How do you do a winning business plan for a business plan competition? I’m glad you asked. I’m a frequent judge of these competitions so it’s in my interest to help you improve your chances by developing a better business plan, pitch presentation, summary, and elevator speech.
So that you know, I’m answering this question with reference to the mainstream high-profile business plan competitions I’ve judged many times, including the University of Texas’ Global Venture Labs Investment Competition, the Rice Business Plan Competition, and the University of Oregon’s New Venture Competition. I’ve done these three at least 10 times each. I’m assuming they are typical – but I could be wrong.
Here’s how the process works, with regard to what you deliver and how decisions are made:
- You submit either a business plan or executive summary to a steering committee that selects a few dozen entrants from hundreds of submissions. These committees vary. Many still use the full plan, but trends favor just the summary. This step takes place behind the scenes, before the visible portion of the competition begins. The entries selected are called semi-finalists. They are invited to go to the competition, at the site, which usually involves a Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, most often in April or May.
- Semi-finalists are divided into groups of four to six. Semi-final judges, mostly angel investors, venture capitalists, and executives from sponsor companies, read and evaluate the full business plans before the competition starts.
- An elevator speech round happens on the Thursday, in the evening. The teams do a 60-second elevator speech for prizes and awards. Winning that competition doesn’t formally help win the main prize, but informally, it affects the judges who see it. About half the judges will attend that first evening.
- The semi-final round takes place on Friday. Teams do pitch presentations and answer questions from the judges assigned to their group, who have read their business plans. Judges choose a finalist based not on the quality of business as a potential investment. The plan matters of course, and the pitch matters as well, but the choice is ultimately about the business. Judges try to make decisions based on investment criteria, including growth potential, defensibility, scalability, and experience of the management team.
- Finalists go through the same gauntlet on Saturday. Finals judges read the plans, listen to pitches, and ask questions. They choose the winner based on the same criteria they use to choose investments.
In all of these competitions, the judges are told to choose the best plan for outside investors, not the best-written or most attractively formatted business plan. So, a mediocre business plan for a great business will always beat a great business plan for a mediocre business. What you want from your business plan is to present your business well in a way that makes it easy for judges to see what you have. Your business plan alone isn’t enough to determine your fate in these competitions, but it does provide the first impression and the detailed background. In fact, all three of the competitions I mentioned above have special prizes for the best business plan, but those awards pale in comparison to the main prizes.
Therefore, the best way to help your chances with your business plan is to make sure the judges see the critical elements that make a business attractive to investors: potential growth and scalability, proprietary technology or some other kind of barriers to entry, and an experienced management team.
Here are some related tips that might also help:
- Make sure you cover the information investors want. Tell a convincing story about the problem you solve and the solution you offer, in a way that will interest the investors and let them believe your market story. Show whatever traction you have, and as much startup experience in the management team as you can. Show how your business will defend itself (proprietary technology, trade secrets, whatever secret sauce you have) from competitors entering the market. Show how you can scale up for high growth. Show that you understand how exits might work in 3-5 years.
- Keep it brief. Be concise. Don’t show off your knowledge, push your main points forward. Bullet points are appreciated.
- Show your numbers and your key assumptions. Numbers without assumptions and underlying story are useless. Forget present value and IRR games that depend on future assumptions. Show unit economics and build forecasts bottom up, from assumptions, not ever as some small percentage of a big market.
- Use illustrations that simplify and explain. Have the detailed numbers to back them up, of course, but use bar charts and line charts and pie charts to help readers get the idea quickly.
- Check your numbers against real world benchmarks. Investors will react negatively, not positively, to unrealistic profitability projections.
- Maintain alignment between the key points you emphasize in the business plan, the pitch presentation, and the elevator speech. Ideally your business plan is like the screenplay for the pitch presentation and the elevator speech.
- Don’t be afraid to revise numbers constantly, and don’t apologize if the numbers you show today are different from what you showed yesterday. Plans are supposed to evolve constantly.
Last week I spent three days in Houston as a judge of the Rice Business Plan Competition. I haven’t been home since I left April 7 to judge the University of Oregon’s New Venture Championship.
Both of these competitions include four components: the business plan, the business pitch, the responses to questions, and the elevator speech. Every team has at least one MBA student, most of them are all MBA students. The winners get a lot of money.
