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Diary of a Social Venture Start-up: Business Competitions

A few months ago, I found myself standing in front of a room full of people. Potential investors, heads of philanthropic organizations, and leaders from all areas of the social space were there to hear me speak. I wasn't in a boardroom, mind you; I was in a business plan competition.

From a field of more than 50 teams, only four remained, and I was terrified. Nonetheless, I stepped up, introduced myself to the judges, and began my pitch. Now, I don't pat myself on the back very often, but I was on. I wheeled through my presentation, answered questions-I just crushed. Then, four hours later, I found out I'd lost.

Naturally, I wasn't happy about it, but in business, you've got to be able to take a punch. You're going to hear no a lot more than you're going to hear yes, and this was one of my noes. Still, I'd do it again in a heartbeat. If you ask me, you should, too.

Business plan competitions are an invaluable resource for the aspiring social entrepreneur for a number of reasons. They're a lot of work, but if you read our last column, you know that already. To win a competition, you'll likely need to create a fairly impressive business plan. It isn't easy, but hey-you're trying to change the world here.

By entering a competition, here are some of the things you'll get:

Your first hard deadline: While it's easy to be motivated about your concept, it is often difficult to know exactly what you need in order to get your idea out there. A business plan competition will force you to set a schedule, complete a list of deliverables, and stay on track.

Access to top talent: Loretta Poole, Associate Director of the Berkley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at New York University, puts it this way: "Competitions are amazing opportunities to receive guidance from successful entrepreneurs, investors, and industry experts, who act as coaches, mentors, and judges throughout the process." Simply put, you'll meet a bunch of amazing people to whom you might not otherwise have had access-people with loads of relevant experience, invaluable insight, and who just want to help out with your idea.

The chance to fail fast: They're a gauntlet-an intense series of challenges held over a fairly short period of time. It's a wonderful litmus test for evaluating whether your idea holds water and, if so, how you need to refine it. You might not always hear good news but, honestly, if your idea isn't up to snuff, wouldn't you rather find out now, before wasting a few years and draining a few bank accounts? If you're going to fail, fail fast.

The best part? It's a chance to do all of this before you're sitting in the Big Important Meeting. Sure, there's money on the line in competitions-they're actually a great way for a start-up to grab a few quick bucks-but it's basically a dress rehearsal. The judges are going to pepper you with questions, poke holes in your concepts, and test whether you have the knowledge and the mettle to run a business. Why? Because that's exactly what any potential investor or partner would do.

So no, I didn't win my competition, but I got a ton out of it: My business plan is far more solid than when I began, people who saw my presentation emailed me about becoming advisors, and I received an invitation to participate in a small business incubator. So although each competition can only have one winner, you'll find that winning has very little to do with who walks away with one of those silly, oversized commemorative checks.

The takeaway: Business plan competitions are a fantastic way to gain exposure and feedback in the early stages of an idea. If you're looking for a place to start, many universities hold social venture competitions, open to both students and alumni, which can net the winners upwards of 100K in prizes.

The Global Social Venture Competition, organized by a number of universities, is the largest and oldest student-led competition. Competitions are also held by Tufts, NYU, and Stanford, among others. Additionally, Harvard has recently launched an innovative competition based entirely on pitches.

Moreover, many corporations are jumping into the social-venture competition space, including Dell and Wal-Mart.

Not a student? Never fear. Organizations like Investors' Circle and Clean Tech Open hold competitions that are open to anyone, and Ashoka's Changemakers has a number of competitions open to the public as well.

New competitions are springing up all the time. Post any you might find interesting in the comments section.

Have you ever entered one? What's been your experience?

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