Winning a startup competition can provide an important infusion of cash and momentum to an early-stage startup. Competitions can also be a tool to attract founders to move to startup ecosystems outside of Silicon Valley.
That last point is something I'm very familiar with, as the St. Louis area (where I call home) has become home to three fast-growing startup competitions: placeholderArch Grants, the Ameren Accelerator Demo Day, and the St. Charles County Demo Day.
Of course, St. Louis isn't the only city to host startup competitions or demo days, as the events have become an important building block of entrepreneurial ecosystems across the country. St. Louis is, however, the city where I have access to winners, funders, and judges from startup competitions.
Here's what they had to say about what it takes to win a startup competition.
1. Become a finalist (aka pay attention to the application).
"Every startup competition has their own goals that are much bigger than just giving free money away to startup founders," says Jonathan Allen, President and co-founder of Longneck & Thunderfoot (L&T), a content marketing firm and previous winner of a $50,000 Arch Grant. "Which means you're often not being judged on the actual concept for your startup, but instead on how your application and pitch reflects the wider aims of the competition committee."
"In our case, Arch Grants is on a mission to build a startup ecosystem in St Louis. With that in mind, although a young startup has dozens of challenges they're trying to address (and $50,000 of free money can pretty much solve anything), we adapted our application to narrowly focus on using the grant funds to solve a very specific issue. I think that reassured the judges that if we were successful, L&T would be building a core function in St Louis."
2. Be prepared.
"We've organized and hosted four Demo Days," said Randy Schilling, OPO Startups Founder, startup investor, serial entrepreneur,placeholder and host of the St. Charles County Demo Day. "It's important that applicants who become finalists spend time developing a clear, concise presentation. It's also important to do a practice pitch in front of an actual audience. Most startup competitions that award cash draw a pretty big crowd. Presenting your startup dream to an audience of a couple hundred people can be nerve-wracking. Practice pitches can help minimize your stage fright. Additionally, make sure your financial projections are accurate, can be explained, and are based on something close to reality."
3. Be willing to admit what you don't know and answer judges' questions.
"You'll think you thought of everything, and then a judge will throw you a total curveball," said Kirk Ferrell, founder of Flat World Supply Chain and judge for multiple startup competitions. "It's okay to not know the answer to a question. In fact, as a judge, I would rather hear 'I don't know' than watch someone make something up on the fly. It's impressive to see someone who is humble enough to know there are ideas and perspectives they may not have considered. Also, make sure you answer a judge's questions. Don't do that thing that politicians do where they give the answer they want to give, regardless of the question."
Winning a startup competition isn't a golden ticket to success for a founder and his or her team.
However, it can be an important momentum builder. Jonathan Allen's company used its Arch Grant and subsequent relocation to gain a foothold and momentum in the ultra-competitive field of content marketing--and if you take the application seriously, prepare yourself, and come ready to engage with judges in a thoughtful way, you may be able to use a win at a startup competition to start building your own momentum.