How to Win Business Plan Competitions
Business plan competitions can award lucrative cash prizes, and the benefits don’t stop there. By participating in a business plan competition or startup pitch contest, you’ll receive exposure to investors, make new networking contacts, and get feedback about your business plan. Here’s how to enter, prepare, and ultimately win any business plan competition.
Focus On Your Niche
There are hundreds of business plan competitions held across the country, so it’s important to be selective when deciding which to enter. Focus on those relevant to your market, industry or niche. This is not only important to maximize your chances of success, but it also puts you and your business in front of the right judges — experts in your field who have the experience and connections to ultimately benefit your business. It also puts you in the room with other people in your field. You can learn a lot about potential competitors, or even find new business partners. The atmosphere doesn’t have to be cutthroat if you don’t want it to be and nine times out of ten it will be collegial.
In addition, when selecting competitions, allow yourself to be a little creative. There’s sure to be some crossover between industries for your business.
Do Your Research
Research in all its forms is fundamental to success in both business plan competitions and business in general. When creating a business plan, be sure to include accurate, research-based projections of revenue, costs, debt, expenses/overhead, and margins. You’ll also want to research and explore the competition, figure out your economic model, and identify the total addressable market, among other metrics and statistics.
The business world is full of aspiring entrepreneurs aiming to target a small percent of a multi-billion-dollar market. Such claims often display a lack of quality research and show that the entrepreneur has not properly identified their specific market or worse, they haven’t given their business the deep thought and reflection that successful ventures require. Instead, zone in on your direct market to produce clearer forecasts. Without a product/market fit, there is no business.
Once your business plan is ready, you can do additional research on the competitions you plan to enter, in order to boost your chances of winning. Seek out fellow entrepreneurs who have succeeded in those competitions, and acquire feedback from their experiences. This way, you avoid entering a competition blind and you may gain some valuable insight into the process.
Practice Makes Perfect
Business plan competitions and the accompanying pitches are a form of theater, so make sure you have your pitch nailed down before presenting to the judges. Don’t be that person from Shark Tank who freezes and forgets their numbers.
Present your pitch to an impartial focus group (no friends and family) and allow them to ask as many questions as possible, to see if they can pick holes in your presentation. This will give you plenty of opportunities to ensure you’re conveying your message effectively: articulate your customer, the problem you help them solve, the market share you expect to achieve, your price point, and any other aspects of your business that you feel are important for potential investors and judges to understand. Don’t drone on and on — limit yourself to a few points. Be specific, but concise. You can always go into more detail in response to questions.
In addition, while it’s important to communicate facts and figures, be sure you have an engaging narrative as well. Tell stories that add meaning. The right balance between numbers and narrative can be tricky to achieve — so this is where your research on a competition comes into play. If you know that the judges in a certain competition are looking for a good story, you can build your pitch around that.
Look Beyond the Money
Entrepreneurs entering business plan competitions can sometimes be distracted by the money on offer for the winners, with some events offering six-figure sums to the winners. However, while funding is important to any business, try not to be solely driven by the pursuit of money, as the feedback, advice, and chance to network with industry leaders and investors in your field can prove even more valuable.
The investors and business leaders who judge these competitions are not only looking for brilliant ideas and potentially profitable businesses, but also entrepreneurs who accept advice and are looking at more than the money. Most investors will tell you the number on factor that determines if they invest or not is the team.
Indeed, there are business plan competitions that do not even offer cash prizes to winners, but instead provide opportunities to pitch in front of investors or sessions with an experienced consultant. Any entrepreneur who is driven solely by money is almost guaranteed to fail, so be sure that you’re entering these competitions with a more open mindset to get the full benefit from them.
Avoid the Key Mistakes
Give your business plan the best chance of making the right impact by avoiding these common mistakes:
· A sloppy, unprofessional plan: A great business idea will fall flat if the business plan is poorly written and not engaging, so make sure your grammar, punctuation, spelling, and use of language are flawless. Even hire a professional editor to review your plan if this is not your strong suit.
· An incomplete plan: Your plan needs to have all the information a judge or potential investor will want to see. A simple Google search will provide you with plenty of checklists of the essential elements in a business plan; this one from Entrepreneur is particularly thorough.
· A disjointed presentation: Make sure your presentation is smooth, professional, and engaging, and that you can quickly answer any questions that come your way. The presentation is your chance to impress judges not only with your ideas, but your personality. A well-prepared presentation will see you come across as confident and impressive.
· Getting the numbers wrong: Few things rile potential investors more than when an entrepreneur gets their math wrong when discussing their business’s value, projections, or basic metrics. If this could be a weakness, bring your financial expert into the pitch.
· Being resistant to feedback: Every entrepreneur thinks they have a world-changing business idea, so when they receive harsh (but constructive) criticism, it can feel like a personal attack. Even if you disagree with a judge’s feedback, take it in stride and think of it as free expert advice that can help you improve.