A well developed business plan creates the foundation on which a successful startup will be able to establish itself, and is especially necessary when considering participation in a business plan contest or pitch event. When every factor is considered – market and industry, finance, marketing, operations, and etc. – success becomes a long-term plan as opposed to a hope for a stroke of startup luck. Along with a solid pitch and pitch deck, a business plan is a critical element in your journey to landing a successful seed funding round. Writing an investor-ready business plan can be difficult, but securing funding without a solid plan in place is pretty much impossible.

Once you finally get the perfect business plan written, what’s next? For those who are far enough along in their business, submitting the plan directly to investors might be a wise step. For those who aren’t quite ready to approach VCs yet, but could use a financial boost to get thing going, participating in business plan contests can be a tremendous help. Not only do these competitions often provide significant rewards for the winners, they also often draw the attention of angels, VCs and even corporations looking to invest in or partner with the next billion dollar startup. Unfortunately, where there is honey there are bees – business plan contests often attract some of the brightest minds, and the higher the reward, the more competition you can expect. In this post, we’ll explore everything you need to know to find a great business plan contest, enter it with confidence, and win against other participating startups!

The Benefits of Winning A Business Plan Contest

Business plan competitions are beneficial platforms that allow entrepreneurs to showcase their idea, product or startup to a group of judges. Often, these competitions involve pitching the idea or startup to judges over one or more rounds. Once each competing startup has presented, judges vote on which business (or businesses) will receive the offered reward.

While business plan competitions highly benefit winning startups, they offer immense benefits to investors who attend them also – access to early stage businesses that they can invest in before others have the opportunity. Furthermore, these competitions work to even out the playing field for entrepreneurs who otherwise may not have access to investors – winning a business plan contest could be the difference between funding your business’ launch or failing before you even get the chance to begin.

The most obvious benefit of winning a business plan contest is winning the offered reward. The reward value of these contests can vary from small amounts to extremely large amounts.  For example, the Panasci Business Plan Competition by Syracuse University offers around $35,000 in total rewards, while the Rice Business Plan Competition offers over $1.2 million in seed funding to it’s winners and runner-ups. Winning the right competition can impact your business greatly; providing you with the app funding required to progress your business from the app idea phase to launch and beyond. There is something that should be considered however – some business plan competitions may come with specific conditions that must be met to receive the funding; such as headquartering the business in a certain location, offering up an equity percentage, or being involved in a startup incubator for some length of time.

High-profile angels and VCs often attend larger business plan competitions, and even participants that don’t win the contest may attract the attention of an investor. In some cases, teams that don’t win may end up with larger investments than those who the judges selected for first place. Investors aren’t always looking for the same things in a startup; your idea might not be of much interest to the judges, but may be exactly what an attending investor was looking for! These investors aren’t only good for the funds they bring – some of them may provide a critical mentorship component to your startup; helping to advise your team for greater success down the line.

Lastly, one of the least recognized but most effective benefits of participating in a business plan competition is having your business plan and startup critically reviewed by experienced judges, entrepreneurs and investors. Even if you don’t win, the insight provided by the panel of judges will offer different perspectives regarding your startup. Ultimately, by applying this insight, you can further position your startup for success when participating in future events.

Finding The Right Business Plan Contest

The unique beauty of business plan contests is that they are relatively ubiquitous – and today, more competitions are popping up than ever before. A variety of organizations, educational institutions, and even individuals organize business plan competitions to seek out investable and fundable business ideas. In general, most business plan contests can be grouped into two categories:

  1. University Competitions: Many major universities organize some type of business plan contest through their business school. Eligibility may vary from contest to contest, but these contests are typically only available to those connected to the business program – students, alumni, and in some cases, even on-staff professionals. Due to these eligibility requirements, competition is generally limited – which means that participants have a much larger chance of winning when compared to contests with less regulation. Furthermore, universities know that any successful startups launched through these contests will give their business program a major boost in visibility and credibility. As a result, universities often go a step above to support winners of these programs – providing additional on-campus resources or even access to alumni professionals that can help them advance their businesses.
  2. Sponsored Contests: Sponsored business plans are those that are planned and hosted by an organization, corporation, individual or other entity. Specifically, these organizers ‘sponsor’ the competition – organizing the event, involving investors and judges, and securing rewards to incentivize winners and participants. Sometimes, these competitions may be sponsored by companies within a specific sector such as biotech, healthcare, urban transit, architecture, and etc.; while other times they may be part of a larger startup incubator or accelerator program.  

Business plan and pitch deck competitions take place several times each year in most major cities – and even in many less popular upcoming startup regions. If you are a student or an alumni, check with your university to see if they have a business plan competition in place – if not, maybe you can help them organize one! For those who are not eligible to join a university-sponsored competition, a simple Google search will provide you with several options. Search for “industry name + business plan contest” or “city + business plan contest” to see what upcoming business plan contest events you may be eligible to participate in.

