Back in 2015/6 I was blessed to be the founder and CEO of the award winning startup, Cyber DriveWare. I believed winning startup competitions is a step on our way to success. Winning competitions became a goal for me. I spent precious time on figuring out: how to win startup competitions?
We then won high-profile startup competitions, including: Pioneers (Israeli/European), OTEC (Israeli/Chinese), and Kaspersky Startup Challenge (Russian/American). We won financial prizes, mentoring sessions, professional services, and beyond.
While financial prizes were important for us, they were not the most important thing we gained. Rather, it was the recognition. We were perceived by the risk-capital community as an investment-worthy startup. From that moment on, everything was different…
How did we win those competitions? What was our strategy, or secret sauce? Have we lost competitions as well? Was it risky? And how did we leverage winnings to receive term-sheets from investors from the US, UK, Singapore, and Israel?
Now in retrospective, I draw the formula which worked for us. I share with you our startup competition guide, or simply put: how to win startup competitions.
By the end of this series of articles, you’d become a master. You’d gain the expertise required to win startup competitions, all by yourself.
Intro: The Writer’s Credentials
Am I qualified to talk about how to win startup competitions? Indeed my company won those 3 competitions. But perhaps was I just lucky? Or even worse, maybe my startup won despite me, rather than thanks to me?
For starters, the 1st time I won a startup competition was back in 2001. As the photo below reveals, this was a competition by Oracle. Even earlier, back in 1999, I won “Best of Comdex Israel“. At the time, I was the product manager of AMD in Israel.
Throughout the years, I’ve competed in tens of competitions. Obviously, not always I won, but I’ve always tried to learn something…
Additionally, I’ve been a judge in local and international startup competitions; I’ve mentored startup companies which in turn, competed in startup competitions. I’ve even been the organizer and MC of startup competitions. Some of which were sponsored by Blumberg Capital or other VCs.
Whether I’m qualified enough or not, is your call. I will herein share my true stories, life-experiences and insights…
What is a Startup Competition?
A startup competition is an event, a meetup. Possibly it’s part of a larger conference. As the name implies, startup competitions bring startups together, to compete against one another.
At many times, startup competitions are called Pitch Competition (e.g. Startup Pitch Competition) or Entrepreneurship Competition. At other times, startup competitions are an integral part of an accelerator program, which is the case with MassChallenge or Kaspersky Startup Challenge.
What does a startup competition look like? Where does the process of winning begin, where does it end, and what’s in between? We’d now review the key aspects of winning. From submitting the application, through the screening process, presenting on stage, the networking session and beyond.
In the 2nd article in the series, we’d learn to see startups from the eyes of the judges. We’d then learn how to target the judges sweet spots.
In the 3rd article, we’d go over gimmicks and tricks to help us stand out and be memorable. Differentiating our startups is a key to winning!
So in order to get the longed-for winning, let’s start from the start…
Stage #1: Submitting an Application
To attend a competition, you’d have to submit an application. Such an application would likely consist of a deck (presentation), and an executive summary (2-pager). Most likely, you’d be required to upload your presentation (in a .PDF file format). The two-pager would likely have to be submitted by filling an online questionnaire.
More often than not, I’ve witnessed technical errors with submitting such forms. Be mentally prepared to fill-in the blanks twice, and waste an extra time….
Usually competing would not require an admission fee. However, you’d be required to share many of your company’s trade secrets with the public. Or with the competition’s organizers, the least.
This is an acceptable risk in my opinion, even though I’ve attended competitions where I wondered: What’s behind this contest? Is it all about collecting business intelligence or trade secrets?
Stage #2 – Semi Finals: Presenting to the Screening Committee
In some startups competitions, finalists are selected only based on their decks or other written content. In other cases, videos may be submitted too.
At times, following the online submission, semi-finalists are required to present in person, in front of the screening committee. Such a committee may consist of the same people who’d judge the finals.
In the case of global competitions, meeting with the screening committee may take place online via Xoom, Skype or alike.
At one time, I spent about half a day, just to pitch in the semi-finals. What for, you ask? Well… Most time was spent on sitting and waiting…
If I wish to focus on the full half of the glass, then this was a great opportunity to engage with the committee’s personnel. In one competition, I’ve managed to charm the screening committee to quite a high degree.
