Reality bites. Few (if any) competitions are worth your time, effort, and the yield they provide. Competitions do not provide a sustainable, growth-oriented strategy that will actually help get you funding in the long-run. StartUp Scramble™ participants whose assumed Sources/Uses of Capital come from anticipated competition winnings are viciously interrogated by seasoned panel members. If you are still in the concept-phase, an injection of $1-$10K generally does little to prove-out your venture. Focus on fundamentals first. Your time is better invested in exploring and learning about your market of customers. This is especially true for young people starting new things. If you are serious about launching a business or organization, ask yourself where else could I allocate the valuable hours I'll need to invest in preparing for competitions and contests? Most times, I think you will find, even the benefits from the networking opportunities that arise at competitions do not justify the upfront investment of your effort. Point: Competitions often waste your valuable exploration and execution time.
Is the startup competition model broken? Yes. The problem is, competitions position themselves as launchpads. Winning does not guarantee inevitable success or wealth or scale. We see this story over and over. Manage your expectations--do not count on competitions to deliver the outcomes marketed. Venture launching is a trial-and-error process of constant decision-making. For example, I placed in a several b-plan competitions in college. But lack of funding was not the reason my early ventures failed. As much as I didn't like to admit it, I didn't understand purchasing dynamics of my B2B market. How could I have--I was a student with no real B2B sales experience? Second-hand data and one-off interviews proved insufficient. I also lacked the know-how to execute the technical side of the enterprise and had to rely on a brilliant, but (understandably) half-committed PhD candidate-partner. Your best chance for success is first working within your domain of expertise, interest, and (that elusive word) passion.
This advice is pertinent to young people who currently lack the experience that accompanies launching and running a venture that "worked." Competitions herd newly minted young starter-uppers into a vicious cycle of endless planning, assuming, theorizing, and hoop-jumping. Not worth it. You lose because you side-track your attention from the essence of start-up success: Exploration and execution. Revisit your opportunity cost calculation of participation. How many potential customer calls could you be making? If you are the type of leader who needs to create a illusory sense of urgency (i.e. a competition submission deadlines) to move your venture forward, quit now and move on to your next concept iteration or idea. Business plan and do-good social enterprise competitions are not silver bullets despite what the host (or you) want you to believe. Point: Winning a competition does not guarantee success.
A friend recently sent me Steve Blank's well-reasoned article No One Wins In Business Plan Competitions. Blank's book Four Steps to the Epiphany, explores how startup leaders can more effectively identify, qualify/quantify, and develop markets of customers. This is what business, activism, and change-making boils down to. You will find insights gleaned from Blank's long-standing track-record as a tech entrepreneur and in-the-field researcher comparable to reading an Intro to Psychology text (or, at times, Neil Straus' study of human social interaction in the context of pick-up artists, The Game). It feels voyeuristic. Observing personal vices from a distance, makes me say, "Hey! I've done that, but I never knew there was a [method/name/reason] for it!"
Blank points out:
- Business plans are the wrong tool to search for a startup business model
- They are best suited for large companies
- Yet we have startup business plan contests
- Experienced entrepreneurs know that business model iteration and validation occurs outside the building
- Some school will be first to hold a contest that rewards what matters
Any successful startup leader must engineer flexibility into their startup enterprise's "models" instead of wasting time crafting static "plans." Static plans lead to timely death--in business, in social change, and in war. Variables change. Your schedule changes. Your interests, ideas, and attention levels change. This is the fun, often rollercoastery, ride of early stage of a startups. It's intuitive to anyone who has started anything with any degree of success. But it seems like I/we forget this reoccurring theme constantly. Know that, when we write a (business/organization) plan, sentient beings laugh.
I'm not trying to knock that deliciously proverbial ice cream out of your hand on a hot summer day. I'm trying to challenge your implicit assumptions about "opportunity identification." Competitions are marketing tools for the host businesses and organizations running them. That's not a bad thing as long as we're straight-forward about that point.** Hosts need to seriously consider new ways to engage hungry young people seeking ways to activate their ideas. Again, sprinkling money on the cause is not the answer. How do b-plan competitions market themselves? WIN UP TO $100,000! Is that really what you need when you aren't even sure if your business is viable? You are better off finding the local startup community and digging in your heels. **While competitions aren't necessarily evil, I've attended several wonderfully marketed, but poorly run, events that dangle carrots in front participants, then leave winners feeling like jackasses (on a dusty trail of unfulfilled promises).
Consider three main ingredients responsible for the outcome of a young person's idea: Culture, timing, and execution.
- Wherever you are set to launch, first evaluate the climate for young people starting things. For example, The College of William and Mary was not prepared to support (or permit) student entrepreneurs to run businesses out of their dorm rooms in 2002. It caused quite a ruckus and I wasted too much time lobbying administrators for an OK. Eventually, I quit asking for support and would only ask for forgiveness. Fine, arrest me, shut me down--that would be great publicity. So, is there precedence?
- Once you are confident that you understand the socio-poli-entrepreneurship landscape, mitigate timing risk with careful research of your market. Know they customer inside and out through diligent fieldwork. To the degree possible, how can you cheaply test/"prove out" that your customers are ready to act on your service or product?
- Only you can control the execution risk. Put on leather mask with a zipper and execute like hell. Build a dynamic, agile startup that is primed to pivot for success.
Lose every single contest and competition in the world and still launch, grow, and run a successful venture. Win every competition and fail to evolve and execute your vision...you're kneeling instead of standing at the guillotine.