A Startup’s Guide to Competitions and Awards

January 8, 2016

6:00 pm

As a business owner and investor, I’m proud to say that I’ve had a good amount of success over the years. There have been plenty of ups and downs and because of my experience I am at a place in my career where I am able to help mentor and advise some of the coolest up and coming companies in the Southwest.

I am currently chairman for Invest Southwest. Every year, Invest Southwest partners with the Arizona Commerce Authority to host a competition called Venture Madness. Run as a ‘bracketology style’ event – ala college basketball’s “March Madness,” Venture Madness kicks off at the beginning of each year with 64 startups pitted against each other in what is essentially, a “battle of the killer pitch.” The two runners-up split a $100,000 cash prize. Needless to say, I get a lot of questions about what it takes to break through the noise and win industry awards and competitions.

Additionally, I also get questions from entrepreneurs about whether or not contests or awards are even worth the time (and sometimes resources) that applying for them can take. In other words, is my company better off focusing on our business – or can we net some real benefits from becoming active in these type of events and programs that hold the promise of rewards and the potential for new strategic relationships we may not otherwise see?

Well, my answer isn’t simple. C’mon – you didn’t expect a yes or no, did you? Here are three key points I recommend you consider before deciding whether to go gung-ho about submitting yourself to these sorts of programs.

Do the Due (Diligence, that is)

Awards are notorious for being pay-for-play, and often get a bad rap because some entry processes seem more like a joke than a serious submission. But they shouldn’t be written off right away. Depending on your industry, there are some awards that could increase your credibility in customers’ eyes or even help you achieve your goals. For instance, if you’re looking to do a big round of hiring, you may want to apply for a “best places to work” award. A win in this area can get you some great exposure, and lead top-notch candidates right to your door. Or are you looking to prove that your Web development is ahead of the pack? There’s an array of awards in this area that could be worth your time. Secure one for yourself, stick the badge up on your website and watch as customers become instantly impressed. It is also important to note that the judging panels for awards are often VCs, journalists and industry leaders, so having them simply read your submission and become aware of you could be a win in and of itself.

So those are awards, and then there are competitions. Before applying to compete in a head to head match-up, research thoroughly to find out what contestants (and winners) can receive, and the criteria for entry. If the company who comes out on top is the only one that has an opportunity to benefit, you’re probably wasting your time. But if the contest will offer you the chance to earn capital, gain access to human capital (i.e. investors, mentors, board members, top tier talent, etc.), or get positive exposure in your industry and the community, you’ll want to strongly consider becoming involved. Whether awards or competitions, make sure you vet each one and determine its short-term and long-term value, weighed against the time and resources you’ll spend applying for it.

Commit One Way or Another

Some early companies will like the idea of a competition, but freely admit that they don’t have enough time to “do it well.” While the intention is there, they know that their leadership team is strapped for time and that their cash is limited. I have a secret for you: Good intentions never win awards or competitions.

You need to decide if you’re able to go all in with respects to strategy, monetary investment and allocation of time before agreeing to be involved in something of this nature. We had someone apply for Venture Madness and submit a poor quality video that was clearly shot in the front seat of his car. It would’ve been far better for him to not apply at all – people will remember his poor submission, and likely forget his company name and product. Any of your materials for awards or competitions are a direct reflection of your brand, so if you can’t handle them with the utmost of care, delay jumping into such programs until you can. The good news is, today’s technologies let even “DIY” projects look relatively professional. If needed, get some tips online on how to polish your presentation, videos and/or pitches with very little investment.

Make It Last

My final piece of advice is to piggyback off of the momentum you’ll soon create. Even if you don’t nab the top honors, you can take advantage of being a finalist by promoting your near-win on your company blog, and you’re likely to get some press if you make it into the final cut round. If you do win an award, make sure to place the badge prominently on your website and appropriate marketing materials. It’s also great fodder for customer newsletters and social media channels.

With many awards and competitions, public relations efforts will be built into the process so I recommend riding that wave as far as you can. That may mean putting out a press release about how you performed (and doing so at a time when the competition will be generating a lot of its own buzz), or joining the social media conversation. There are numerous ways to tap into the organic, conversational exposure that comes with the territory for these types of programs.

Just as with any other decision you make in your business, it’s up to you to weigh the pros and cons. Take into consideration what value could come from an award or competition, and whether or not you’re truly able to invest fully in the process. Then if you do go ahead with it, don’t let all the ‘free’ tangential benefits of being tied to big, noteworthy programs go to waste! When approached with care and commitment, awards and competitions can be a goldmine on the roadmap to your startup’s success.  Choose wisely, as more isn’t always better – aim for quality awards and competitions that will carry the most weight in your industry, and your prospects’ minds. Most importantly, good luck!

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Mario Martinez II is Managing Director at MRTNZ Ventures. He founded the firm in 2014 after his tenure as General Manager, Global CRM at IMS Health (NYSE: IMS) following its acquisition of 360 Vantage, where Mario was Founder and CEO for seven years. Prior to 360 Vantage, Mario served for over 10 years in the pharmaceutical sector managing technology operations for the sales and marketing business units of global and public pharmaceutical companies.

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