When Planting Empowerment was just a wee company, we participated in social business plan competitions at several universities including Notre Dame, University of Texas Austin, and Yale. While we never came away with a first place, they were an excellent way for us to gain valuable (and yes, critical) feedback about our business plan and become more comfortable pitching our concept. We even earned a little money which helped us get off the ground. These days, we stay involved through judging and mentoring roles, and have seen a lot of different business plans. Below we present a few suggestions on how to improve your chances at these competitions.
Have your product/service already developed. The judges see hundreds of business plans, and your amazing idea is competing with all the other amazing ideas. Having something already in production, or even a working prototype, signals that you’re serious about your business and are actually making it happen. Include photos of the product. Photoshop it being used. Include a positive testimonial from someone who has actually used your product or service (be honest, of course). Judges want to be known for choosing something that is already a reality or is well on its way, not an idea that may become reality.
Use real numbers. Assumptions won’t get you too far. Do your research and cite your sources for the assumptions you are using to develop your numbers. This is especially important for sales numbers. If you’re going to quantify your social impact, use the New Economic model system. A 568% SROI or $1-$10 cost-benefit ratio will raise eyebrows because the analysis probably isn’t accurate. Run it by one of your friends who is studying economics.
Tell a good story. Presenting second-to-last at one of the competitions, we thought we nailed it: we were actually selling a product, our presentation was polished, and we were fending off all of the judges’ questions. The last presenter got up and played on a video about their business and the impact it was creating. Sappy music, images of abject poverty—you name it. We sat there muttering under our breaths about what a crock this all was; the judges wouldn’t go for this gimmicky stuff, right? They did, and ended up awarding the other guys first place. While that competitor had an OK idea, they did a great job of telling their story. While you do need a great idea and bulletproof financials, you also need to tell your story in a memorable way. Judges remember that. You don’t necessarily need a video, but use graphics, charts, pictures, and tables to convey your idea.
Choose your presenter(s) wisely. If you make it to the final presentation round, send up your most articulate speaker. While we think it’s OK to have the entire team backing you on stage, having everyone present doesn’t help (and can actually hurt your chances). You lose time transitioning and the judges have to adjust to a new speaker. Your one or two speakers also need to project confidence and know their material. Someone who “umm’s” and “uhh’s” his way through a presentation will signal that he isn’t confident about the idea. If you know you’re not a confident speaker, join Toastmasters. You need to present convincingly if you want to go anywhere as an social entrepreneur.
Know your presentation. Judges aren't impressed when the presenter is just reading his/her presentation off the screen, and we can read your presentation faster than you can talk, anyway. Use your presentation as the backdrop to set your story against. You’re trying to connect with the judges, so talk to them, not the screen. Buy some pizza and beer and force your friends/mentors to listen to you present the week before, and have them critique you.
Anticipate technical difficulties. Check to make sure your presentation works in the space where you will be presenting, especially if there is video involved. Check to see what version of Powerpoint the presentation laptop has. Be ready for it not to be the same version you have, and adjust. Technical difficulties annoy everyone.
Employ the 10/20/30 Rule. The 10/20/30 rule was coined by Guy Kawasaki, a well-know venture capitalist and author. It recommends keeping your presentation to ten slides, 20 minutes, and using 30 point font. See the full explanation on his blog. Going back to the tip on telling your story, the 10/20/30 rule forces you to keep the presentation high-level and focus on communicating the story. You don’t need to cram the presentation full of details; that’s what your business plan is for. The judges will secretly thank you for keeping it short and allowing them plenty of time to ask questions.
Research the judges. For a social business plan competition, the judges will lean either to the non-profit or business side. Do your research and adjust your presentation without pandering or creeping too far from your core idea. Business types typically want more numbers and analysis. Non-profit types usually like more qualitative discussion. Your presentation probably won’t be the favorite of all the judges, so decide beforehand which one or two will connect best with your idea. Focus on impressing them so they become your allies when the judges are deliberating later.
We came up with these tips based on our own experience presenting and now, serving as judges and mentors. While we hope you find them helpful, what other recommendations would you add? What’s been your own experience?