Winning Big At Your First Business Plan Contest

Participating in a business plan contest can be extremely valuable, but the real goal is to win – and to win big! The key to winning a business plan competition of any type is to know what the judges are looking for and to position your startup, business plan and pitch to exceed their expectations.

Judging The Judges

In general, whether you win a business plan contest or not will hinge upon how your business idea is perceived by the panel of judges, and how they perceive you as an entrepreneur and presenter. It is worth noting that judges often come from various backgrounds with varied experiences; what may be a top consideration for one judge may make little difference to another. However, most judges compare businesses on at least the following three factors:

  1. Originality: Successful business ideas need to be original in nature and able to improve upon an existing solution, solve a wide-scale problem, or effectively meet the current market demand. Businesses that simply spin-off from other successful ideas are not looked upon favorably by judges or investors – since they usually have little advantage to compete against already established players. To win a business plan contest, it is essential that your idea is fresh, scalable, sustainable and eventually, profitable.
  2. Ability To Generate Profit: Even the most creative ideas need to be able to turn a profit at some point. Understandably, most investors aren’t interested in funding businesses that won’t provide them with a return in the long-run. In order to gain interest in your business during a contest, your business plan should show exactly how your business will provide a return for investors in the long-term. While some investors may be interested in other aspects of a business, such as their social consciousness or involvement, the majority of investors are looking for opportunities to grow their portfolio by investing in businesses that are capable of generating strong profits.
  3. Effective Presentation: It’s not always the best idea that wins a business plan competition. A perfect business plan and an exciting idea means very little if an entrepreneur can not properly convey their message during their presentation. In most contests, participants are given a set time limit (such as 10 minutes) to present – and expressing all the necessary information within this time period can be rather difficult. Judges look for confident entrepreneurs who can articulate their business enough to convey the efficacy and scalability of their idea properly. The knowledge an entrepreneur needs to possess doesn’t end with just the text presented in their business plan or pitch deck. Most often, there is a Q&A portion during these events in which the entrepreneur will be required to answer specific questions by judges and investors. The inability to answer these questions properly and confidently can quickly dissuade an investor from investing, or can cause a judge to give a lower score than they would have otherwise.

Preparing For Business Plan Contest Success

Success at these events are often linked to how well an entrepreneur has prepared themselves beforehand. One thing is certain – your competitors will be prepared; and if you aren’t, it will be embarrassingly noticeable. Unfortunately, in a business plan contest, there is no way to mask unpreparedness, especially among an audience of experienced entrepreneurs and investors. To best prepare for an upcoming business plan competition, consider the following tips:

  • Sell A Strong Team: There is one thing that’s more important than having a great business plan – having a strong and experienced team that can actually execute it. Management teams are what bind all the elements of a business plan together; combining the skills necessary to put the plan into action successfully. It is vital that your team encompasses a broad range of skills and that each team member has a specific job that will lead to the startup’s success.
  • Present The Problem First: Startups that win (in contests and in general) are those that truly solve an existing problem – whether the problem is shared by a mass group of people, or by a niche audience. There’s a lot of “cool tech” out there, but even simple ideas can solve major problems. Taxis have existed for decades, but a simple idea like ride-sharing changed the way the world views personal transportation. Prepare a pitch that is challenge/solution heavy by focusing on what the problem is, why individuals experience the issue, why current solutions don’t solve the challenges effectively, and why your product/service is the right solution for the problem.
  • Know Your Funding Requirements: Investors don’t want their funds to just sit in an account; they want to know that there is a plan in place to use these funds and effectively scale a startup from its current position. Have a funding plan in place – know how much funding is required, what actions need to be completed to successfully progress the business, and how each dollar will be spent to meet your launch or growth objectives.
  • Be The Expert: If there is any gap in your business plan, it will be uncovered during the Q&A stage. Investors and judges are highly experienced in asking the right questions to get a full picture of your startup and to gauge whether you are well-informed about your business, market and the issue that you are attempting to solve. It’s not a good sign when an investor or judge knows more about your business than you do. Ensure that your business plan is all-encompassing with vital information, and that you can answer any necessary questions without needing to reference your business plan. During the Q&A session, you should be able to answer questions proficiently, confidently, and with enough expertise to prove that you know exactly what you are talking about.
  • Listen, Learn and Apply: You can’t win every business plan or pitch contest, but you can definitely take the insights given during one competition and use it to propel your potential for success in future contests. It’s not everyday that you’re able to receive critical feedback from a group of investors, and when you can, you should take advantage of it as much as possible. Even if you don’t win anything in a business plan competition, the insights gained can be used to catapult your business to the next level.

Writing A Business Plan That Wins

Even if everything else is perfect – if you want to win, you must begin with a well-thought out, perfectly articulated and investor-ready business plan that tells your startup’s story in an effective manner. There are many factors to consider when writing a business plan from proper market analysis to financial projections – and any weak point in your plan will decrease your chances of winning. If you need more advice on writing a business plan, see our business plan guide or contact one of our experts today for a free business plan consultation!