OK. That’s an exaggeration. Odds are you can’t win every startup competition you enter. But you could win 92.59%. Candace Klein did. Klein is the founder and CEO of a new peer-to-peer lending platform called SoMoLend and she’s won 25 of the 27 startup competitions she’s (That’s a winning percentage of 92.59% – do the math). We asked her how she did it.
Get A Mentor
Most startup competitions offer entrants the chance to connect with a mentor. Take it, says Klein, who has signed up for a mentor at every competition she’s won.
“We’ve had media mentors who have gotten us press. I had one mentor who helped us negotiate a term sheet. Anyone entering a business plan competition should sign up for the mentorship. It’s a huge mistake not to.”
Best of all, mentors are often on the competition’s panel of judges. So even if you don’t take home prize money, you will benefit from the free advice.
Keep It Simple
It’s easy to be complicated – to show up at your presentation and regurgitate the technical details at the heart of your innovation. That will not sway judges and investors.
“Even if you have a complicated concept, you should make it understandable,” Klein says. “You get engineers and mathematicians who are starting companies and they get so bogged down in details they don’t do a good job of explaining what the business does. Make it simple, make it so a third-grader can understand.”
Pack Your Bags
Klein has entered and won competitions from Xavier University to the University of Dayton, where she took five of the five awards on offer. On May 10 she won best of show at FinovateSpring and the week before finished first at Business Insider’s Startup 2012.
“The downside of participating in all these competitions is that it’s a tax on your time,” she says. “You have to be there in person. We drove to St. Louis six times for the Olin Cup competition at Washington University. We did win it but we had to be there on six different occasions.”
You’re not Mark Cuban. Don’t try to be. When you present at a startup competition, just be yourself, Klein says.
“If you’re a funny person, be funny on stage. If you’re a storyteller, tell stories. If you’re a sweet person, be sweet. The judges want to believe in the jockey. The horse itself may be a concept they like or don’t like. They want the jockey. I know I raised money from people who liked me and not just my idea. They want to see you’re poised and confident and quick on your feet.”
Klein is certainly confident. At 31, she’s won $500,000 dollars in prizes and raised over $1 million in angel and seed funding. She was born to a teenage mother, the oldest of five kids, and her father left when she was 5. She has four college degrees and has had ovarian cancer twice. (It’s now in remission.)
Enter Plenty Of Competitions
She recommends that every startup enter at least five competitions. Even if you don’t win, you’ll learn how to pitch. “The reason I do all this is it gives me great practice for when I go in front of investors. It is intimidating and stressful but that’s a good thing. The second benefit is most of the judges at these competitions are also investors, people who are looking for deal flow.”
But Avoid Those Without Prize Money
Obviously, Klein has entered far more than five competitions. But there are those she avoids: the ones that don’t offer prize money. She won’t sign up for any competitions that doesn’t promise at least $10,000 in prizes. And while she’s pocketed her share of cash, she’s won a lot of services as well, including six months’ free office space in New York and legal help from three different firms.
“I don’t know if winning all these competitions will translate into a successful business. We’re still a startup. But what I will say is that I can articulate what my business does to anyone. I can sell the vision.”
Klein recently launched her own startup competition, SoMoLaunch. First prize is $5,000 and consulting from Klein. She’s taking applications at SoMoLend.com until Sept. 30.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.