Wherever You Pitch Your Business, Remember, People Come First

Both entrepreneurs and competition judges focus too much on the product, forgetting that customers and staff are more important.

learn more about Steve VanderVeen

By Steve VanderVeen

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

A business plan competition is aptly named, but business plans can't implement themselves. The hopeful entrepreneur behind the business plan is responsible for making sure it gets off the ground.

When it comes to pitching business plans on a reality show, contestants often fail to win for a few reasons:

  • Their idea doesn't resonate with the judges
  • They can't pitch or write well
  • They stumble over the assumptions behind their financial projections

Related: 5 Things Only Entrepreneurs Can Truly Understand

Those reasons, however, are irrelevant to what matters. What matters is the person behind the pitch. Unfortunately, contestants and judges focus too much on the product. They get enamored with technology and dollars. Both are sexy and addictive, and both are some of the strongest subconscious motivators known to humans. But people have to come first.

So how can we make pitch competitions more human? Judges should base their decision on whether the hopeful entrepreneur understands how to invest in understanding people -- customers and staff -- and in building authentic relationships with them. Taking the focus off of people means that the business won't be able to meet the needs of their customers and staff, or worse, they'll be treated like numbers. This may work in the short run, but in the long run this can result in loyalty issues.

To show prospective backers that they're willing to invest in understanding people, hopeful entrepreneurs competing in business plan competitions should be able to demonstrate the following:

1. They feel and understand the pain and frustration customers are experiencing. Furthermore, they demonstrate that the features of the solution they are proposing resonate with not only potential customers (those who will pay for the product that emerges from the proposed solution), but also potential user and potential channel members.

Related: Success Will Never Come to Entrepreneurs Who Do These 10 Things

2. They feel and understand how and why customers and users are currently trying to reduce their frustration and what would motivate channel members to change their behavior. That includes understanding the strengths and weakness of competing and substitute products available in the marketplace relative to the needs of the customers/users and channel members.

3. They can describe what makes their proposed solution unique and can verify how they know that through an evidenced understanding of their target audience.

4. They understand how customers and users already access the product, the strengths and weaknesses of that process and who the people are who interact with their customers. Many times opportunities for innovation exists beyond the solution. But they won't sell unless they understand the people involved.

5. They understand themselves and they are in it for the long haul.

Of course, to win a business plan competition, contestants must have ideas that resonate with judges, write and speak well and understand the numbers. But those who can actually implement the business plan over the long term and build the business have a different and important set of skills and motives.

Related: 3 Questions Always Asked on ABC's Shark Tank

Steve VanderVeen

Professor of Management and Director of Center for Faithful Leadership at Hope College

Steve VanderVeen is a professor of management and director of the Center for Faithful Leadership at Hope College in Holland, Mich. He teaches various project-based leadership courses and serves students in the the center's entrepreneurial development and student consulting programs.

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