Are you aware of business plan competitions? If you’re an entrepreneur, they’re an excellent opportunity to present your business and compete for cash and in-kind prizes or, worst case, really good feedback from serious business people. If you’re lucky enough to be invited to judge, it’s a chance to spend a few days reviewing real-world startups.
I’ve been judging business plan competitions for almost 20 years. As I
write this I’m looking forward to another season judging venture
competitions including the University of Texas’ Venture Labs Investment Competition, the Rice University Business Plan Competition, and the University of Oregon New Venture Championship.
Each of these three events pit grad-level business students from all
over the world against each other as they compete for cash and in-kind
prizes. They submit business plans, do business pitches and answer
I find judging these competitions fun, interesting and for me a great
way to keep up with the evolution of high-level startups, business
planning and entrepreneurship education.
The University of Texas started this, as far as I know, with the
first “Moot Corp” in 1984. Moot Corp became Venture Labs Competition
three years ago. It’s the oldest and possibly most prestigious –
although Rice University is a serious rival. All of its entrants have
won other business plan competitions to get to that one.
The Rice University contest is the richest. Recent winners have won
cash prizes of hundreds of thousands of dollars and total prizes of more
than $1 million including in-kind services (like free rent, consulting,
legal work, etc.).
I’ve been judging the University of Oregon competition since 1997.
I’ll never forget arriving on a Thursday morning to discover, to my
horror, that I’d committed myself to all day Thursday, Friday and
Saturday. My horror changed to real interest as the teams began their
pitches. By Saturday I had enjoyed it so much I made sure to stay on the
list for the future years. And I’ve missed only one year since then.
One obvious change I’ve seen in this area is the tremendous growth in
the number of contests, the interest in contests, the prize money and
the seriousness of the startups that enter.
The most important change is an amazing increase in the viability of
the competing startups. The early Moot Corps were almost entirely
hypothetical business plans developed by students as academic exercises.
Nowadays most of the entrants in the major business plan competitions
are real companies with real prospects. Of the three I judge, a clear
majority of the startups that enter will eventually get financed and
launch. Both Rice and Texas track angel investments and venture capital
financing landed by former contestants in the hundreds of millions of
dollars. Winners almost always have viable products, believable
management teams, and credible growth prospects.
Another change is the length, style and content of the business plans
submitted. Today’s business plans are much shorter than they used to
be, as page limits have gone from 30-40 to 10-20. Judges have to read
plans and they want shorter, sharper and more summarized. And – sadly,
in my opinion – financial projections seem to be less rigorous.
Another development is that because of the continuing increase in
interest, there is now a good website dedicated entirely to listing
competitions, at www.bizplancompetitions.com.
You’ll be amazed at how many events they list. And I hope you find one
you can attend, enter or judge. If you have any interest in startups,
it’s a great experience.