How to Win a Business Plan Competition

Author: Tim Berry

Tim Berry

Tim Berry

8 min. read

Updated May 10, 2024

Have you considered business plan competitions as part of your startup strategy? I’ve personally seen startups get more than a million dollars in investment at the annual Rice University Business Plan Competition, held every April. I’ve also seen startups raise tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars of grant money at competitions hosted by the University of Oregon and the University of Texas. And I’ve read about startups getting good money from outside universities, in competitions held by business development organizations and businesses. And this is now worldwide, not just in the U.S. 

As I write this, I just did a web search for business plan competitions, and came up with dozens of them coming up in 2022. I judged a University of Oregon business plan competition just last month. 

I’ve never entered a business plan competition, but I’ve been judging them since 1997. I’ve done multiple stints at several of the majors. And I’ve developed some pointers and tips to help you win your next business plan competition. 

1. Know the judging guidelines

As business plan competitions have grown and developed, most of them have fine-tuned the details of judging procedures and criteria. For example, many ask judges to choose which entrant is the best investment for outsiders. That’s different from which is the best business or which they would rather own or share in. The key point there is that criterion essentially dismisses good startups that don’t need outside investment to grow. 

I’ve seen startups successfully tailor their plans and pitches to aim at outside investment rather than self funding. That, in my opinion, is the right way to adjust to the specific criteria. 

You should also be aware of judging guidelines governing questions, comments, interruptions of pitches, plan and pitch length, and so forth. Some business plan competitions ask the judges to listen quietly to a pitch, without interrupting. Others encourage judges to interrupt at will, as they would in a real investment pitch. Startups have to know and plan accordingly. 

2. Research who you are pitching to

In most of the business plan competitions I’ve seen, judges are a collection of venture capitalists, angel investors, entrepreneurs, and local business leaders. That’s predictable. The organizers of these competitions ask local people to participate, as volunteers, as judges. So they look for people who know the general territory of startups, business plans, pitches, and investment. 

Different judges have different sets of expertise. I’ve seen attorneys, accountants, and medical doctors as judges, along with investors in general. Read their biographies before you finalize your pitch. Know what experience and background they have. This can help a lot as you deliver a pitch and field questions.

3. Refine your pitch deck and get feedback

Start with a good deck of slides. Understand what your slide deck is supposed to do: ideally, it’s a collection of useful and/or beautiful images that focus attention on what you are saying, add depth to what you are saying, and sets the structure to what you say. For example, as you discuss the problem your startup solves, you project a beautiful image that illustrates the problem you solve. You want your investors to focus on you and your words, not read words from your slides. Avoid the so-called “death by PowerPoint” meaning the boredom of a speaker reading slide bullet points to a captive audience.   

We have a lot of information for you, on this site, about doing your slide presentation for a business pitch. All of that applies to the pitch component of a business plan competition. That includes How to Create a Pitch Deck, 15 Tips for a Successful Pitch, The 11 Slides Your Need for a Pitch Deck, and others. 

Practice makes perfect. Trite but true. In my experience, the best pitches are practiced a lot but not memorized. The slide images stand as placeholders to set the flow of topics. They provide visual emphasis. But the speakers use their own words and let it flow differently each time they do it. The best have been over the pitch a lot, with others listening and poking holes where they can. So they have a good guess on what questions might come up, and how they will respond to those questions when they do. You might look at this article on how to get feedback on your pitch

4. Develop a memorable hook

You have just a few seconds to make that important first impression. Call that a hook. You want judges’ attention from the very beginning. Maybe you tell a story of a real person suffering the problem you want to solve. Ideally, in that case, your first slide is a picture of that problem. Maybe you share the vision of how this will help the world. That can start with an image too. 

