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.