For serial entrepreneur Mike Cassidy, MIT's Entrepreneurship Competition wasn't just a contest. It was a catalyst for a career. In 1998, one of the two years he won the competition, he won with a plan to provide Web portals with smarter search engine technology called Direct Hit Technologies.
"In the beginning, I was trying to get these other search engines to work with me and nobody would return my calls," he says. "But when we won the MIT competition, I would send that in my intro letter." As a result, he landed a meeting with the search engine company HotBot. That led to deals with AOL, and Microsoft and Lycos. In 2000, Ask Jeeves bought Direct Hit for $532.5 million. Today, Cassidy is director of product management at Google.
Business-plan competitions have expanded into elevator pitch battles and industry-specific contests. The scale has grown, too. When a UCLA team won the 2005 Rice University Business-Plan Competition, it received a $100,000 investment prize to launch the tech company Auditude. But several venture capitalists at the competition were so impressed that they offered to invest $1.1 million.
With that kind of money and influence at stake, here is insider advice from organizers, judges, and competitors:
Winning a Business-Plan Competition: Pick a Strong Team
Megan Mitchell, senior associate director of entrepreneurial programs at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, helps students manage the Wharton Business-Plan Competition. "Make sure you look outside your closest friends for your teammates," she says. Cross disciplines. "If you're a med student, find a business student who might be interested in helping you commercialize your idea."
Internal friction and bickering can be devastating. "I wish someone had really told me, 'Forget everything else and just make sure you get the most amazing people on the team,'" Cassidy says. He recommends looking for smart, hard workers who are team players. "Find some way to have a stressful situation where you can see how your teammates are going to react." Those who can rebound easily make ideal teammates—and future colleagues.
Winning a Business-Plan Competition: Look for Turmoil
Cassidy suggests looking for a business opportunity in an area where there's some sort of turmoil, confusion, or rapid growth. "In those cases, it's a much better opportunity for a new entrant to make some headway," he says. In 2006, when the online gaming was just taking off, Cassidy sold his online gaming startup Xfire to MTV Networks for $102 million. "Also, I really encourage people to pick businesses where you can do a lot with a very small team," he adds.
That said, skip the secrecy. The more transparent you can be, the better. Mitchell says she's seen many students tempted to hold ideas close to the vest and ask everyone around them to sign non-disclosure agreements. "There are some cases where that might be necessary with very technological plays, but the reality is, particularly if you're in school, you're surrounded by people who want to help," she says. Talk to enough people and they know it's your idea.
The Rice University competition is one of the largest in the world. Brad Burke is managing director for the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, which organizes and hosts the competition. Investors are looking for teams with sustainable advantages, he says. "Hopefully if they have a technology, they have a patent on the technology."
Winning a Business-Plan Competition: Use Your Resources to Plan Well
Luke Behnke is a second year MBA student at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and one of the directors of the school's $100K Entrepreneurship Competition. Last year he was on a team that didn't get selected as a finalist, a stage where competitors get one-on-one support. "I wish I would have done more in advance to get to that point," he says.
Burke says that while young entrepreneurs can fill their knowledge gap by creating an advisory board. "An advisory board of 10 people, each with 25 years experience, and they are in leadership positions in their companies—that creates huge credibility," he says. If your team is creating a product for the airline industry, try to get executives from United and Boeing on the board, he added. Those trusted advisors could easily become customers, or investors.
And be sure to acknowledge your weaknesses. Teams are naturally going to be missing a key person—a marketer, an engineer. Burke says that's to be expected. However, the team does need to tell the judges something like, "As soon as we get funding, we'll be looking for a chief technology officer."
Cassidy says that once, when the judges asked his team questions they couldn't answer, the team took advantage of a break to find out. "We ran home, we did some research," he says. "We ran in at the end of the day and said, ‘Here's a typed up list of answers to the questions you asked us three hours ago.' They were just blown away."
Winning a Business-Plan Competition: Focus on the Customer
One of Mike Cassidy's teammates for the MIT prize in 1991 was Krisztina "Z" Holly, who has since become vice provost for innovation at USC and executive director of the USC Stevens Institute for Innovation. Having been on both sides of a contest, she recommends getting in a customer-oriented mindset.
