From Contest to Company: 6 Tips for Taking a Startup to the Next Level

From hackathons to programming contests to business plan competitions, competitive events are a great way to test the potential appeal and viability of a startup idea. But what happens after the contest? Win or lose, how can a new company make the most of the experience and the exposure? 

Let's say your team was good enough - and lucky enough - to make it to the finals of one of these events - or maybe you even won the grand prize. After you have had a chance to get some sleep and gather your thoughts, then what?

As a judge at Microsoft's tenth annual Imagine Cup, the question was more than theoretical. At the student software contest, Microsoft invited former contestants from around the world to talk about what they have been doing since their participation in previous Imagine Cups. 

They shared hard-earned tips on how they made the transition from the contest to becoming a successful company:

  1. Use the time at the contest or conference to network with the right people. Many of the returnees stressed how networking was the real benefit of being at the contest. Sally Buberman, the director of Buenos Aires-based Web conferencing and online education vendor WormholeIT, participated in the 2007 Imagine Cup. "You should be spending time with the judges one-on-one to hear what they have to say once the contest is over, and follow up with them on their opinions of your presentation," she advised. Her partner, Ignacio Lopez, agreed: "You have to talk to as many people as possible, and break out of your shell and force yourself to network, even if it goes against your nerdy nature."
  2. It isn't all about the prize. $25,000 in prize money (or whatever the winner receives) can seem like a lot of dough to someone living on a student budget. But it won't last long for a company. "Be prepared to live off of rice and ramen, and go without furniture while you are working on your business," warned Buberman.
  3. Don't forget about your college years. Ironically, for young entrepreneurs who have just graduated from college, going back to school can be fruitful. "Look at those universities who are offering entrepreneurship classes outside of their business schools," Lopez said. "Entrepreneurship can be for everyone, and especially for engineers."
  4. Baby steps matter. Sebastien Monteil, who started the French social gaming site Kobojo, said, "Don't be afraid to take baby steps and fail quickly. That is how you learn, and it also isn't that costly." But don't model your company too closely on your college experience. "Universities punish failure; that is their culture," said Lopez. "For an entrepreneur, failure is a way of life. You need to embrace it."
  5. Don't be shy about communicating your needs. "Don't be afraid to ask for help," said Buberman. "People are happy to help but they don't know your needs, so if you can be as precise and clear as possible, that works."
  6. Think carefully about your team's long-term composition. Vinny Lohan, who started New Zealand-based big data analytics company OneBuzz, said "Your existing team that participated in the contest might not be the right team for you to build a business around. Think about where the gaps are in your team. Do you have a business-oriented person? Do you need to license your technology? Do you have someone on your team with marketing experience?" Lohan also spoke about building cross-discipline teams. "Just having a bunch of engineers working together isn't useful. You need lots of other skills to build a great company." Mohammad Azzam, who started Jordanian OaSys, added, "When you participate in a contest, you think about getting a product together for the judges. But this is very different from starting a company and running a business."

Disclosure: As a contest judge for the Imagine Cup, my travel expenses to the event were covered by Microsoft.