Then, in the finals event, the committee made sure to share their appreciation toward us, with the judges. Our path to win was paved. It wasn’t easy, but its much easier when you are marked as a candidate for winning, in advance.
Stage #3 – The Finals: Presenting on Stage!
If you are elected as a finalists, you’d then be invited to present in the finals event, a public event. You’d naturally receive information regarding the event in advance, such as: what is expected of you; how much time does your presentation last; whether there is a Q&A session or not; how long would the whole event take; what are the prizes; when to arrive; how to deliver your deck (via flash drive, or email, PDF or PPT), etc.
Now you got some time to rehearse, meditate, and get yourself ready to the big day…
The competition day has arrived… You are just about to be on stage… There is a large screen behind you, along with a microphone, a speaker system, lighting, crowd, etc. Oh, and don’t forget the panel of established judges, sitting right next to you…
Usually you’d receive something like 3 to 7 minutes to pitch. That should be more then enough for you, to effectively deliver your story. I’ve seen competitions where finalists presented for an entire 10-15 minutes (each!). But nowadays, people’s limited attention span, pushes to a stricter limit…
Either way, you’d be told ahead of time how much time you receive to present. Make sure to use exactly all that time. Be precise. Being cut off, in the middle of a slide, is a no go! Unfortunately, I still see this error occurring quite often…
Whether you present for 3 or 15 minutes, those would be your moments to shine 🙂 Bring your best energy on stage. Be rehearsed. master your presentation. Don’t say hmm… Amm… and don’t show stress or fear. Be confident. Be a million dollars, be yourself 🙂
Stage #4: The Q&A Panel
Following your presentation, the panel of judges would likely ask you all sorts of questions: about your startup’s stage, team, pricing or business model, your vision, field of operation, whatever. Usually (but not always) the duration of the Q&A session is flexible. It can take anywhere between no time to even 5 minutes and even more!
Can I influence the questions I’d be asked? You sure can! how?
One technique would be to mention untapped topics, throughout the presentation. Especially toward the end. Make it sound interesting. Perhaps even mention that you wish to elaborate on it…
The judges are likely to follow through and ask about exactly that!
You should anticipate the questions you’d be asked. Master your answers. How could you prepare to all the questions the judges may ask, you wonder? Well, that skill would come with time and experience, no worries… Once you’d present your startup over 100 or 1,000 times, you’ll know what questions are likely to come next…
As you learn to anticipate the coming questions, prepare a slide for each answer. Rehearse your answers. When you’re on stage, switch to the extra-slides. Show yourself to be prepared. Impress by being comfortable, by being on top of things.
Stage #5: Handling the Judges Feedback
Following the Q&A session, or even during it, you may receive feedback. Some judges may appear rude, or stupid. Others may be kind or sharp. That is normal. Putting yourself up there is not meant for the ones with a weak heart…
Either way, never argue with a judge’s feedback. Never make them wrong or try to make yourself look right.
At this stage, you’re done talking. When you receive feedback, be highly attentive to what you are told. Even if you completely disagree, show yourself to be respectful the feedback and the person sharing it with you.
Always thank the judges for sharing their thoughts with you. Mention that you’ll look into that; or say that you are aware of that flaw, issue and actions will be taken to address that. You could even act on a feedback in a positive manner, such as by saying that this is spot on!
If the feedback or Q&A session indicate that the judges did not get your presentation, then take notes. Do not try to convince them. Your chance is over. Rather, learn from that. Go back to your home or office, revise. Prepare for your next competition.
The act of attentively and kindly accepting the judges feedback, will go a long way. Only reply, if you are given the stage again. Or perhaps, ask if you can add just one little clarification. Don’t push it.
Either way, make sure to create rapport with the judges. Show them your appreciation. Make them like you. Make them want to give you the crown. Not because your startup is flawless. But because they liked you, because you showed yourself to be a listener, a leader!
Stage #6: The Networking Session
Now that you (and your rivals) presented your startups, a networking session will probably take place. This is your chance to interact with everybody out there. Your chance to meet with investors, industry professionals or fellow startups.
Perhaps now that the presentation is behind you, it’s time to relax, on a coffee or a beer? After all, you’ve just burnt so many calories on stage. Seriously. You could use a moment just to relax or chill out by yourself…
Actually… Even if you feel a bit overwhelmed or exhausted, it’s not an excuse. Do your best to keep the adrenaline kicking. It ain’t over until the fat lady sings!
