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Start Your Business Business Plans

National Business Plan Competitions for Entrepreneurs

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  • The National Small Business Association says that 41% of small businesses fail to grow because of a lack of capital. One way to raise funding is to win a business plan competition that offers cash prizes.
  • Judges want to know your product-market fit, and how you plan to expand and grow your startup.
  • Having a solid elevator pitch prepared for a business plan competition allows you to explain what differentiates your business from your competition and how your business will sustain long-term success. 

Participating in a business plan competition can be a rewarding experience. It helps you focus on how you want to run and grow your business, and it can provide much-needed capital and mentoring if you win. 

To put yourself in the best position to take home a prize, you must know your business concept inside and out, find out which competition is right for you and what the judges will be looking for. Focusing on innovation and making sure there's a market for your idea will help you prepare a solid business model to debut in a competition. 

Possibly winning a grand prize or even funding for your business is a good enough incentive to enter one of the national business and entrepreneurship competitions. Here are seven of the best competitions to consider entering. [Read related story: Best Business Plan Software] 

Rice University's business plan competition is in its 20th year and has grown from nine teams competing for $10,000 to 42 teams competing for more than $1.5 million in prizes. 

The competition is designed to give collegiate entrepreneurs a real-world experience to fine-tune their business plans and elevator pitches to receive funding and maximize the commercialization of their products. 

Competition highlights include real-world opportunities to learn what it takes to successfully launch a new business, and a chance to receive mentoring from investors and experienced entrepreneurs. 

Applications for the 2020 competition will be accepted through Monday, January 27, 2019. 

The tecBRIDGE Business Plan Competition, which is in its 17th year, is broken down into two divisions: collegiate and noncollegiate. Students from 14 colleges and universities compete in the collegiate division while early stage entrepreneurs are eligible to compete in a separate division. 

Winning teams share in cash prizes and services valued at more than $100,000. There is even a separate business plan competition for high school students. [Read related story: Starting a Business After College? Advice for Entrepreneurial Grads] 

Registration dates for 2020 have not yet been announced; check the website for updates. 

The Milken-Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition is one of the most prestigious and well-funded education business plan competitions. The competition is open to applicants worldwide and includes a path for ventures, as well as for ideas. 

The competition themes include early childhood education, workforce learning, urban education and more. Prizes include cash winnings of up to $40,000. 

The 2019 winners were announced in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 7. Entry dates for 2020 have not yet been announced; check the website for updates. 

This competition looks for startups focusing on informatics and digital health-focused technology. Five finalists will win $5,000 and the opportunity to pitch their business plans to Pistoia Alliance members at its U.S. conference. The two winners will receive an invitation for this year's startup support day, $20,000 in prize money, six months of mentoring from a senior member and a one-year membership to the Pistoia Alliance. 

Entries for this year's competition are now closed, and the finalists will be announced soon. 

HATCH Pitch is a competition where finalists present their business plans to a panel of judges comprising corporate, angel and venture investors who select the winners and provide applicants with feedback. 

Stemming from one of the first events at the inaugural SXSW Interactive Startup Village in 2012, HATCH became an independent program and event in 2016. HATCH Pitch is run by volunteers from around the U.S. 

The 2019 winners were announced in Austin, Texas, on March 11. Entry dates for 2020 have not yet been announced; check the website for updates. 

The goal of this competition is to increase student appreciation for the challenges of developing a business. All TCNJ students are encouraged to apply, and each team must have at least two, but no more than four, current TCNJ students. 

Winning the competition depends on a team's ability to produce a successful business plan, and it is up to the students to find resources like mentors and advisors. 

Team registration for the 2020 Mayo Business Plan Competition Plan is now open. All teams must submit an Intent to Compete form by Nov. 29, 2019. 

This business plan competition has six categories: information technology/software, social entrepreneurship/nonprofit, clean technology, advanced technology, products and services. Teams for this competition must consist of graduate, undergraduate or community college students who are enrolled in New York colleges and universities. 

Cash prizes are available for the top teams from each of New York's 10 major regions. The contest does not require applicants to submit a full business plan, and applications must be submitted online. 

The application deadline for the 2020 competition is March 8. 

The basis of a successful business plan is a mind-blowing elevator pitch. An elevator pitch allows you to succinctly explain what separates your business from the others, what your business will offer and why it will succeed. 

"Business plan competitions are opportunities for undergraduate students and others to submit business ideas, and have them evaluated," said Vincent Lewis, director of the Crotty Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the University of Dayton

Lewis believes that what business plan competition judges are looking for depends on the competition and its format. Some may focus on the quality of the plan, while others may prioritize economic development efforts to create new ventures. 

"Judges in our competitions are looking at the viability of the idea and the ability of the team to execute the idea," Lewis said. "Our judges are not concerned with the market opportunity in terms of size, but are more interested in determining if this is something that can move to launch." 

There's no surefire way to win the grand prize in a business plan competition, but aesthetics matter; you can win over the judges with a succinct, beautiful plan. Remember, you're showcasing your creativity and passion, not submitting your homework. 

"Visually, it should be clean, with vibrant and attractive colors and different sections broken up clearly," said Peter Selmeczy, chief executive officer of SEO Tech. "I recommend avoiding an  in-depth,30-page business plan and, instead, go for no more than 10 pages." 

Selmeczy says the reason you should aim for a shorter business plan is because it is unlikely that judges will read through the entire plan, especially if it is long. Capturing their attention by presenting research and facts also helps your business plan stand out. 

Every judging panel isn't the same, but some of the general factors that many judges consider when comparing business plans are 

  • Articulation: Explain your business model, team expertise and financial projections clearly and briefly. 
  • Marketability: Is there a market fit for you? If there's no market for your business or product, moving to launch can become a daunting task. 
  • Presentation: Build a cohesive business plan that's factual and aesthetically pleasing. A positive first impression goes a long way. 

When pitching the judges, entrepreneurs and business students must demonstrate the need for their business or product in the market and describe how it can make it to launch. To win, you'll need a great business model built on research and a stunning presentation. Prepare for the presentation portion of the competition by downsizing your 30-page business plan into an elevator pitch that you can deliver in about 10 minutes.

Joshua Stowers

Joshua is a staff writer based in New York City. He is a former entrepreneur who started a fashion and art, print and digital publication called Elusive Magazine, serving as the features editor for several issues. Previously, he worked in product development for DirecTV and for a content agency writing for Verizon and Google. He is a New Jersey native in love with the city lights and skyscrapers.