Are you using all of the strategies you can to secure funding for your business? Business plan competitions are held by private and corporate foundations, corporations, venture capital firms, universities and even state and local governments. Submitted business plans are judged by a panel of entrepreneurial experts, and the winners can receive funding in amounts ranging from $5,000 to $100,000 or more. This guide will show you how to prepare for and find competitions, and offer advice that can increase your chances of winning business plan competitions.
Whether You Already Have a Business Plan or Not, You Need To Read This First
A lot of entrepreneurs seem to think that a great idea is enough to get funding, but it’s not. A funder or investor who wants to see a business plan needs to be confident that the business is going to hit its targets and be a success before they invest their money.
As part of my line of work I review a lot of funding proposals and their accompanying business plans. In my experience, only about 1 to 2 percent of the business plans I review are actually worthwhile. The other 98 or 99 percent of business plans have one or more of these issues in common:
- They are template-driven with no real thought or effort put forth in developing the plan;
- They fail to validate their numbers or projections;
- They fail to demonstrate that they have the management capacity to make the business a success.
It’s true that getting a business plan from the 95% toss pile to the 2% funded pile is not an easy task. However, if you are truly determined to make your business a success, you will put forth the effort and hit the mark (assuming you have all of the necessary ingredients for success).
Tips for a Successful Business Competition Entry
Before you even start searching for business plan competitions, there are some basic tips below that when followed can greatly increase the chances of your entry getting accepted.
Start early. Don’t wait until the last minute to begin writing your entry for a business plan competition. When you are rushing to pull together a proposal at the last minute, the chances that you will make a critical mistake are greatly increased.
Capture the readers’ attention up front. Include compelling information that demonstrates the viability of your concept or business model. Aspects to focus on include:
- Market size;
- Market opportunity;
- The innovation of your product or service;
- How you will seize upon the business opportunity.
Telling your story and capturing the readers’ attention early on is the key.
Highlight your team. Assemble a strong team and demonstrate to the readers that you and they have the skills, background and experience necessary to make the business a success.
Do your homework. Make certain that your facts, figures, projections and financials are realistic and based on sound assumptions.
Answer all of the questions. Do not skip or ignore any questions or sections. Do so and your entry is sure to wind up in the ‘rejected’ pile.
Strictly adhere to the guidelines. Read the directions and be certain that you are clear about formatting requirements (e.g., font size and line spacing), page limits and required attachments.
Be explicit, specific and brief. Provide the information the business plan reviewers are asking for and do it concisely. Business plan competition judges are not impressed by big words and long flowing paragraphs. Provide the answers they want, be specific not broad and say what you want to say in as few words as possible.
Make your business plan competition entry easy to read. Don’t make the judges’ job any more difficult or complicated than it needs to be. Keep your paragraphs brief, use bullet points wherever possible and make certain there is white space between paragraphs.
Be realistic. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Judges are typically experienced entrepreneurs and smart enough to know the difference between those business plans that are realistic and those that aren’t.
Other Resources for Business Plan Competition Advice
The following web sites offer even more tips and advice about how to win business plan competitions.
5 Tips to Win Business Plan Competitions
This 3+ minute video by Gustav Borgefalk provides insights about 5 ways to increase your chances of winning a competition
Ask Tim Berry – Tips for Business Plan Competitions
Business planning expert (and competition judge) Tim Berry shares his insight on what entrepreneurs get right and wrong in their business plans.
Tips for Successful Pitching – Creating the Killer Business Plan
Kyle Murphy, an Entrepreneurship Lecturer at Pepperdine University talks about business income statements, cash flows, marketing & sales and how to create a winning pitch deck.
Web Sites, Books and Software
Business Plan Competitions (BPC)
The BPC offers a comprehensive list of books and software if you’re seeking more information about how to create an effective business plan. Click here to view the list.
The University of Tennessee (Knoxville)
UTK has a list of web sites and suggested books for those needing advice on how to win money at business competitions. Click here for the full listing.
The Canaan Pitch Workbook
This Slideshare offers advice about how to pitch to venture capitalists. Click here to watch.
This site offers a page full of resources for improving your presentations. Click here to review it.
Where to Find Business Plan Competitions
There are business plan competitions happening all over the world. So where do you find them? Below is a list.
These resources offer information on business plan competitions in both the United States and around the world that you can apply for.
BPC – Business Plan Competitions
This resource monitors and reports the most promising, legitimate entrepreneurship contests and business plan competitions in the world. It remains one of the most comprehensive collections of competitive and funding opportunities for start-ups in the world. Click here to start searching for competitions.
Commercial Capital, LLC
This list of business plan competitions by state is geared towards college students who wish to start their own businesses. Click here to find competitions in your state.
Applications are currently being accepted for the following business plan competitions which are being held across the country.
Rhode Island Business Plan Competition: The Rhode Island Business Plan Competition has been organized to promote the development of start-up and early stage companies in Rhode Island with the goal of developing new-growth businesses in Rhode Island. Entry deadline: 3.30/2015.
2015 Elevator Pitch Competition: The Black Enterprise Elevator Pitch Competition is asking for your best business pitch. The top 10 finalists will be invited to the 2015 Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Summit where they will pitch their idea to judges and a live audience for a chance to win $10,000. Entry deadline: 4/17/2015. Click here to learn more.
The Big Sell: This pitch contest will choose 50 applicants to pitch their idea in two minutes to an audience who votes electronically and a panel of judges. Finalists will be granted an additional two minutes to pitch their idea, and be asked questions by the judges. Cash and prizes total $120,000. Entry Deadline: 4/18/2015. Click here for more information.
