Back in late 2011, I got the opportunity to pitch Mark Cuban. I was just a student at the time, at Howard University, and cofounder of a company -- no longer existent -- called My College Hustle, a bartering platform for college students.
Hoping to grab a $25,000 prize, my business partner Edward Lyles and I participated in a Shark Tank-style competition, in New York, that actually predated the TV show (I guess the competition's organizers were on to something).
And while my team didn't win the top prize, we did get to meet Cuban -- the result of making it to the semi-finals of a college business-plan competition sponsored by MTV.
That's the point I want to make: If you never thought of business-plan competitions as a source of funding for your business, think again. These competitions can afford you a lot of unique opportunities.
3 reasons why you should start competing today
- You can win startup capital and exposure.
- It’s a great networking opportunity.
- Winnings are usually awarded without any loss of business equity.
Now, here is the information you need to get started.
1. How do you find competitions?
Check out sites like StudentCompetitions.com. You can also search on Google using a variation of keywords such as "pitch competitions,” “Bplan competitions,” “College entrepreneur competitions” and “Challenge competitions.” Mix and match keywords to pull up different results.
Not a college student? No worries; there are other competitions for you, too. Try searching company-based keywords, like “Dell pitch competition,” “Microsoft pitch competition,” etc. Type in any random tech company you can think of, and pair it with the word “competition” and see what comes up.
Sometimes, tech companies run competitions to promote and encourage innovation. There are tons of these competitions happening throughout the year, so keep your eyes peeled, and always be on the lookout.
2. What chance do you have of winning?
I know what you're thinking: There are tons of people applying; what chance do I have of winning? But it might surprise you that most people aren’t willing to put in the work and that a lot fewer people apply than you might expect. Also, bear in mind that you don’t need to win every competition.
One “yes” can make a huge difference in your business. During college, I won over $20,000 just from competing in five business plan competitions.
The important thing is that, if you're a young entrepreneur, it's crucial you take advantage of every opportunity you have to network. And these competitions are a great way to do that.
I stress this because I competed in a competition a few years ago, and ended up winning second place. I then kept in touch with the winners, and a few years later, when I reapplied, guess who the judge was? The guy who had beaten me in the competition a few years before! I had had no idea that that was going to happen, and it was comforting to know we had someone in our corner from the start.
3. Whom do you need to know?
That story brings me to my next point: networking. The most important people you need to meet are the judges. After the competition, go and talk to them and get their contact information. Learn more about them; they’re judges for a reason, right? These could be potential investors or mentors. Network! I wrote a guide on the subject.
4. How do you train for this?
As a finalist for a previous competition, I was assigned a personal coach in my city and received free training up until presentation day. So, be sure to participate in any pre-competition activities offered, because the events' organizers often have optional training sessions or online seminars to better prepare you.
Speaking of training, remember that competitions are a great way to practice public speaking skills. You will always have an opportunity to be in front of a crowd. When you’re not presenting, and there’s down time, you are constantly talking and meeting people, which forces you to condense your idea into a 30 second elevator pitch. You learn to speak more confidently and concisely.
5. How do you write your business plan?
Drafting a detailed business plan is essential. An executive summary may be required for only some competitions, but it’s best to just bite the bullet and write a full plan. Your plan needs to be ready, so you can continuously apply for the various contests.
Have some traction on your idea; before the judges invest, they need to see validation. How do you know you're solving a real problem?
My secret to crafting a good business plan is simple: Be creative! Make it stand out; perhaps do an interactive business plan, where the judges can scan a QR code and be taken to a live demo or video of your product. Get specific; explain in detail how you plan to achieve certain benchmarks.
Oh, and meeting Mark Cuban? He was extremely friendly and gave us motivational advice about pursuing our business. It was a great experience.