Top 10 ways to win a business plan competition

Most entrepreneurship competitions provide entrants with some kind of general guideline for what should or shouldn’t be included in the business plan and the presentation. But wouldn’t it be nice to know actual judges’ expectations (or pet peeves) before you have to go and present all of your hard work to them? Those prayers have been answered by Frank Peters, an angel investor and business plan competition judge. In this post from his blog, Peters describes what ten things a startup company can do to win the attention and favor of him and his fellow judges:

I’m a judge in a local university’s business plan competition. Over the past few years I’ve been involved in different ways in the UC Irvine, Paul Merage School of Business, Business Plan Competition. Last year I was invited by a mentor to critique his team’s PowerPoint presentation. They came in 2nd place. This year I’m mentoring a team all my own and enjoying it very much. However, the ideas here come from my role as a competition judge. There’s a large field of 15 finalists and I’m a judge for the 4 software sector finalists, so there’s no overlap, no conflict with the team I’ve mentored. Over the past week I’ve had to review these 4 business plans and fill out an evaluation form. In the process I’ve found myself lamenting several consistent issues, so I’m going to wrap them all up here in these ten ways to game, I mean win the competition.

#1 Be kind to the judges. You haven’t met them, you won’t know who they are until judgment day, but take it from me, they’re all busy. They’ve committed a day to act as judge, plus a chunk of their weekend has been given up to critique your plan. How to be kind? Make your plan readable. Take a little time to add some eye candy to your submission. For example, a full page of blocky paragraphs fatigues me before I even settle my eyes upon it. Can you break it up with a few graphs, or a sidebar panel with a couple of bullets to accent some of your major points? Put a little background color into that sidebar, shrink the font size a bit, adding a little variety to the page, so my eye is tantalized. Give me some sizzle!

#2 The first part is the Executive Summary, so let’s get off to a good start, please. Don’t beat around the bush, don’t begin by telling the history of the personal computer, or as one unfortunate team did, a litany of medical afflictions affecting the human race. Yikes! Get right to the point. Don’t start with a Mission Statement. Tell me in no uncertain terms what you do, who you do it for and how you’re gonna make money. Come on, let me get on board right away! Then I can start tracking you, I’ll be more patient as you later describe the history of the personal computer or the medical woes facing humanity.

#3 It would be nice if you could see the evaluation form
I’m using here at the finish line. It asks me to critique you on 7 different sections of your plan, score you on a scale of 1 to 5 for each and make overall comments, too. Unfortunately, most of the plans I’m reading don’t match up so well to the categories I’m scoring. Yes, it’s subtle and I’m sure it’s all there, but if your section headers don’t line up with the evaluation form then I’ve got to go interpreting; this does not lead to higher scores.

#4 I wanted to push this further down the list, but I just bristle at this: the revenue forecast. These are so detached from reality. My 4 plans get increasingly more incredible, ranging from $50M, $60M, $70M to $161M in year 5! This does not happen in the real world. Remember my day job, I’m past Chairman of the Tech Coast Angels and I see a lot of pitches with revenue forecasts. So get real. Your investors will be thrilled if you can get to $10M in some reasonable time frame. More likely, you’ll be back for more money in less than 2 years, saying what everyone says: “it’s taking longer than we thought”. Investors won’t believe your numbers anyway, so your over-sized hockey stick betrays your naivete.

#5 Don’t be too specific
. Truncate those big numbers and use a legend, like ($000), then round (down would be fine, see #4). Avoid specificity. Numbers like $14,820,647 don’t make a stronger case.

#6 This is business. Someone on your advisory board is a passionate member of a local Christian mega-church? That’s nice, but keep it the hell out of your business plan. This is a great way to alienate a judge. What if I’m an atheist? How do you think I’m scoring you on this? You better pray I don’t score you the way I’m feeling on this issue…

#7 Valuations. Brought to you by the same financial wizard who’s crafted your hockey stick (see #4) your plan goes on to brag that once you hit $5M in revenue that that justifies a $29,191,183 valuation (see #5). There’s only one formula for determining a valuation: what the market will bear. You have no idea what investors or acquirers will feel makes good business sense 3 years from now, so drop the whole idea. As an investor I can get some idea what your valuation might be by looking at your revenue, so let’s omit valuations from the business plan.

#8 The raise. What can you do with $100k? By definition, these are all seed stage businesses. No one’s going to front you $1.6M or $2.4M on unproven technology. In this economy you’ll find it challenging to raise $100 or $200K for a prototype. So pay attention to what’s going on in the marketplace and put together a plan that credibly steps you through a seed stage round of financing.

#9 Likely returns. What makes a good invest-able company? “Never discount greed,” but a 7,510% return? This is a business plan not private placement memorandum, not your slide deck, so keep the “want to buy a watch?” tone out. I can tell by your credible revenue forecast that I’ll get a good return on my investment. The off-the-chart ROIs smack of a presentation to dentists, to dumb money, not to the professional investor. The business plan would not suffer if you omitted these pie-in-the-sky ROI claims.

#10 Save some equity. You can’t sell 72% of your company in the first 2 rounds, you’ll need more for management and the option pool. Without enough incentive your key hires will eventually walk away.

#11 You’re young; have some fun. Any opportunity to add a little humor to your entry would be well received. When I’m winding it down at the end of the day, sharing a few memorable moments with my family, it’s the funny little things I’m inclined to share. Lighten up and give me a funny story to share.

Reprinted with permission from The Frank Peters Show

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Joe Hurley is a CPA, author of "The Best Way to Save for College - A Complete Guide to 529 Plans", founder of, and co-founder of He has also recently started making maple syrup.
View all posts by joeh → This entry was posted in Featured Posts, Spotlight - Judges. Bookmark the permalink.

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