This article was written by Vinaik Gautam, cofounder of Chargo and MIT Launch alum.
I cannot believe that it has almost been one year since I attended Launch. The program has been one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences that I have ever been a part of.
Not a day goes by in which I am not using the knowledge that I gained from Launch and applying it to my everyday activities.
After Launch, my cofounders and I saw an avenue that could help our company, Chargo, achieve success and publicity: competing in business plan competitions. We participated in the Blue Ocean Entrepreneurship Competition, following which I had the opportunity to present Chargo at a Shark Tank-themed event held in my town, eventually winning scholarship money to support our growth efforts. These competitions were a great way to meet and interact with experts in the field and receive pertinent feedback in order to help our startup develop, grow, and succeed.
It may seem daunting at first, but participating in these business plan competitions as a high school entrepreneur is a great learning experience and an excellent way to show off all the success that your team has achieved. Here are a few key learnings from our Launch experience that my team and I have applied to these competitions:
1. Show that you are team-oriented
A mantra that is repeatedly emphasized at Launch is that the team is greater than the idea.
In order for a startup to be successful, the team must be one of the top priorities. If an entrepreneur has a B-grade idea, but an A-level team, they are more likely to achieve success than a team with an A-grade idea, but with a B-level team. Therefore, it was essential for our team to prove in our pitch that we were integrated, aligned, and personable during our pitch. We made it a priority to give the judges a reason to believe that our team has the mindset to bring our startup to full fruition. One of the ways that we achieved this was by having an “appealing team” slide in our pitch deck. On this slide, we highlighted the strengths that each team member brought and how we are able to come together to achieve the maximum success for Chargo.
By showcasing that we are very team-oriented, it gives the judges and potential investors confidence that our company will succeed in the future because of the chemistry and strong relationships that our startup team has.
If an entrepreneur has a B-grade idea, but an A-level team, they are more likely to achieve success than a team with an A-grade idea, but with a B-level team.
2. Prepare your answers to potential Q&A questions
More times than not, the Q&A session following your pitch ends up being more important than the actual pitch. The main reason is because this portion of the presentation allows the judges to really understand the startup and how the team is trying to solve the issue at hand.
In order to have the greatest success during the Q&A session, we had several potential questions prepared that the judges might ask. The practical way to prepare for this is by categorizing the questions. We thought about the logistics, finance, and marketing skills and tactics that our team was using to help Chargo grow. After that, we began considering questions that might be associated with these different business aspects and prepared answers for each of them. For example, we prepared to answer questions about the marketing strategy that we were using, how our customer acquisition was different from our competitors, and how our business model would allow us to scale the business. This method helped us to prepare answers for most of the types of questions the judges might ask us, leading to a successful Q&A session.
By considering what questions you might be asked in advance, the Q&A session becomes much more manageable for your team, and it allows you to talk with confidence and precision each time a question is asked.
More times than not, the Q&A session following your pitch ends up being more important than the actual pitch.
3. Know your numbers
This might sound very "Kevin O’Leary-esque", but it was one of the most important aspects of our entire pitch. When discussing our financial projections and the market size, we made sure that we communicated to the judges how we had arrived at these numbers. We talked about the research that we had conducted and the potential customers surveyed in order to support our projections.
Bill Aulet’s book, Disciplined Entrepreneurship, advises founders against sizing their market so large that if they just get 1% of this market, they will have a hugely successful venture. This usually just tells investors or judges that you don't really know your target customer. This challenge can be overcome by good market research, a concept that was reiterated during my time at MIT Launch. Based off of this advice, we were able to effectively articulate our financial situation.
Don't tell investors that, if you can just get 1% of the market, you'll be successful.
We also had to stick firm to our business model. Each time a question regarding finances or marketing came up, we always referred back to the business model and how we believed that this would be the most effective way for us to achieve the greatest returns.
Overall, competing in business plan competitions is a great way to get feedback about your startup while also potentially securing funding. A few business plan competitions for high school entrepreneurs that my team and I have come across are the Diamond Challenge, Blue Ocean Entrepreneurship Competition, and the TiE Entrepreneur Competition, to name a few. I hope that my experiences can be used as a reference to help in the development of your own startup plans, pitching to investors, and competing in appropriate competitions.
I wish you the best of luck–let me know in the comments below about your own experiences with business plan competitions and or if you have any questions about developing an impactful pitch. I look forward to hearing about your entrepreneurial journey.