Rice is the richest. Last Saturday night they distributed $1.3 million in investments, services, and cash awards. Some of that, however, involves investment for equity, or conditions like moving to Houston.
Judging these contests is fun. You read business plans, then listen to the entrepreneurs pitch the plan with slides and demos, followed by questions and answers. Later, you give them feedback. The hardest part, at least this year, is that you have to rank the teams and choose winners.
Here are my 10 reflections:
- A great ending: The Rice contest was a $1.1 million contest until the absolute last minute, the last presentation in the awards banquet, when the Texas GOOSE (grand order of successful entrepreneurs) doubled its investment in the winner, from $150K to $300K. The GOOSE society is a phenomenon in itself, worth another post here. I couldn’t find a good link to it to share here, but among the names I recognize are Rod Canion, co-founder of Compaq Computers, and Bob Brockman, who gave the award on Saturday. Right there, with the winners on the stage, they took a marker and, writing by hand, doubled the amount on the check.
- A good response to feedback: Clearbrook Imaging, a team from the University of Texas, has a product in its early stages that could, if it works and gets into the hands of doctors, make some kinds of heart surgery much safer. Unfortunately they’ve also got a thick, turbid business plan, and a slow-paced presentation. The underlying product/market fit looks so good my group of judges passes them onto the finals before lunch, then coaches them, in the afternoon, on how to turn their pitch around on empathy and stories and plot. The next day they win the Oregon contest.
- Mixed feelings: Innovators from The Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur has a way to rig some plastic together to filter water in villages without using electric power, for $6 a unit, to reduce the horrifying death toll of water-borne preventable diseases among India’s rural poor. They didn’t make the semifinals. It’s hard to compare plans offering frills in a consumer market to plans that offer real improvements in health and life for people living in poverty.
- Disappointing: The financial projections for a lot of the plans had horribly unrealistic profitability and little or no sense of cash flow. I’m surprised at how many strong teams had flawed financials. Good news: except for the flawed financials, the business plans are getting better than ever. These are exciting new companies with strong markets and excellent teams behind them. And flawed financials are not fatal flaws.
- Growth and change: business plan competitions started in 1984 with the University of Texas’ Moot Corp, now called Venture Labs. They were originally a lot like that name, moot, hypothetical, academic exercises in mock businesses. These days the vast majority of these plans are real, with real prospects, real value, and real likelihood of launching. Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance that puts on the competition, says since they started in 2001 they’ve had 116 teams launch businesses, which raised $337 million in venture capital.
- Four for four: For my flight at the Oregon contest I reviewed four plans. All four were believable, launchable businesses.
- Six for six: For my flight at Rice I reviewed six plans. Two were a bit early, but promising. Four were real.
- Disproportionately male: It’s getting better these days, but it’s still true that judges and competitors are maybe 80 percent male. There’s no good reason for that. I hope it changes fast. And for more good news on this front, the winning team, TNG Pharmaceuticals, was led by CEO Jenny Corbin, and two others of the six finalist teams included strong women. Priyanka Bakaya of MIT and PK Clean, another finalist, won the $10,000 nCourage Courageous Women Entrepreneur Prize. And Priscilla Silva had the main speaking part for Cyclewood Plastics, of the University of Arkansas, another of the six finalists.
- Meanwhile, back in the real world: QRCodeCity, one of the plans I reviewed for Rice, had started in January with an iPhone app called “Scan.” When the Rice contest started in had been downloaded more than 250,000 times. Three days later, at the awards banquet, it had been downloaded more than 300,000 times. They didn’t make the finals.
- Toughest finals ever: The Rice event included 42 teams chosen from more than 150 applications. They filtered them down to six teams for the finals. It was incredibly hard to choose between those six. Any one of them could have won. One of my favorites fell behind only because they hadn’t signed the technology license agreement. The team that won, TNG Pharmaceuticals from the University of Louisville, which has vaccine to relieve cattle of fly infestations, was fabulous. But so were the five other finalists.
I’m not done with this subject. In two weeks I do it again for the University of Texas’ Venture Labs, formerly Moot Corp, the oldest and maybe still the best known of these contests. Venture Labs gets the winners of several dozen other contests.