Until after the winners are announced, the competition is not over!
Your actions during the networking session, might be monitored by the judges. This could be your chance to further impress.
You may even be able to interact with the judges directly. This might be your opportunity to stand out, and make yourself more likable or memorable. This is your opportunity to put yourself ahead of everybody else!
Again, It Ain’t Over Until the Fat Lady Sings. Or in this case, until the networking session ends and the winners are announced… 🙂
A True Story: the 2-Man Bootstrap vs. Waze?
Back in 2011, there were very few startup competitions out there. I remember how I once paid a submission fee of… hmm… Was it $99? That fee was just to be screened for the competition. Eventually we made it all the way through the finals, Yay!
We, a bootstrap of 2 man, were then invited to present on stage in a prestigious event. As finalists, we competed against ~9 other startups, one of which is Waze. At the time, Waze was a startup which raised over $37M! (later in 2013, Waze was acquired by Google for over $1B).
Was it a fair game? Could a 2-man show compete with an established company which raised $37M? How!?
Of course not! We had no chance at all. This is like having an elementary school student compete against a professional athlete in a swimming contest. This is nonsense.
Fair game or not, those are (sometimes) the rules of the game. If you expect a twist in the story, then I’m sorry to disappoint you. There’s no sensation at this stage. Waze won 1st place 🙂
But thankfully, not all startup competitions are made the same…
Was it worth it, you might wonder? To compete and lose to Waze?
The disappointment was felt loud and clear. And yet, after I collected the broken pieces of my heart, I was thankful: I had the opportunity to present my company in a high-profile event. My company received feedback from the panel of judges; I gained experience as a presenter, etc.
In retrospective, I can look at this as a “warm-up” for the following competitions to come… 🙂
The Winner Takes it All
Do you feel you better understand what startup competitions are? For sure you should have an idea by now… But what would you get, if you win? Is it all about the money? or are there other awards or prizes? and finally, are there any added values to winnings?
Prizes in startup competitions could appear in many shapes or forms. Some winnings only entitle you to recognition. In such a case, you may receive a certification.
But is it about the prize at all? Or is it all about the experience?
Well… on the other side of the spectrum, I’ve seen competitions where the prize was an investment of $1M!
Thus, the prize does matter…
Notice that even when the prize is an investment, it is subject to terms and conditions, in similar with any investment. Supposedly those are favorable terms, though…
The winner either accept the terms, or you let go the investment… Anyway, this should be the least of your concerns right now… Lets focus on how to win. We’ll discuss negotiating the term sheet at another time.
So what are prizes likely to be? Below are prizes awarded in various startup competitions I took part in.
Sample Prizes in Startup Competitions
- A certificate of recognition
- Meeting for lunch with the competition’s sponsors (e.g. a VC)
- 10 hours of consultation by PwC
- Automatic qualification for a global startup competition. Possibly your travel expenses would be covered (partially or in full).
- Cash Prizes. For example, in the Kaspersky startup challenge, 1st prize took home $50K in cache, with no conditions whatsoever.
- Investment: In Pioneer’s Startup Challenge, for example, 1st prize was eligible for an investment of $500K, in “favorable terms”.
The Added Values
As you could notice, not with all competitions, you’d receive a tangible prize. But all winnings would sure make you feel high, at least for a short while…
Is feeling good the only added value to winning, you wonder? There sure is more than just that, right? Of course there is!
Media Coverage: An added value could be a headline or an interview in a blog post or a magazine. Don’t be passive, try to promote your achievement in an active manner. This could make the difference between media coverage and no coverage.
Referrals: In similar, I’d suggest that you be proactive, and contact the judges of the competition. Ask them if they wish to invest in your company. Or perhaps they could refer you to investors. Don’t rush in, however. If you do not find the right moment during the competition, reach out to the judges later via email or phone.
Differentiation: Being the winner of a competition is something you should mention in your deck and executive summary. You should briefly mention that in any presentation you present.
Door Opener: Being a winner may help you open doors. For example, it may be easier to set up meetings with VCs. It is important to demonstrate to VCs that you worth their time. Winning competitions creates interest, as well as a sense that you are time-worthy.
Summary: Added Values from Winning Startup Competitions
- An awesome feeling, lasting for at least until the following day 🙂
- Interviews or mentions in blogs, magazines, tweets, etc.