"It's not a solution looking for a problem," she says. "Understand the mindset of the consumer, understand what it is they have to do." Then use those insights to develop an idea.
Behnke's team proposed a networking site that would connect parents looking for nannies with college students in their communities. "Mothers really connected to the idea," he says. "If we had focused on what they said, what they needed, and how we addressed that, it would have been more compelling." If you have the greatest product in the world but no customer, you don't have a business, he added.
Winning a Business-Plan Competition: Be an Expert on Your Product and its Market
Holly has seen teams mistakenly choose the data they have instead of setting out to find the data they need. A prototype makes data collection easier.
"If the entrepreneur is really doing it, not just presenting an idea but has put a lot of effort into making it happen already in real life and could use the funding to move their business forward, that carries a lot of weight with the judges," Behnke says.
Make a beta site and have family members try it. "Even if it's a prototype you mock up in your dorm room that's put together with tape and rubber bands," Mitchell says, "You're going to learn more by having something out there."
One pet peeve that nearly every judge has is teams that present their idea and say that there is no competition in the space. "That's always a red flag because investors will say either you're completely clueless or it means that there's no market," Holly says.
Even if it seems like there isn't obvious competition, think about the alternatives to what your team is proposing. Recognize that, at the very least, those alternatives are competing for your customer's attention.
If the main selling point is a cheaper product, beware. "That's not a competitive advantage, especially for someone coming into the market, unless you're ten times cheaper," Holly says. "Any existing company is going to be able to undercut you until they put you out of business."
When setting a price point, coming in higher than existing products and services can actually be better, Holly says. This shows that the business is offering something with more value.
Dig Deeper: Top Business-Plan Mistakes
Winning a Business-Plan Competition: Identify the Real Market Share
Recently Burke encountered an entrepreneur who claimed that in a $9 billion market, the business just needed a 2 percent market share to succeed. "Most of the time if they say there's a big market and they're going to get 2 or 5 percent market share, in truth we know they're going to get zero percent," he says. He suggests identifying the total addressable market, which is a subset of the larger market.
Mitchell has seen teams get overwhelmed. "They've got eight different products they're going to put out in the first six months," she says. "By having too many markets you're going to address and too many problems to solve initially, you spread yourself too thin."
Winning a Business-Plan Competition: Make it Engaging
Bryce Benjamin, CEO in residence at USC Marshall's Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, heads the school's New Venture Seed Competition. He's seen presenters get caught up with their own cleverness. "Judges and investor panels need to be able to quickly absorb the problem and product solution," he says.
Behnke admits he wishes he had made his business plan less vanilla. "I tried to make sure I came across as very professional and smart," he says. "I think they needed more of my personality to come through."
On paper, the explanation should be simple and memorable. "If it gets to be more than about nine words, stop and make a new sentence," Cassidy advises. To present its automated grocery shopping system, Cassidy's team did a skit. "There's nothing wrong with doing a little show biz in your demos," he says.
Winning a Business-Plan Competition: Accept Feedback and Anticipate Questions
Burke says investors are looking for a coachable CEO, not an arrogant leader who won't take advice. "Listen to the feedback that's given," he says. "Your chance of being successful drops a lot if you're not willing to listen to other people, and the VCs know that."
Some of the most cringe-worthy moments Bryce Benjamin has witnessed involved people who got defensive and argued with the judges. "That will take an otherwise presentable idea and undermine it," he says.
One of the smartest things Burke has seen is making an index slide in PowerPoint that links to backup slides containing answers to possible questions. That way, when a judge asks, "Tell us what your unit cost is in 2015," the team can go to the index, find the hyperlinked slide, and show the answer right away. "It's a preparation trick that most people don't use."
Benjamin suggests picking one spokesperson for a short Q&A to make the strongest impact. He also recommends teams view the Q&A period as a chance to present data that would complicate the initial presentation. "Recognize that judges are going to want to drill into what your assumptions are, so you want backup slides that have been created in anticipation," he says.
Contest participants who don't receive funding or awards can still find success. "We certainly took a lot from the feedback we got," Luke Behnke says. Recognizing a persistent need, his team continues to work on its business plan.
Burke sees enormous value in business-plan competitions. "We've had teams tell us the weekend they came here, they learned more than their entire two-year MBA program."