrill Lynch Invitational Business Plan Competition. Their idea was for a business that would sell backpacks made of recycled water bottles.
But that quickly changed. After progressing through weeks of rounds, and receiving feedback from judges and mentors, Kamal and his team realized their core competency wasn’t recycling backpacks, but marketing them and other environmentally friendly products instead. At the end of the process, they had a new business—a green marketing consultancy—and won their second competition: the 2011 Rice Business Plan Competition.
The key? Don’t get married to your idea at the outset. “The most successful teams are the ones that iterate between day one and day two and day three [of the competition],” he says. “The most agile competitors are the ones that perform best.”
2. Polish Your Pitch
Heddi Cundle entered her San Francisco business into the Agora Startup Idol competition—a multi-week event in 2011 that featured high-profile judges such as entrepreneur Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari. Her business, myTab.co, a travel gift card that friends and families can use to help customers fund vacations, didn’t change through the competition process. Her pitch, on the other hand, did.
“Each week we were provided feedback on our pitch, enabling us to fine tune it for, hopefully, the next round,” Cundle says. Cundle’s secret was to focus less on explaining each feature of her site and service, and more on the value they provide to the customer.
3. Be Remarkable
In 2012, San Francisco small business owner Neil Thanedar’s firm, Avomeen Analytical Services, helped him win a startup competition through Startup America Partnership.
To win the competition, he had to stand out among 10,000 entrants with a one-minute video in which he pitched his business, which helps create non-carcinogenic eye black for NFL players. Rather than just shoot a YouTube video of himself, as many other competitors did, he created a pitch that included animated handwriting to tell the story of his business.
He won a trip to pitch his business to NFL players and A-List entrepreneurs at the Super Bowl in Indianapolis.
His advice for other startup contest entrants? “You have to figure out what everyone else is going to do, and do something a little bit different,” Thanedar says. “If you have something that’s a little bit unique, that’s where you stand out.”
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