Every week as @SmallBizLady, I conduct interviews with experts on my Twitter talk show #SmallBizChat. The show takes place every Wed on Twitter from 8-9pm ET. This is excerpted from my recent interview with Lora Kolodny @lorakolodny . She writes for the You’re the Boss! blog for the New York Times online. She began reporting on business and entertainment in 2002, writes about the winners, losers, innovation and deal-making of business plan competitions. In the past she has been a staff reporter for Inc. magazine, The Hollywood Reporter and a contributing tech editor at Ecosalon.com. She has contributed articles on technology, humor and music to Fortune Small Business, Recessionwire.com, Village Voice Media blogs, Planet and Playboy. For more information http://boss.blogs.nytimes.com/author/lora-kolodny/
Smallbizlady: What kinds of research should a business owner do before the competition?
Lora Kolodny: Entrepreneurs should carefully research the business plan competitions carefully, zeroing in on which events they’re eligible for, and which will provide the best experience for them as they try to grow their companies. Past competitors, winners and losers alike have told me it’s a good thing to look at a competitions’ recent past winners. Find out what kind of entrepreneurs succeeded within and after a particular competition, and who are the investors and potential advisers your team might connect with at each event. If someone whose opinion would be especially valuable to you is a sponsor or judge at one competition, apply there.
Smallbizlady: Do you need a strategy to win a business plan competition?
Lora Kolodny: Experts in this space tell me, universally, the focus should not be on winning, but on crafting a useful business plan for a real, not theoretical, company when it comes to competitions. That said, Professor Candida Brush, who teaches entrepreneurship at Babson College, and coaches start-ups preparing for these events shared this suggestion: ”Winning the competition requires two things: a good plan and a good pitch. Both are learnable. The “pitch” often makes more of a difference. For this, entrepreneurs need to understand impression management, be good listeners, be adaptable, and make a professional presentation including body language and dress. To prepare, they should present in a variety of circumstances, be ready to meet other people’s calendars, work with and without technology.”
Smallbizlady: What is the ideal length of a winning business plan?
LoraKolodny: The competitions’ hosts will dictate a limit on the number of pages, or format of materials a company should submit. Many competitions require a video pitch these days. Most accept a PowerPoint deck, or another document including around 10-20 slides or pages of written content, and an additional executive summary of 1-3 pages. Andrew Hyde, co-founder of TechStars, the start-up accelerator that started in Colorado, told me that he prefers: pitches of about ten slides, a demo of what a company has done, and an executive summary, all presented with proof of great team dynamics. Tim Berry, a business planning expert, software entrepreneur and business blogger offers many suggestions about the ideal plan, at http://timberry.com and www.bplans.com
Smallbizlady: If you are not an MBA do you really have a shot at the business competitions run by the top business schools?
LoraKolodny: The short answer is that if a competition allows competitors from outside of the school, then yes, you have a good chance, if you make it to the finals, to win. A more detailed explanation is that while legacy business plan competitions were for entrepreneurs from within a single-school, or otherwise closed community, these days, even top business schools run competitions that are open to entrepreneurs who are either students from other colleges and in different fields of study, or who are not even students. Washington University’s Olin Cup competition, which I recently wrote about, click here established a special prize for a non-student competitor this year, for example.
Smallbizlady: How long does it take “ideally” to prepare a winning business plan?
Lora Kolodny: Competition directors, entrepreneur advisors and past participants say anywhere between three months to two years! See the “Give Yourself Time” section of a story I reported for the New York Times click here.
Smallbizlady: What are the advantages to participating in a business plan competition?
Lora Kolodny: The prizes for winners are a potential benefit. But of course the benefits of participating go way beyond the potential money, and support services, which compared to venture backing may not be that big, anyway. Those who competed tell me that they valued the chance to get feedback, in person, from business and community leaders. And they benefitted from getting noticed by business and local press, as well as a community of peers, alumni and established entrepreneurs, VCs, angel investors and others who attend or are involved in the competition scene.
Smallbizlady: What kind of exposure can an emerging business owner potentially receive form participating?
Lora Kolodny: Some competitions provide a ton of press-relations services for their winners. Wharton, MIT, and the Clean Tech Open do a very good job of getting the word out about the achievements of their alumni companies to mainstream business and consumer reporters in traditional and digital media. But exposure within the private equity community is probably more important to start-ups, and is gotten easily on the competition circuit. I’ve interviewed several company founders who met their primary angel or venture investor via competition, including a company who I profiled last year http://www.myfit.com To read the article click here
Smallbizlady: Do you need a management team to win a business plan competition?
Lora Kolodny: Sole proprietors can win business plan competitions. Like the owner of www.BuildMyLanyard.com, who won at a top undergraduate business plan competition in Canada, profiled here. But it is good to acknowledge that you might take on other management team members, as you scale your company. And it is good to admit that even if you are the founding C.E.O. you might reach a point where you need to bring on another, more experienced C.E.O. to run your business.
Smallbizlady: What are the judges really looking for in the presentation round?
Lora Kolodny: Keep in mind, judges in presentation rounds are likely going to stop you and ask you questions. You should be prepared to listen to these very carefully, and skip slides to make sure you’ve answered them during your limited presentation time.
Smallbizlady: How do you select which business plan competitions to compete in?
Lora Kolodny: Several guides are out there including many lists compiled by business schools and non-profits of suggested, best-in-class competitions. But ultimately you have to do your own research and make your own decisions.
My guide to recent, and upcoming competitions that have a great reputation or are doing something new, and interesting in the New York Times small business section online see the link below:
A great list of social entrepreneurship business plan competitions is provided by the William James Foundation, click here:
A new blog called BIZPLANCOMPETITIONS.com provides maps, and a comprehensive calendar of business plan competitions, as well as regular competition coverage, here: http://www.bizplancompetitions.com/
Xconomy.com writers Wade Roush and Ryan McBride provide some excellent coverage of competitions. McBride’s 2009-2010 guide to New England area competitions here is excellent:
University of Michigan’s short, simple list is a good one, too:
Smallbizlady: What is the most important element of a winning business plan?
Lora Kolodny: Keeping it simple and staying away from jargon is important, both in your writing and live presentation. Demonstrating passion, but a realistic view of your own team’s talent, and potential market is something judges consistently look for as well, and consider “make or break,” details. Having some preliminary market tested research on your product or service can also give you a huge advantage.
If you found this interview helpful, join us on Wednesdays 8-9pm ET follow @SmallBizChat on Twitter.
For more tips on how start or grow your small business subscribe to Melinda Emerson’s blog www.succeedasyourownboss.com.
Melinda Emerson, known to many as “SmallBizLady,” is a Veteran Entrepreneur, Small Business Coach and Social Media Strategist who hosts #SmallBizChat weekly on Twitter for emerging entrepreneurs. #Smallbizchat is the trusted resource on Twitter to discuss everything entrepreneurs need to know about launching and running a profitable small business. Her first book Become Your Own Boss in 12 Months was released in March 2010.