Startup Competitions – The Top 5 Reasons Why Participating Helps Accelerate Your Startup

July 26, 2020

I’ve participated in many startup competitions while building my three startups. My decade-long career as an entrepreneur has taught me among many things– that anyone can have a big idea cooking up in their head which may be “the next amazing venture”. However, no market for ideas really exists, and what separates the ‘couch-preneurs’ from the entrepreneurs is the ability to execute a vision. Turning an idea into a tangible product, solution or service that satisfies a real need or problem(s) for paying customers take a ton of effort. One of the hardest parts of starting a new business is getting it off the ground. Raising startup funds, learning the ropes and finding those first few customers is not easy. Success takes hard work and hustle. So among the million things that you’re doing to get your startup off the ground– entering in entrepreneurship competitions could also be the ‘jump-start’ every entrepreneur needs.

Startup competitions get you ‘out of the building’ as a great way to begin validating your business/product ideas and build momentum. A huge variety of events and competitions offer the perfect mix of visibility, challenges and opportunities to help you drive your business idea in the right direction.

Startup competitions get you ‘out of the building’ as a great way to begin validating your business/product ideas and build momentum.

It’s important to be aware that entering into any competition requires effort and it is a time-investment with no guaranteed returns. So choosing carefully where to compete is critical, so you don’t loose the focus on your business. That said, you will always need to constantly write, prepare presentations, design materials and get good at pitching your business throughout your entrepreneurial journey. So there is a lot more to gain by entering into competitions than the prize.

A huge gamut of competitions

Not all contents and their prizes are created equally. There exist a wide variety of contents tailor to specific industries, company stages, etc, and you should do your research before jumping in. Depending where you’re based, you may find local competitions from organizations like corporations, non-profits to universities and business schools as well as events and meetups. Most accelerators, incubators, co-working and collaborative spaces offer contests. Most notable among these are MassChallenge. We even even seeing geographical limitation disappearing with the shift to all virtual because of COVID-19. Here’s an extensive guide to startup competitions in the U.S.

I’ve competed in many competitions, both locally and internationally. I’ve been on small and large stages, and even won big…and lost a few. But, I’ve made sure to attain tangible gains from every single competition. So here it is worth the effort.

1. Competition forces you to know your business

The business competition process will force you to think critically about every aspect of your business. That means knowing your industry, your competitors, the problem(s) and the market you’re addressing. You will need to nail down your vision, assess the competitive landscape, define your value proposition and set short term and long term goals. Submitting an application to a startup competition forces you to focus and refocus on your overall strategy, which may be one of the most valuable aspects of entering.

2. Competition helps you find your perfect pitch

Pitch, Pitch, Pitch! Any entrepreneur will tell you that they’re always pitching their business. And you’ve already heard a ton of reasons to having a well-tuned elevator pitch. But let’s let a moment to unpack this:

Telling other your story, pitching your venture or selling your value proposition requires practice and iteration. By getting out of the building and competing, you will no doubtably find what works or resonates, what doesn’t work. Getting great communicating starts on day one. Test your pitch out on friends, colleagues, at networking events and at any chance you get. Observe people’s reactions, ask for feedback, and don’t be afraid and discouraged of getting ripped to shreds.

3. Competition helps you optimize your communication and unique value proposition

Competition forces you to get creative and figure out how to stand out among the herd. At times, you’ll need to put your business on paper. Practicing your written communication as well as you presentation skills is essential to forming your unique identity as a business and as a brand that people will remember.

This process will benefit your future business regardless of how you fare in a specific competition. In other words, it’ll help you better engage with potential stakeholders like investors, early customers and partners.

4. Competition provides feedback, validation and new ideas

If you’ve watched any ‘Shark Tank’ episode, you’ll see the contestant(s) getting ‘grilled’ by the investors as the ‘poke holes’ in the venture idea. You’re probably left with the impression of how painful that most be. In reality, questions from judges, business experts, investors, etc are intended to force you to identify, further explain or even see the holes in your business.

I recommend that you take a constructive approach. Use this opportunity of questions and feedback to test, validate and really identify what needs further work or iteration. You can gain practical insights into how your business idea would fare in the real world.

5. Competitions provide visibility and connect you to the broader ecosystem

Participating in events and contests gets you out of the office and out of your head. By telling others about your business at an event, meetup or contest, you are gaining exposure and making connections. It’s also a sure fire way of meeting mentors, experts, investors, partners and customers.

These events attract entrepreneurs just like you and it’s a great opportunity to grow your support network. They may be at a similar stage, or further along in their venture. But, they’ve made plenty of mistakes, acquired knowledge and skills along the way and have endless information and perspectives to share. 

You can further your exposure by leveraging you participation in competitions for your marketing, branding and PR activities. First, it’s a great excuse to reach out to your network of contacts, customers, advisors or anyone you’re trying to build relationships with.

Share your story using email or a newsletter, blog and social media. Don’t wait until the end of the competition, share your experience throughout the contest journey. All events will include some social component, like twitter hashtags or community voting. Be creative, use this opportunity to increase your fan base, engagement and branding.

The media like tech reporters, bloggers, freelance writers and YouTubers may be attending or covering the event. They’re all looking for stories – so be prepared with your story.

You’ll certainly receive a lot of attention if you’re one of the winners. While you enjoy the spotlight, be sure to make those connections with press and bloggers. The spotlight may be short-lived, so try to maximize your exposure! You can coordinate the PR efforts with the contest organizers and it’ll save you time and money in publishing press releases or reaching out to the media. Finally, if you didn’t make the cut this time, you can still approach the press with an original and interesting story. 

Going after the prize

We’re in it to win big! Prizes for contests vary significantly and may or may not come with certain commitments or hooks. You should always read the contest and winner guidelines, so you know what you’re getting at the end of the day. If there is any prize money, it may range between a couple thousand dollars to over $100,000 in cash grants or non-dilutive capital.

Some of the non-cash prizes may include free business services, office or co-working space, access to investors and expert advisors, exposure to business communities, etc. You may even find yourself surrounded by tons of new business opportunities.

Regardless if you win or not, you should approach any contest with a growth mindset. There is a lot to be gained from all the time and effort investment you put in to participating in competitions. Regardless if it’s your first or your third play — every entrepreneur has a lot from competition.