Evelyn McDonald, CEO of Scottish Edge, a funding competition supporting Scotland’s top young, early stage and high growth potential entrepreneurs, explains what judges look for in business competitions.
Before joining Scottish EDGE as CEO, I was lucky enough to have been involved as a judge in both the 1st stage assessments and the semi-final pitches for EDGE. I have also judged numerous other competitions and pitches for organisations such as SIE, We Are The Future, EIE, Converge Challenge and Edinburgh University, so I’m pretty sure I now know what judges are looking for. Here are my dos and don’ts to ensure your application is judged a winner.
DO reveal yourself. Judges love to see passion for your business. We know how tough it is to run a business and if you are truly passionate you will stay the course and roll with the inevitable punches. Judges also love to see authenticity. Revealing a bit of yourself, what motivates you and your weaknesses as well as your strengths is very compelling. Feeling they know you a little makes a judge feel invested in you and, therefore, more likely to want you to succeed and to help you do so. Try to engage with the panel of assessors and build rapport with them. Make eye contact and look as though you are enjoying presenting your business proposal to them.
Nicola Dames of Vanilla Blush received plaudits from the audience and our judges at the last Scottish EDGE final for her honesty regarding how her own medical condition had given her the idea for her business and how her product was giving her customers much needed confidence. The judges wanted to help her.
DON’T pretend it’s all you. We know you need a team to succeed. We also know you can’t possibly know or do everything. Talk about your team and advisers and what they bring. Be honest about the gaps they fill. The fact that you have followers makes you a leader and brings credibility to your proposition.
DO explain what makes your product and service innovative and what your “wow” factor is. Do you have a clearly defined USP? Make sure the judges know who owns the IP. What will make your product or service more appealing to customers if you are operating in a busy market? It’s only clever if people want it.
DON’T use unrealistic figures. If there’s one thing the Scottish EDGE team hate, it’s when we see people predict £10 million turnover businesses in three years. We know amazing people running life changing businesses who didn’t do that. It’s so unlikely that it calls your credibility into question. Even if you lie in bed at night fantasising about these numbers, please don’t share them with us. Take advice, underestimate your turnover, overestimate your costs and come up with something that we can buy into. Similarly, we don’t want to hear that you will capture 1% of a £100 million market. We’d rather hear about the 100 potential customers you spoke to and their desire to buy your product. I really respect people who are honest and realistic about the cost and time it takes to get to market. Similarly, acknowledging and trying to mitigate risks gains you more points than pretending they don’t exist. You should always know who your competitors are and be able to explain how you can compete. It will be unusual for there to be no one else in your space so acknowledge who is there and how they’re doing.
DO engage with your customers. Does your business idea really solve a problem or is it just fixing a problem you have perceived and jumped on? In my time as a judge I’ve seen lots of ideas I’m not sure about but that’s just my opinion. If you can persuade me that customers, wholesalers, distributors and investors think it’s an amazing product which they will be queuing up to buy then I’ll believe you and I’ll be really keen to support you. I also appreciate that sometimes there is no way to prove an opportunity exists and you just have to ask us to believe. In cases like this, the solution usually comes from direct experience of the problem so you can accept that the person knows much more than you do. A great example of this is Freedom One Life who are developing a new Power Wheelchair. Alex Papanikolaou has won a number of business competitions but only started carrying out detailed customer research recently. However, his pitch to create a wheelchair which is half the weight, double the battery power and using standard, easily accessible spare parts is clearly making life easier for users.
DO have a good use for the prize money or support offered. Judges want to believe awarding the prize to you will make a difference. Describe how you will use the money, support or prize to drive your business forward. Don’t tell us you don’t really care if you win as you can raise the money elsewhere. It’s hard for us to care if you don’t.
DO make an effort. You can raise significant sums by entering competitions, helping you to get your business into the right place to seek investment. But they do take time, planning and practice, especially if pitching is involved. If you’re too busy to do anything other than dash off an application at midnight it’s probably best not to enter. You will probably not progress as you had hoped and the organisation you approach may be struggling to give you meaningful feedback.
Business competitions can be a fantastic way of gaining feedback, making connections, getting you noticed, giving you confidence and raising money to spend on market research, product development and creating a team. They are hard work but I have the privilege of hearing time and again how life-changing they can be if you are successful. So go for it and Good Luck!