New York StartUp! Business Plan Competition: The New York StartUP! Business Plan Competition is offered to New York-based start-up entrepreneurs with cash prizes totaling over $30,000. Entrants gain practical insights about starting and growing a business, while using the comprehensive small business resources at NYPL’s Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL). Entry Deadline: 6/9/2015. Click here to learn more.
What to Do When Your Entry Is Accepted
In a business plan competition, you will be presenting yourself and your competence as much as the business plan itself. So, while it is a given that your business plan needs to be well-designed, you also need to be prepared to present yourself as a credible, competent business person at all times – whether you’re on stage or not.
Although the proper attire, business cards, and grooming will go a long way to helping you make a professional presentation, there is no better way to present yourself as a competent business person than being able to demonstrate a mastery of your business plan as well as produce the reasons for why it will work.
If you have done your due diligence in preparing your business plan, you should be confident that you know your market, offer, corporate organization, competition, sales strategy, pricing, etc., so well that you can clearly articulate the plan and business model while defending its profitability. In other words, in preparing for a business plan competition, your focus should be on being so competent that appearing competent just happens. If you know your plan inside and out and it is well-designed, you have already laid a foundation for success.
But this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make any competition-specific preparations. You should. In particular, you should anticipate the questions judges are going to ask and be ready to answer them, and you should be prepared to pitch your business plan appropriately.
What the Judges Will Ask You
In a business plan competition, you are competing for something valuable – usually money, the time of experts, or both. As a result, you shouldn’t be surprised that you will be held to a high standard in the competition. And this comes out in the often-pointed questions judges will ask. Prior to stepping foot on the competition’s grounds, you should create a list of questions that you expect judges to ask about your business plan, and have answers already prepared.
Some questions will be specific to your business model, and you need to understand your plan well enough to anticipate those questions before you show up. But a lot of questions will be asked – in some form or other – about any business plan. Here are some questions you need to prepare for.
What is your background in the industry?
If you don’t have a background in the industry, it is unlikely you’re going to command enough confidence to win a business plan competition. But this doesn’t mean that your background needs to be at the heart of the industry to be credible. You may have been at the margins of the industry. You need to be ready to explain why that’s not just passable, but why that’s good enough to mean that you can make your plan succeed.
And if you need to depend on the expertise of others to make this happen, know precisely who will be on your management team, and be prepared to discuss their competences, industry-related experience, and commitment to your business plan.
When will you show a profit?
This is a business plan, and no one wants to invest money or time into a plan that won’t generate profit in a reasonable amount of time.
Is there a need for your product or service?
At this point, you should be ready to demonstrate the need. It is rarely sufficient to stand before judges with an offer that is both unique and self-evidently needed. In most cases, you’ll need data that supports your claim that there is a need for your offer. So do the research before you show up and are asked about this.
Who is your competition, and what is your competitive edge?
If you don’t have a competitive edge over your competition, then your business plan isn’t going anywhere. You need something significant that is unique and gives you a distinctive advantage over your competitors. And you also need to know your competitors well enough to prove to the judges that you really have this advantage.
Do you know for sure that no one else does what you will do, or offer what you’ll offer? You’d better, and you’d better be ready to articulate this to the judges. In fact, you’d better be ready to explain why your competition won’t be able to match your unique offer as soon as they learn of yours. After all, a competitive advantage that disappears the second you advertise it isn’t worth anything, either.
How will you use the money you’re awarded?
Be ready to explain why you need the money, and how it will be used when you receive it. A good business plan is great. You should also be ready with a plan for the money you could win.
This is just a very short list of questions you can expect to answer. Be sure to research others, too. A single unanticipated question is enough to sink your attempt to win a competition. So be prepared for everything.
Preparing Your Pitch Deck
You’re going to be pitching your business plan. So you’ll need a pitch deck. But what is it? A pitch deck is a short presentation that will give the judges an overview of your business plan, generally using a PowerPoint slide show. I recommend that you follow Guy Kawasaki’s 10:20:30 pitch rule:
Use approximately 10 slides in a presentation roughly 20 minutes long, and never use font smaller than 30 point.
Your goal here is to offer a succinct presentation of your business plan, where the slides are simply a visual aid to your talk – not a script – for it. What should the ten or so slides cover? Kawasaki suggests the following:
- Business model
- Underlying magic
- Marketing and sales
- Status and Timeline
Entrepreneurs have been following Kawasaki’s pitch deck outline successfully for years. And, while it isn’t the only way to prepare one, it has passed the test of time. So don’t be afraid to use it. But if you do use it, I suggest that you use it in conjunction with Michael Wolfe’s recommendation that you come across as committed and independent. You want to win the competition, but you’re not there to ask permission to start a business. Wolfe recommends that you communicate the following in your pitch:
- What your business is already doing.
- How you are doing it.
- How you can do better with more money.
- This thing is going to happen with or without you
This approach shows that you’re already committed, and you really are an entrepreneur – not a wannabe. It also conveys a sense of experience. You’re not going to be an entrepreneur. You’re already in business – even if you are just getting started.
What to Do If Your Entry Is Rejected
Don’t be discouraged if your entry is rejected. If your business plan is rejected ask if the judges’ notes or comments are available for review. Some competitions are happy to provide you with the judges’ feedback so you can use this information to find out where your entry was deficient and where it was strongest. Use this as a learning opportunity and address the judges’ feedback in your next submission.
With the right kind of preparation, you can win a business plan competition. In fact, you can win several. You just need to know your plan, anticipate problems and questions that you’ll need to answer, and prepare a top-notch pitch deck. And this won’t be hard for you to do if you have the passion it takes to run a successful business in the first place.
Do you have information about a business plan competition or other resource that wasn’t included here? Have you had experience with entering business plan competitions? I’d love to hear from you! Send me an email or post your suggestion in the comments below.