Just as dog-show screeners always back pooches that stride without breaking their gait, business-plan competition judges find certain qualities to be extra-appealing. They include:

  1. An idea with international flavor. Two of the winners we profiled presented business plans for companies with significant operations overseas. Sarah Takesh's Tarsian & Blinkley is a fashion company that hires Afghan women to sew and embroider apparel, while Gang Mai's business, Xiehou Entertainment, plans to set up a mobile-phone Internet dating service in China. Judges liked that Takesh's company could be the beneficiary of lower tariffs on goods imported from Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban. They were also impressed that Takesh knew about grants that the U.S. government was making available to entrepreneurs like her who were setting up shop in the country, post-invasion.
  2. An enormous market. Judges are impressed by start-up ideas that seem as though they might be able to get big in a hurry. Gang Mai's idea appealed to the judges in the UCLA competition, which he won, because the market for Internet dating seems large -- and in China, Judge Bud Knapp was persuaded, it is "new and largely untapped." Similarly, Dan Burnett won UC-Berkley's contest with an idea for a new kind of diet pill, for which Judge Nancy Olson saw "huge consumer demand."
  3. A team with staying power. Eric Hiller's idea for a computer program that calculates cost estimates of building new equipment came to him years ago, when he was studying for an engineering degree at the University of Illinois. He's been working on the project ever since -- and judges at Harvard Business School's competition found that persistence appealing. Prior to winning Yale's contest, utility engineer Anthony Uzzo says he and his team of 8 invested 10,000 hours and $20,000 in their idea for a company that sells fuel tank monitoring systems. Judge James Nahirny says, "When an entrepreneur is already risking his own capital, you feel better about risking yours."
  4. An idea that has been proven to work. If you can prove that your plan worked once, judges have an easier time believing it will work again. Chris and Natasha Ashton knew pet insurance was popular in Britain, but they found few companies that offered policies in the U.S. Judge Karen Boezi says their win was partly due to the fact "that pet insurance had been successful in the U.K." Similarly, Gang Mai's chances of winning were enhanced by the fact that he demonstrated that mobile phone Internet dating was popular in Japan.
  5. An idea that won't get knocked off. The big winner on this year's competition circuit was KidSmart, which makes fire alarms that can record, in a parent's voice, directions for their children to leave the house in the event of a fire. But judges were concerned that big fire-alarm companies could easily rip off the product. KidSmart rebutted that criticism by pointing out that the alarm's inventor -- who happened to be a leading intellectual-property attorney -- had written the patent application.