I have been a business plan competition judge for a few years now. Not as glamorous as the Miss America contest and not as tasty as a BBQ Competition judge, but fun all the same. I really enjoy feeling the energy that comes through from the entrepreneurs in their ideas. As part of my role, I have the opportunity to read a lot of business plans and watch some presentations to panels. I have also had the ability to see how groups of judges make decisions, as we all have our own points of view that must be aligned before determining the placing of the contestants.
A few lessons from the judge’s table (in no particular order):
Make your projections reasonable, meaningful and achievable. So many of the plans show either Year 3 earnings of $100 million or $200 thousand. Investors don’t believe the former and don’t bother with the latter. In any case, make it easy for the judge to vote for you. Make sure that your financial tables foot, are right justified, have thousands separators, are complete and are rotated to allow for easy readability on the screen without printing it out. Take the opportunity to explain all assumptions that you make while determining your financials. Don’t assume that every month will be the same. Is there seasonality? Will month 1 really be the same as month12? Include every expense that you can think of and make sure that the expenses that are outlined in the text portion are considered in the financial plan.
Detail your marketing plans beyond “advertising and trade shows”. Our world is changing faster than ever. Don’t bet only on the same old strategies that our parents might have used.Try to stay away from discounting and couponing in the initial years. You might have to resort to that if the economy goes south, but it probably is not a good strategy right out of the box.
Beware of planning your long term growth strategy on existing tools. Will Twitter or Facebook look the same in 5 years? Will it look the same in 1 year?
Sample, if you possibly can. Let the judges (or angels, private equity folks, friends and family et. al.) touch, smell, see and taste your product. Do a demo, if it is software, even in there is nothing behind the demo. Don’t lie and tell folks that there is, just show them what you can. In the last competition, one company had clothing, but did not let the judges feel or interact with the interesting material. Another concept was a restaurant, where the chef came out and cooked for the audience. Hearing the garlic sizzle in the fry pan and then smell the just cooked foods, made a huge difference in their presentation.
Leave the arrogance at home. Try to answer the direct questions as clearly as possible without signs of impatience or omnipotence. Take a deep breath before answering, gather your thoughts and give the best answer you can, which might be “I don’t know, but I will find out and get back to you.”. The judges don’t know your business as well as you do, but also, remember that they may be looking at it from a new angle that can provide insights to you.
Make sure to have people proofread and edit your submission. You may be the best interior designer in the world, but if your financial page is wrong or your marketing plan is half-baked, it is better to know and correct before the big day.
Presentation skills count. Think about how the presentation should flow. If you have 3 founders, it is difficult to follow when each of you does one slide at a time. Don’t read from your slides. Your slides should guide your talk, not take the place of it. See what Seth Godin has to say about presentations. If you can add a video to break up your presentation, do so. Practice, practice, practice. If you practice enough, you will not be nervous at the time of the big show. Know how long it takes to give the presentation. Use cue cards to make sure that you convey the right ideas for each slide – bullet points, not complete sentences. Important – do not read your presentation from the cue cards.
Even if you are not entering a business plan competition, these are all good rules to think about when making a critical presentation. It could be for an internal project approval at a large company or for venture financing. You are the best sales person for your idea. A great presentation will get you further along towards getting that approval than anything else.