How to Make Your Startup Competition Stand Out

It’s springtime at universities across the country, and if you’re a student or faculty member involved in the entrepreneurship scene, this means you’ve likely attended and/or participated in at least one startup competition already. Whether it’s receiving cash prizes to put towards a provisional patent or sharing your business plan with a competition judge who’ll turn out to be your first investor, startup competitions help launch companies.  

But with the popularity of startup competitions on the rise, how do you make yours stand out amidst all of the noise? How do you create an experience that is both valuable for participants and judges as well as the greater community of supporter outside your campus walls?

After five years of coordinating the NC State Lulu eGames competition, I have a few ideas.

1. Use an online application management system.

Say goodbye to your email attachments, Google Drives and Dropboxes immediately because an application management system enhances the experience for both participants and judges. We use StartupCompete, which is a very affordable solution, but there are others from which to choose. One thing I love about StartupCompete is the countdown clock to the the competition deadline for participants and judges alike. This way, organizers can avoid lengthy debates as to whether or not something was submitted by the deadline.

PRO TIP: Technical difficulties and/or challenges will occur with any type of online application management system. If it’s not a “need-to-fix-this-NOW” issue, keep a running list of issues you find (or hear about) and improvements you recommend to discuss post-competition.

2. Engage your partners/sponsors.

Universities are big places, and if you are the only person shilling for an event among the myriad of other events and programs being offered, you might as well be dropping a pebble into the ocean. This year, we focused on getting the word out among faculty and created a toolkit for them to share with students. The toolkit included a sample email (copy and pastable!), a flyer, sample tweets and/or Facebook posts for social media (also copy and pastable!) and a PowerPoint slide they could share in their classrooms. This was all conveniently located on our website for their downloading pleasure! We do something similar for our sponsors too.

PRO TIP: We also hosted a happy hour for faculty in our partner programs to go over the toolkit and answer their questions in advance of the entry deadline. It was a fun and memorable atmosphere that kept the Lulu eGames top-of-mind in the weeks that followed.  

3. Keep judges happy.

Your judges are a key part of your competition, and it’s important to ensure these busy and influential people have a positive experience while participating. Putting in the work on the front end to maximize the time they’re able to spend providing feedback to the student and faculty teams is paramount. Enter the logistical details — usually dry but always a must. I provide information in advance of the competition to help manage expectations, from overall time commitment (and whether or not a meal is included) to introductions to their fellow judges. If possible, send a calendar invitation with all of these details that’s easy for them to accept in the body of your email, or as a follow-up. And finally, if there are videos to preview or executive summaries to gloss over prior to the judging, make sure they have that information at least one week in advance.

PRO TIP: If you have lots of information to share, try a numbered list or bullet points. You can also frame is as a question/answer (e.g. “Where do I park?” “Parking is available in the deck beside our building”) to get their attention.

4. Involve your audience.

If you hold an awards ceremony or any sort of final round that’s open to the public, it’s important to get everyone involved. This year, we implemented a lot of changes to our ceremony that encouraged interaction and was, quite frankly, more fun for all. We have multiple competition categories in the Lulu eGames, so all five of our first prize winners had the opportunity to pitch for the Audience Choice Award. They had three minutes to pitch, followed by three minutes of Q&A from the audience. At the end, the audience voted via a link to SurveyMonkey for their favorite to win the coveted $1,000 prize.

PRO TIP: To help audience members overcome their shyness about asking questions in a room of more than 200 people, they used Twitter. Tweets containing our event hashtag or Twitter handle were read by a moderator to avoid delays and maximize those three minutes. An added bonus–helps to get your event hashtag trending! #eGames2016

5. Work with an ace team.

Of all my tips, this is most certainly the most important. To create and execute such a large event, that often spans several months or longer, you have a higher chance of success working as a team. That’s what we do here in the EI. I like details and organizing information, so I work with our judges and sponsors. One of my co-workers handles all of the student and faculty participants and the other coordinates our awards ceremony + pitch.

PRO TIP: Work with talented, smart people. And if you’re in the position to hire them, do that too.

Here’s wishing you a startup competition that stands out above the rest! And don’t forget, to post your photos afterwards, so the attendees can remember how awesome it was, and folks who didn’t attend will have major #FOMO (that’s fear of missing out for the over thirties crowd like me). Cheers!

About the Author:

Megan Greer is the director of communications and outreach for the Entrepreneurship Initiative. She has worked in higher education for more than a decade and is a proud two-time graduate of Meredith College. When she’s not in the Garage or attending events in the entrepreneurship community, she can likely be found watching too much E! or Bravo and spending time with her family. She also knows a ton of useless celebrity facts and is good at remembering dates–so be sure to tell her your birthday! Follow her on Twitter @megandgreer.


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