- Interest in your startup, during the competition’s networking session
- Differentiation by mentioning this in your deck & executive summary
- Having a good story, to share with your colleagues & friends
- A sense of traction. Rendering your startup time-worthy.
Bonus: Delivering Too Much
Usually you’d be given 3-5 minutes to present, in startup competitions. At many times presenters try to deliver too many messages. More than they could comfortably fit, within the given timeframe.
I can sure understand where this is coming from. But talking too fast, or delivering too much, creates the opposite impression. It makes the listener feel that the presenter is unsure, or unready or not confident, etc.
The solution: Handpick the most important and strategic messages, you wish to deliver. Time yourself. Make simulations in front of other professionals. Make sure your presentation makes sense.
So many times, I’ve seen presenters being cut off, as their time is up, in the middle of a slide or a sentence… Don’t let this happen to you. Find your balance!
The Key Takeaway
Choose the most important message you wish to convey. Then build your story around it. Next, rehearse until your ass falls off! Master your presentation. Record yourself, listen, watch, and know your game.
In the bottom line, we have to make sure that our story and act are coherent and together. We must make sense for the listener. Even if that means trimming down our capabilities or vision, for the time of the presentation.
Remember that to win, you’d rather deliver a clear message, than an extended one…
Summary: How to Win Startup Competitions
Here, in part #1 of the Startup Competition Guide, we discussed what a startup competition is. We reviewed the entire process, from start to finish. We started with submitting the application, and finished with the longed-for win… We described each stage, and discussed key opportunities and risks. The key stages & takeaways:
- Application Submission, including a deck & executive summary
- Semi Finals: Presenting & impressing the screening committee
- Finals: Presenting on stage
- Q&A Panel: Promote specific questions & prepare extra-slides
- Judges Feedback: Be attentive and highly respectful!
- Networking session: Work the room, network with the judges…
- Winning – Added Values: Media coverage, referrals, door opening
Summary: Key Elements of Startup Competitions
We saw how the job of impressing the judges, does not start and end with the deck or pitch. Rather, we expressed a more holistic approach.
Yes, the deck must be spot-on. We must rehearse and master our pitch. We must present for the exact amount time we get! And we must strategize the messages we wish to convey.
But it doesn’t end with that. To win we must be likable. This may start as soon as presenting to the screening committee, in the semi-finals. This would even be affected from our language, wording and graphics, deliver in our executive summary or presentation.
The importance of being likable holds true even in the case we waste our precious time, waiting, in the semi-finals…
We must show ourselves to be appreciative of the judges and their feedback.
We also saw how valuable the networking session is. That session may hold onto an opportunity to converse with the judges, thus differentiate ourselves.
Speaking of networking, we happen to have a whole article just about The Art of Networking.
In the next article in this series, we learn to see The Judges Perspective. We learn to see startup competitions from the eyes of the judges. We look into psychology of investment. We learn to do our homework and learn of the judges ahead of time.
We then tap on the judges sweet-spots and customize our message accordingly. We leverage the understanding of how judges think, to create winning presentations and messages.
In the 3rd article of this series, we learn how to differentiate ourselves via gimmicks. How to become memorable, as we compete against 10 other startups or 100 other slides…
Does this make any sense to you at all? Do you feel you are up to the challenge? Do you still want to win startup competitions?
If you are all on fire, then continue on, to the next articles in this series: Learn how to win the judges hearts. Finally continue to the last article in this series, and learn to differentiate yourself using gimmicks…
And of course, feel free to share your feedback with us in the comments below or in person, via the contact page.
Checklist: Winning Startup Competitions
- Have a UX specialist design your written materials
- Cut the fluff, strategize & deliver clear messages, both spoken and written
- Tie your field of operation & technology to hot trends (article #2) Have an appealing story (#2)
- Use a Gimmick / Props, to stand out and be memorable (#3)
- Improve & master your presentation skills (#3)
- Learn the judges beforehand, adapt your story accordingly. (#2)
- Dress to Impress (#4)
- Equip yourself with a fine business card (#3)
- Network the Room (#4)
- Find your strengths, capitalize on them (#4)
- Be your niche expert. Never be outsmarted by the Judges! (#2)
By following this checklist, you’d more likely than not, stand out from the rest. Would that assure that you win a given startup competition? Of course not!
External factors are as important as internal ones. However, if such skills are mastered, you are likely to win a startup competition, given you don’t give up just a moment before you do…