Hooks are hard to generalize, but it’s all about getting the judges to care. It’s most often about the problem a startup solves, the size of the need, the importance of the solution. But it might also be the ambitious goals, if you can make the judges care about that. Be creative. Put yourself in the place of an investor, sense business plan competition judges are usually thinking as investors. What makes this exciting to the investor? What’s the best thing to make them care from the beginning. 

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5. Share any traction

Being able to show actual achieved traction is a huge advantage in a business plan competition. Most competitions invite startups at very early stages, often long before launch or even serious steps towards execution. The startup that already has traction is way ahead of the competition. 

What makes traction depends on your type of business. Maybe it’s proven research, subscribers, customers, distributors, letters of intent, users, and so forth. Generally, there’s nothing stronger than actual paying customers. 

6. Show realistic market potential and growth

Don’t ever think that in a business plan competition the biggest market wins. It’s so very much not that simple. Credibility and realism are critical. I’ve seen judges not choose a startup that was going to cure cancer, with a projected market of billions, because they just didn’t believe it. I’ve seen judges routinely reject unbelievable big numbers. 

Yes, of course, bigger is better, but only within that framework of credibility. The method and assumptions and transparency of a projection is very important. The best market projections build from the bottom up, with believable assumptions about drivers: stores, channels, web views, traffic, sales funnels. Numbers should start at the base drivers and build up to the bigger numbers. 

7. Prepare relatable stories

Stories are vital to business success and that includes in business plan competition. Your hook is a story. Your problem and solution are a story. How people find and buy that solution is another story. Business planning is in many ways telling stories first and then planning how to make them come true. The stories are vital to your success in a business plan competition. You hint at them in an elevator pitch, tell them in the business pitch, and show them and how they can come true in your business plan. 

8. Keep things short and straightforward

Business plan competition judges are busy people. They have a lot of distractions. Boredom is your enemy. Time is the scarcest resource. Keep your pitches moving. Once you lose their attention, it is very hard to get that back. Stay on point. Move it forward fast. 

In a pinch, use your slide deck to help. Click on the next slide. That should move you to the next topic. 

9. Prove you are uniquely qualified

Most business plan contest judges are investors and most investors agree that choosing a startup is often more about the jockey than the horse. I’ve often seen judges reject a good plan with a good product and market but an unconvincing team. Show why your team background and qualifications make you uniquely qualified. Usually that means track records, industry experience, related credentials, accomplishments, market knowledge, product knowledge, and commitment. Simply put: why you?  

10. Have your business plan prepared to share

Start with the obvious: Make sure you are aware of each business plan competition’s specific requirements for the plan itself. Most of them set down standards for how many pages. Some set just page count while others will distinguish between text pages and pages containing illustrations and/or financial projections. Many business plan contests also specify pagination and details for the executive summary. 

Pay special attention to the summaries. Many judges will read just the summaries well and skim the rest, and then screen and grade plans based mainly on the summary information. Make sure you show the highlights first, and well. What highlights? That depends on your unique plan. For some, technology is most important. For others, it’s the market, or the team experience. You have to know what best sets you apart, and put that where judges will see it. 

In a business plan competition, the quality of presentation in the plan — writing and formatting as well as content — is especially important. Be careful with text, diction, spelling, grammar, and formatting. Don’t let important information get lost in details. You are going to be graded on the quality of the document. 

Get funding for your business

Finally, maybe as a conclusion, let’s remember that winning a business plan competition is one way to get funding for your business. Winnings can be very helpful. I’ve seen startups come up with hundreds of thousands of dollars and in a couple specific cases (at the Rice Business Plan Competition in Houston) more than a million dollars in angel investment by winning a business plan competition. And I’ve seen startups come up with tens of thousands of dollars as simple grants, no strings attached, as prizes for winning a business plan contest. 

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Content Author: Tim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software , a co-founder of Borland International, and a recognized expert in business planning. He has an MBA from Stanford and degrees with honors from the University of Oregon and the University of Notre Dame. Today, Tim dedicates most of his time to blogging, teaching and evangelizing for business planning.