Beating the Odds: How to Succeed in Entrepreneurship Competitions
By Jason Plant ’23 Head Principal
Thus far, my startup, HydroPhos Solutions, has competed in 17 entrepreneurship competitions on local, national, and global scales, and thanks to the incredible support we have received from our mentors, we have raised over $75,000. Each of these competitions has taught me something about how to raise seed capital, and I recently had the chance to reflect on what I’ve learned. Here are my tips on how to create a competitive entrepreneurship competition entry.
Why Compete in Entrepreneurship Competitions?
Despite the potential that entrepreneurship competitions hold for young, first-time founders like myself, they are a frequently overlooked source of funding for early-stage startups. The odds of winning a prize are steep; often an entry is competing against dozens or hundreds of other entries, all for a relatively small amount of $1k to $50k. However, there is no better place to get funding simply for having a well thought-out idea, with no need for revenue, a minimum viable product (MVP), or any other tangible traction. This makes entrepreneurship competitions the perfect way to overcome the classic chicken-and-egg problem that many entrepreneurs face: one needs traction to get funding, but one needs funding to get traction.
Another compelling advantage to entrepreneurship competitions is that they are a unique opportunity to get in front of highly experienced entrepreneurs, angels, or venture capitalists who serve as judges for the entry — people whose attention and support one normally wouldn’t have access to during the idea stage. Competitions force competitors to be well-researched on their ideas. Too often, founders will go straight to pitching angel investors before doing their own due diligence on their ideas, but going through the rigorous process of answering the questions required for a competition entry gives entrepreneurs a research template to kickstart their concept validation.
Needless to say, entrepreneurship competitions are excellent pitching practice and come with the chance to win enough money to turn an idea into a reality. Some competitions even come with acceptance into accelerator programs or in-kind prizes as well. Lastly, entrepreneurship competitions get easier and easier the more one does them, because each competition adds to the entrepreneur’s pitch experience, feedback, research, and writing samples that can be used in future entries. While entrepreneurship competitions can be a powerful tool for developing an organization from scratch, there is a lot that goes into winning one.
The Right Mindset: Don’t Be Afraid to Fail
Firstly, to get the most out of an entrepreneurship competition, one needs to accept that their likelihood of winning is slim at best. This is just one of the many ways that competitions prepare entrepreneurs for the real world where the odds of succeeding are also harrowingly low, but not impossible. Those that are able to consistently succeed in competitions in the long-term recognize that the learning experience alone is worth the time and effort, and they do not take losses personally, but rather look for opportunities for growth from every piece of feedback they are given. There will always be learning opportunities in entrepreneurship competitions but deservedly or not, an entry will not always receive funding. It is also important to recognize that sometimes an entry loses not because it was a poor entry, but because the judges that happened to be selected for this competition have their own preferences and prior experiences that lead them to favor some entries over others. The key is knowing when to internalize and when to externalize the competition results.
Approaching the Submission and the Pitch:
Just about every competition is looking at two factors, whether they express them or not: implementability and impact potential. A great entry proves to judges that the idea can feasibly happen in real life, and that the idea is worth implementing because it has significant financial prospects and/or significant social/environmental impact potential. Without implementability, there is doubt. Without impact potential, there is disinterest. Having some measurable traction kills both of these birds with one stone but cannot be fully substituted for either because there always needs to be a vision beyond the current state of the business. One great way to gain early traction is to talk to prospective customers. Being able to say, “I validated my idea by speaking to 200+ customers,” goes a long way in idea-stage competitions. In fact, many investors would rather invest in a company that had strong customer feedback and validation but zero revenue, than a company with early revenues that did not speak to their customers before launching their product or service. When my company was starting out, we didn’t have a strong implementability argument for our technology because it was a relatively unproven technology and we were in the stage of development where we were still testing multiple potential solutions. However, we had spoken to every stakeholder relevant to our company and this helped us convince the judges that our idea was well-validated by the market, and that once our technology had been fully developed, there would be strong market demand for our solution.
