I attended the announcement of the winners of futureSAX business plan competition where I was a juror yesterday. And I brought back some memories of how this was like when I was once competing in other such competitions before. Although I am not a big fan of business plan competitions, I think they do have their pros and cons and it is vital to understand what you are getting yourself into before you submit your papers.

How business plan competitions are structured

Most business plan competitions work the same way: you register online and submit your papers. Most of these competitions are divided into stages (they usually have glorious names such as ideas, growth, and excellence) and industries (such as bio, cleantech, IT). Once papers are submitted, jurors are being handed a sample of the stack together with forms to grade them. Jurors usually have about two to three weeks to go through the pile of papers and submit their grades.

After that, it’s getting a bit different. While some competitions allow for a live presentation by the selected few, others solely focus on the papers. The grading sheets are usually confidential and only reverted to the teams until after the competition.

The winners usually get announced at pretty lofty events where all jurors and all teams will be present.

Standardized checklists

However, this is one of the facts most discussed among jurors. While it is true that teams should have an open approach to submit their plans, the grading sheets certainly try to capture the essence of what should be covered. I am not too excited about checklists as I remain sceptical that a standardized grading pattern will capture those really disruptive opportunities. This is especially true the earlier you are into the game.

So why checklists after all? As you can imagine with a couple of hundred business plans submitted, it is a bit too much for just a handful of jurors to go through these aside from their work and provide useful feedback. Therefore a lot of people get invited. Usually sponsors get juror seats. So, keep this in mind when you write about market trends and your technology.

The right industry

As mentioned, most competitions allow you to submit your plans for certain industries. Make sure you understand those industries. As was the case yesterday, there was a web startup in service. Most of them, however, were in IT. It could be a wise approach to shoot for service as an industry to be considered as IT is usually more competitive. But you should also understand that jurors are being handed your plan according to their preference. Hence you should tailor your writing to a less verse audience if you want to compete in an industry further away from your original space.

The networking party

As mentioned before, winners usually get announced at large events where all jurors, participants, and also the press will be present. Don’t get me wrong: I can’t think of another way of making this happen and the winners should deserve attention and recognition for their ideas and efforts. But be aware that the atmosphere at such events is usually mixed. There are a few winners and many, many disappointed people.

Final thoughts

Business plan competitions are good if you know what you are getting yourself into. It is great if you want to gain some recognition. There are a couple of studies that some of the greatest companies never won business plan competitions (even though they tried hard). Thinking that you will automatically receive funding is most likely not right. Sometimes it might be even better to lose a competition as most winners were not the most successful companies.