How to win start-up competitions

Last week a friend of mine asked me whether I had any advice for him on how to win a start-up competition. He had registered the company he and a partner had launched last year at an industry event and where supposed to present there in only two weeks time. Founders always ask how to win Start-up competitions as these events often promise a hard-to-resist cash prize. The benefits of these events go beyond cash alone though and to win it you have to start earlier than you think. For my friend it was already to late for a few of the crucial aspects he should have considered as you will see, but here are some of things you should think about before you apply to any event and others you should be doing to be successful at the competition.

Start-up pitch competitions have mushroomed around the globe from famous events like the Y Combinator Demo Day or the TechCrunch Battlefield to more regional or local events. The underlying idea is always the same: startups are pitted against each other to present their ideas and projects with one coming out as the winner at the end, often receiving a much needed funding injection in the form of a cash price. First, let’s look at the benefits of such events:

The benefits

The benefits of any start-up competition or innovation award go beyond the prize money and often are great value for all participants. Why? There are a number of reasons, so let’s have a look at them one by one:

1. Exposure

Sure, it depends on the size of the event but there is a guaranteed media exposure as the name of your start-up will get listed on the event organiser’s website, ad material and the event itself. And then there is the coverage of the event after the event, which, of course, is even more valuable if you win the whole thing. You will also get on the radar of more than one potential investor, which can be a great benefit and save you time as you will likely have to pitch to more than one before you find the right investor.

2. Practice

The preparation process is a great opportunity to review everything about your company: product, finances, team, competition, market etc. When you’re building your start-up you’re most of the time caught up in developing and that’s fine as long as you make sure you don’t ignore the rest entirely, but frequently it can spiral out of control because any day only has 24 hours and a week 7 days. So focusing on all the important aspect for a presentation also is a way to check in on the other things that are essential for the success of your start-up.

3. Feedback

People will tell you what they think about you and your company. This can be painful as it shows the shortcomings of your project, but it is from our mistakes that we learn or as Richard Branson said: “You learn by doing and by falling over”. It’s especially useful because while many people will want to tell you want you’re doing wrong (for different reasons), the judges on a good start-up competition should be experts that can help you identify the gaps that you need to address. Look at it as a free consulting session that can help you avoid costly mistakes further down the line.

4. Access to networks

Programs like Y Combinator already offer access to networks of advisors and investors, but most events provide these effects beyond the original scope of a program as it will attract more industry stakeholders, investors or potential partners depending, of course, on the respective size and reach of an event.

5. Relationships

This one is part of the former but goes beyond the network of advisors and investors accelerator programs offer. A start-up competition foremost is an opportunity to meet people that have shared interests. Hence, it’s a great way to find future customers or employees and these people could be become your partners in other was, too, even if, for example, they might be your competitors during the event. Take RegTechs: many smaller ones only focus on certain aspects that might complement another offering perfectly and in turn make both more attractive to a potential client that may be reluctant to engage with a solution that is too limited.

Since you were looking for advice how to win the whole thing (like my friend), you will probably want to know…

How to be a winner

Making the right choice

Like I said there are so many competitions out there, it can be difficult to choose the right one, so a few considerations are necessary to choose the right one for you:

First of all, don’t waste anytime on anything that isn’t relevant to what you do. Start-up competitions are regularly tailored to specific industries and applying to something that isn’t the right fit will cost you time (=preparation) and money (i.e. application fee) without the prospect of any considerable reward. And even if you were to be invited, chances are that you would be speaking to the wrong people: experts in other areas than yours or investors that don’t invest in your sector.

The other consideration that connects to this point is the question about timing, e.g. what stage does the event target? If you are very early stage, say you hardly have more than a good idea, a competition that looks at later stage start-ups is simply a waste of time and money again.

Also, think about the importance of location. In the early days, these events took place in FinTech and RegTech hubs like London in Europe though this has improved recently. One key benefit of these competitions could be becoming a member of an accelerator program. For instance, the Barclays Accelerator is located in London, New York and Tel Aviv. Its program lasts thirteen weeks and you are expected to move their for the entire time, so it isn’t always as easy as flying over for a few days to attend an industry conference and take part in a competition if you want to reap the full benefits.

In the same category falls the consideration of time: the preparation of a presentation, travelling to and from an event are all aspects that will take up time you can’t employ elsewhere, so the objective cannot be to attend as many as possible in the hope that it will increase the probability of winning. Something always has to give, so make sure you think about your resources, too.

And then there is the money: While it’s tempting to go for the competition with the biggest prize money, money as in life generally isn’t everything: for starters, the bigger the prize, the bigger the competition is likely to be. And while large sums could quickly resolve the most urgent funding needs, others benefits like exposure, relationships or advice can be equally or even more valuable. Just remember that even the most significant prize money is easily and quickly burned if you get something wrong that an experienced mentor may have warned you about.

Preparation

“Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity”, a quote attributed to Seneca says. A good presentation takes time but it will pay off eventually or at least keep you from the embarrassing experience we probably have all encountered already. In the best scenario people will feel sorry for someone loosing track during a presentation, jumping back and forth or not connecting the various points or making sense, but the reaction could also be worse and in any case no one will be buying from you. So practice makes perfect and preparation will give you the confidence and experience to perform well.

Focus on the essential

A start-up pitch at most events has a very limited time frame, so it is key to get the essential across, but even in other formats where you get to present your project, it is not okay to prattle endlessly about aspects that really aren’t relevant. Instead focus on a few key points: Identify the problem your company tackles. People don’t want to know your life’s story; they want to know how your product makes their life easier. So, make sure you outline clearly the following three W’s: 1. What is the issue you’re going after? 2. Why would people pay you to solve it? and 3. What is the market opportunity, i.e. is the problem serious enough that enough customers pay enough for your product?

Authenticity and Confidence

Be authentic and confident. I know it can be tough and confidence isn’t something that can be switched on like this, but be bold! This is your baby and you’re passionate about this project. You’ve made it so far, so there must be something other people find interesting, too. But if you give the impression you don’t believe in it yourself, no one else will. Having said that, don’t try to be something you or your project isn’t. Tell your story and show what you’ve got. People will connect with stories, but they can often tell how authentic something is and it takes a great con artist to fool them, but one thing is for sure: no one likes to be fooled! Getting us to…

Honesty

While confidence (and showing it) is important, don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t have an answer to a question. Personally, I like honesty and humbleness in people a lot and can’t stand it if someone tries to bullshit me –pardon my French! Even with the best preparation (getting back to the earlier point) there will be a significant possibility of a question that you might not have thought of – it’s one of the values of participating in such events as it can show you things that need fixing. And think about it from a judge’s point of view: who would you rate better? People that humbly admit that they don’t know or someone who tries making things up on the go? Again, for me that’s an easy one, but if you’re not convinced yet, believe me tell you that any expert in their field will be able to see through this.