Business Plan Competitions

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    One way to develop and test your plan is to submit it to a business plan competition. These competitions are mostly associated with business schools. Most offer winners consulting assistance and in many cases seed money. But here’s the catch: in most cases, only students can apply and competition can be stiff. But check out the fine print; for the Skandalaris Center at Washington University ($150,000 cash pool) or Rice University ($225,000 to the winner), nonstudents can apply as well.

    So, for students and nonstudents alike, this can be a great way to move from idea to solid plan. Here are more examples: MIT’s Clean Energy Prize ($200,000), Wharton ($30,000), and Columbia University ($7000). And while the goal is to win first prize, the motivation and discipline that comes from competing will lead you to a stronger plan, even if you don’t win. In a sense, everyone wins.

    Speaking of winning, here are some quick tips to increase your odds of success:

    1. Get started early.

    Winning plans take months to research, adjust, strategize, and hone. Not to mention prepare the “pitch,” possibly the most important component of most business plan competitions.

    2. Build a strong team.

    One of the first things judges look at is whether the right team is in place. Make sure you have all the important skills lined up to succeed with the business. If there’s a gap, be explicit about it; indicate that person will be hired once funding is secured.

    3. Understand your customers inside and out.

    Just as important to judges is how well you understand your target customers. Thorough research is essential, of course, but just as important is clarity on what your customers’ needs, alternatives, and preferences are. Become experts in your niche. Oh, and never say your business has no competition; it’s not true and the judges won’t believe you. Also avoid staking your claim on being the low cost provider. That kind of differentiator will not last. Instead, offer a sustainable advantage that others will have difficulty replicating.

    4. Get feedback, revise, get more feedback.

    Study the judges, then get people “just like them” to evaluate your plan and your pitch. Revise as many times as it takes to get it right. You won’t get a second chance, so make the most of the few minutes you’ll have to present your plan.

    Good luck!

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    For more resources, see our Library topic Business Planning.

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