Startup competitions – winning isn’t everything
Why do we go to startup competitions?
“I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.” Michael Jordan.
One of the fastest growing paths for raising funds and awareness to your startup is competitions. The number of startup competitions seems to have grown tremendously over the past few years. In fact, it is rare to find a conference today that does not include some sort of startup competition, regardless of vertical.
I myself participated in dozens of startup competitions over the past couple of years. A few we won but most we lost. In some cases our initial application was rejected and in others we made it into semi final stage only to have lost then. Taking part in these competitions has taught me some valuable lessons.
It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about learning!
My first lesson was the realization that startup competitions are about learning, just like anything else you do in your startup. Yes, it’s nice to win and get awards and exposure, but before you get there you learn, sometimes the hard way. And I don’t just mean learning to compete. The important lessons are what you learn about your company, your messaging and how it is perceived. Distilling your pitch to a few short minutes on stage for people who have no idea about your field is perhaps the best focusing exercise you can find. Practicing different messaging and learning how they are perceived by various people is invaluable to startups. Remember that when you get the boiler plate email of “We appreciate your effort but regret to inform you that you did not make the finals”.
Practice makes perfect.
Winning usually means PR and money, and depending on the competition, both can be significant for an early stage startup. Some startup competitions have meaningful prizes for 5-6 winners and in many others 1st place winner gets tenfold PR and money. The key to success is to prepare your pitch. There are plenty of online examples for pitch decks and advice. Get advice from professionals who help prepare pitchers. Practice it enough so it doesn’t sound rehearsed. Keep it to one simple message per slide and let the words come out authentically when you think about your message. You can have a super set slide deck but you need to curve your deck and messages for each competition separately, based on the specific context and judging criteria. And finally remember, that the pitch itself is merely a vehicle on top of which you can relay who you are and what drives you. Your presence is as important as what you present (if not more…).
Choose your battles carefully.
Competitions take a lot of time and resources, not to mention the emotional roller coaster. They also vary greatly. Prizes, exposure, judging panels, fellow participants, learning opportunities – all vary greatly. It is important to do your homework before deciding to apply. Finding competitions is fairly easy but choosing the ones you want to spend time on could be tricky. In early stage, you are most likely to learn from any competition, but once you are past competitions-101 you need to choose carefully. If you are looking for competition-as-a-funding the prize is all that matters. But if you are you looking to learn, then you need to make your ROI assessment: the amount of effort needed to follow through the application process vs. what you can get out of it: What kind of exposure online and onsite will you get at each stage? What kind of mentorship will you get and do you value that given the stage you are at? Competitions that are focused on your line of business, are more attractive for this stage.
Network! Network! Network!
Network with the audience: if you’ve done your selection right, then someone has worked hard to gather the people you need into one room. 5 min on stage is not enough. Talk to people in the audience before and after the competition. This is the main reason for being here (and some of them may judge your next competition…).
Network with the judges: it can help you to learn what they value (if you talk to them before). It can help you to learn what they thought of you regardless of numeric score (if you talk to them after). They are most likely influential people with your investors, customers and business partners. Sometime losing a competition and winning a judge is better than the other way around.
Network with fellow competitors: the best collaboration opportunities often stem from such talks. You may be dealing with similar challenges and can help each other. At the very minimum you’ll have someone to give you and honest feedback and take your picture when you are on stage…
Remember why you are here to begin with – you are here to learn. Learn from judges and audience body language as you pitch. Learn from feedback of colleagues. Learn from feedback of startup competitions’ organizers. Learn from judges questions. And ask for the feedback and score afterwards to learn more about what drove judges’ votes and what areas you need to work on. Surprisingly I sometimes find that competition organizers do not share judges’ feedback (even anonymously). I believe this to be poor practice on their behalf. Don’t be shy to ask and demand it. You worked hard and you’ve earned it. Remind them, that they organized this competition to help support and promote the industry and sharing feedback is the most vital component for helping companies grow. I found that when confronted with a well written request most competition organizers end up doing the right thing.
As you review the feedback, remember this is highly subjective and context sensitive. I often had contradicting feedback on the same topic. There is a lot to learn about the different ways the same message can be interpreted by different people.
Startup competitions are a great learning opportunity. You can make the most of them if you approach them that way. Plan your learning objectives in advance. Choose the right competitions for your startup. Make the most by giving each competition your best shot. Remember the competition is often more about the networking opportunity than the actual pitch. And gather you feedback anyway you can.
I’m happy to read your feedback and how others can learn from your experiences. Please leave your comments below.