Any start-up out there has entered at least one pitching competition and if they haven’t, then they need to. Pitching competitions are important especially to a startup that is trying out a new idea with very many assumptions on perceived problem, target market, business model etc. What I have come to learn however, is that, its always better to enter this competitions when you have some traction. Traction basically means that you actually have a product that people are willing to pay for or are using in large numbers or for long periods of time. Don’t be surprised to hear that there are some start-ups that are created only to realize that they don’t actually have a product, or, even if they do, they are not solving an actual problem/need.
There has been an increase in the number of idea and start-up competitions not just in Kenya but Africa as well. Most of these competitions are either new concepts or localization of internationally known competitions from the US or Europe. Tech start-ups competitions tend are increasing in numbers in comparison to other types due to the increase in tech related innovations from Africa especially in the area of mobile applications and web solutions.
I have had the opportunity to participate in 3 tech startup pitching competitions for Safari Tales, with the most recent one being a few days ago at 1776 challenge cup that took place at the iHub. The previous ones were Pivot East and African Content Awards.
From those two competitions, I have come to get the general feel of these competitions, how they are run, what the organisers, and to an extent, the judges look for, as well as what, in the least, the participants should expect from the competition organisers.
That is why I have a very big problem with The Next Big Thing (TNBT) competition. This is an annual competition organised and by the Business Daily newspaper which is a publication of the Nation Media group.Last year, I applied in the entertainment and Media category and it was the worst experience I have ever had dealing with a competition organiser. Rather, things that ought to have happened from professionals never did. Not due to systems failure, rather lack of due diligence or some decency to appreciate the time participants took off their hustle to fill the lengthy form then wait.
This post almost turned into a rant, however, I chose instead, to point out in a more constructive manner where they went wrong and how they can do it better based on what competitions like the 3 I just mentioned, have set as the standard for running startup competitions.
1. Acknowledge Receipt
Most competition organisers normally set up a site dedicated to receiving expressions of interest from participants. Most sites will have a form where one fills all the details the organisers need to know about the startup in order to decide if the applicant will make it to round one of pitching.
It is important that, once the applicant completes filling the form, and they receive the notification on the site, an actual email from the organisers is sent to the applicant informing them that their application has been received and how long they should wait to hear back.
Business Daily/The Nation Media never bothered to communicate to me on email whether they had received my application or not. I am not sure if this happened with every participant.
I had to keep logging back on to the site every week to see their response.
2. Regret Email
Organisers need the applicants as much as applicants need them. It is therefore important that some level of professionalism is maintained even when the startup had no chance in hell of going beyond the first stage. However, the organisers owe it to the applicant to inform them that they couldn’t go far. An email even if a general one to all the failed applicants is better than seeing the finals happening, you were not contacted and you are rushing to the competition site for some explanation.
When I went back to my profile page on the TNBT site, all I got was
We regret your idea was not good enough
or something to that regard.
3. Feed Back
As I said earlier, the reason why most start-ups enter these competitions is to get honest feedback, and off course to win the money.
If your competition is not giving this value to participants then am sorry to say, yours is not very different from a scam.
If you honestly are out to encourage entrepreneurship and are looking for very good ideas to fund or incubate, then its important to offer informed critique that will help the startup go back, work on those areas and pitch the next year, if need be.
I tried following up with Business Daily for feedback on why my application failed, I even emailed them and no one ever bothered to let me know.
To this day, I am not sure if it was an auto-responder that declined my application or someone actually looked at it and felt it was not good enough. I will never know.
4. Everyone has Ideas
Competitions have become very popular whether in the Tech circles or even in music, fashion etc. It is therefore important for the organiser to be very clear what they are looking for. If it is ideas, the it becomes very tricky to pick the criteria of judging good ideas from bad. Everyone has ideas. What makes those ideas different is the execution and how well the execution has been done; Does the entrepreneur have a prototype, do they have a clear addressable market, is there an actual problem the solution solves, does the solution have traction etc.
It is therefore very vague to peg a who competition on just Ideas.