How to win at a pitch competition—even if you end up losing

No matter how well you do, you can use this opportunity to help grow your business

Before starting a business, most of us think about every potential source of money: Tap family and friends, sell your Star Wars collectibles on eBay, keep your day job to pay the bills (as I did), crowd-fund, max out a credit card (as my cofounder did), obtain loans, or give up equity. But the one method that’s often overlooked might be the one that accomplishes the most early growth: the pitch competition. 

How a pitch competition can help

There are plenty of reasons to enter pitch competitions. The obvious one is to raise funds, but it’s also a great way to expand your network to other potential investors. Where else will you have a captive audience (aka potential customers) of 500 listening to how you’re going to change the world? At least a few of them are bound to be experts in your field or big investors—either way, they’re connections you can’t afford not to make

“You won the moment you decided to enter,” Takia Ross, founder of beauty business Accessmatized, said in tech blog Technically Baltimore.” She funded her venture almost entirely from competitions, but, believe it or not, for her, it wasn’t all about the money. She says that the exposure she got from competing was instrumental in growing her business.

How to find the competition for you

We promote hundreds of pitch competitions every week here on Alice. To narrow it down, choose ones that are specific to your location, industry, stage of growth, and personal demographics. Whatever makes you unique is likely to be an advantage, as more programs crop up every year to support entrepreneurs from New Majority groups. The National Black MBA Association’s Scale-Up Pitch Challenge hands $50,000 to its winner each year. The Minority Business Development Agency regularly lists calls for pitches from nonwhite founders. Most recently, they were seeking proposals from American-Indian, Alaska native, and native-Hawaiian entrepreneurs. The National LGBT Chamber of Commerce hosts an International Business & Leadership Conference in August, which will feature the LGBT Biz Pitch. There, entrepreneurs will compete to win $50,000 in cash and prizes.

Also, look out for digital pitch competitions hosted by enterprise companies (like Bumble, L’Oréal, PepsiCo, and others). These take less time to enter (no travel!), tend to give big money, and open doors to partner with corporations. Plus, even though these competitions are hosted by bigger companies, they’re often paired with some awesome investors––bonus! For example, WeWork’s Creator Awards, which awarded millions of dollars in funding to more than 200 mission-driven entrepreneurs, companies, and nonprofits, always involves big investors, including Ashton Kutcher of Sound Ventures.  

How to compete to win

You have to become a finalist to be seen. Fill out your application with the goals of the competition in mind. Being confident in your concept is great, but knowing how it fits into what the judges are trying to accomplish is paramount. If that means narrowing your focus a bit, do it. Then have someone else review your application. Sometimes as entrepreneurs we are too close to our business and use terms and objectives that might not be clear to a third party. 

When you’re actually presenting, knowing your stuff makes an enormous difference. You need to promote yourself not just during your rehearsed pitch, but throughout the competition, and that means being prepared for whatever questions the judges throw your way. Most judges are first judging you, then your business. Early business success is often due to the founders. 

Another hint for wowing the judges: You must know your numbers backward and forward—budget, finance, revenues, costs, salaries, and so on. Be clear and concise to show that you know what you’re talking about. And if they ask you something you don’t know, don’t you dare make it up! They’re bound to see you sweat. Admitting that you don’t know will come off way more favorably.

Preparation and practice will help set you up for success. But never forget: The fact that you entered means you’re already a winner. 

Hello Alice is a WeWork member in San Francisco, Houston, and Washington, D.C.

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