Having an effective pitch is like telling a great story. The slides and the narrative should flow into one another seamlessly and the story should have passion behind it, just like when one tells a story to their friends or family. The best way to tell a believable story is to do as much research as possible on the idea beforehand. The research an entrepreneur pulls into their pitch deck not only gives them exponentially more credibility, but it also gives them confidence in what they are saying, which makes a big difference when on stage. The entrepreneurs that do the most research give the most insightful answers on their written submissions and the most convincing answers during live Q&A. How does one know if they’ve done enough research? What I did with my team was write down just about every question we had about the business and find the answers to all of them until we felt we truly understood everything there was to know. During this process, we also spoke to many people who were far more experienced in business and in our technology than we were, and they gave us yet more questions to find the answers to. One knows when they’ve done enough research when they have a great answer for just about every question someone could ask about the business. Research and by extension, continual customer feedback, should happen on a nonstop rolling basis.
Great pitches are also tailored to their audience. Every competition has its own unique angle; maybe it’s a social venture competition, a competition that prioritizes customer feedback, or a competition for companies in a specific industry. Even the more generalist competitions have one thing in common: they take place in a certain geographic location (unless they are virtual). In national competitions where my team traveled to different parts of the country to compete, we would always do a little bit of research on how our solution could benefit the local community and talk about it in our pitch. It goes a surprisingly long way when an entrepreneur makes the judge feel like they really have the judge’s best interests in mind. On that note, if possible, it is always good to do some research on the judges as well. Try to find out their likes and dislikes; these inform what one emphasizes and what one avoids discussing in a pitch.
Even the very best ideas have holes. Startup ideas are new and unproven by nature, and as such, there are always going to be unknowns. It can be scary to pitch an idea to far more experienced professionals, knowing that the idea has some significant risks associated with it, whether technical, market, IP, execution, etc. This might sound counterintuitive, but the absolute best thing to do is plug holes proactively by incorporating them into the story. For example, maybe a startup is highly technical, but has only a single non-technical founder. Which sounds better, saying “we are actively seeking a CTO and have 3 candidates under consideration,” or waiting for the judges to ask the obvious question of how the idea is possible with no technical co-founder? If one waits for the judges to ask an obvious question, they allow them to feel doubt in the idea. Of course, don’t be dishonest to plug holes, but whenever possible, address the common objections the business gets before the judges have to object. It gives the pitch exponentially more credibility. My startup made this mistake big-time for our first year of pitch competitions. We changed our pitch very little from competition to competition, simply anticipating that we would get asked mostly the same questions at each pitch event. While this was true, once we started proactively addressing questions we were commonly asked, there was a noticeable shift in the judges’ confidence in our venture, and we started seeing better prize outcomes as well. No matter what holes an entrepreneur’s business may have, entrepreneurship competitions present numerous opportunities to fill them in, whether through obtaining helpful feedback, conducting diligent research, or receiving funding.
Jason is a senior from Sanbornton, NH who is pursuing a degree in Business Administration with an Option in Entrepreneurial Studies at UNH. Jason’s current and prior involvement at UNH includes serving as Head Principal and Liaison at the Rines Angel Fund, Dean’s Ambassador for the Paul College, Peer Mentor at the B-Impact Clinic, Analyst at the Atkins Investment Group, and competing and winning prizes in the Social Venture Innovation Challenge (SVIC), the Maurice Prize Competition, the Holloway Competition, the i2 Passport Program, the National Draper Competition, and e-Fest. Outside of UNH, Jason runs his own online publication (Venture Time), graduated from Draper University, a prestigious Silicon Valley training program for promising entrepreneurs; works at 10X Venture Partners as an Associate, and developed the due diligence process and accelerator program for Venture-RBF, a venture debt fund dedicated to supporting under-resourced social entrepreneurs. Jason also leads an R&D-stage startup called HydroPhos Solutions, a circular economy social venture that aims to address the problems of eutrophication and phosphorus shortage by filtering phosphorus out of wastewater and reselling the phosphorus into the fertilizer industry.