Competitions are Damaging to Startups

New business competitions are incredibly tempting. I’ve participated in half a dozen or so in only a couple of years of entrepreneurship. I won once, came in second another time, and completely lost the rest of the times. In my experience the potential return (prize money) isn’t worth the lost productivity and wastes intra-startup networking possibilities.

Time. These competitions take time.

Every time I’ve entered a new business of mine into a competition, the business was something I was doing in addition to something else in life. At one point the other thing was college. Most recently the other thing is my day job, freelancing to pay the bills.

I’ve yet to be able to focus all of my attention on a new venture. This doesn’t mean no time is spent — it means long evening and weekend hours are spent. So the time I do have available to work should be spent on my business, and not on preparing for a competition.

To be fair, I believe the organizers behind business competitions have the best intentions. They are trying to provide initial capital for great business ideas. Unfortunately in the process, the winning business and (more importantly) the losing businesses have all, sort of, wasted their time.

I say sort of wasted their time because the hoops you have to jump through in business competitions aren’t 100% negative ones. But I’m not convinced they are entirely useful either. Often a startup is required to present a verbal and slide driven investor pitch, as well as provide a written business plan according to varying criteria. While investor pitches and business plans can be helpful, particularly if you’re going the investor route (not something I’m a fan of), there are better things to spend your time on in the initial stages of your business. Like your business.

Business competitions breed nasty intra-startup relations

Participating in these competitions compels you to not look kindly at your fellow entrepreneurs. After all, they are after the same prize money that you are. But in my experience, these fellow travelers are the most valuable people to get to know when building businesses. Instead of drawing these minds together in a mutually beneficial way, business competitions seem to set them against one another from the very start.

When I have competed, no matter how awesome my competitors’ ideas have been, I find a way to dislike and distance myself from them. After all, I want to win the money. And I want them to lose. So I’m focused on exactly the wrong thing: the negative, instead of what I can learn from them and how we might help each other out.

I could only be speaking for myself here. Maybe I’m a big jerk. But then again, I think we’re all a lot more alike than we want to admit sometimes. If I’ve had these thoughts I’m wiling to bet my fellow competitors have too.

A better way to promote new businesses

The solution I would suggest, in place of business competitions, is to invest what is usually dealt out as prize money in consistent entrepreneurial meetups in the same town.

I see a few direct benefits to spending the time, energy, and money on meetups instead of competitions:

  • Rather than being rewarded before achieving success in their business, meetups can encourage and challenge entrepenuers to have patience and reap the rewards only after market-tested success.
  • Rather than spending time and effort showcasing the business, time is spent networking and testing ideas among likeminded people.
  • Meetups promote local entrepreneurial communities with no forced competition. This lack of competition will encourage caring about other’s successes.

In Fort Wayne I’ve come across two great examples of this taking place. One is the NIIC-hosted BizWiz program, specifically for high school and college entrepreneurs. Jumpstart260 is the other, where entrepreneurs and business owners meet regularly downtown.

If you are starting or might be starting a business int he area, make time for one of these events. You may just find the lack of competition a bit freeing.

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2 thoughts on “Competitions are Damaging to Startups

  1. I agree with what you’ve said here 100% Ryan.

    Thanks for mentioning jumpstart260 and the NIIC as great local places that are getting it right.

    I don’t think you are jerk for thinking that biz plan contests really aren’t worth the time. I’ll freely admit that I feel much the same way about the issue.

    So much time is truly spent just trying to figure out what it will take to win instead of being put in to improving a product or building the company that many times we often lose focus on the things that truly matter.

    • Thanks for stopping by Ray,

      So much time spent trying to win, even as far as to tweak things about the business just to win, in contrast to what would actually help the business. In both cases, when I’ve won a competition, I added in costs (which I didn’t have) for a web business that didn’t need them, solely because the judges look down on having few costs. Bizarre stuff.

      BTW, I finally got the URL re-writing to work with GooRoo and WPMU. Pretty psyched. I’ll have to tell you how next time we talk.

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