Athletes Starting a Race on a Track

One of the hardest parts of starting a new business is getting it off the ground. Raising startup funds, learning the ropes and finding those first few customers is not easy. Success takes hard work and hustle – but if you know where to go and what to do, the process gets much easier.

Entering a startup competition can be a powerful experience for a startup or new business.  It can be a great way to build momentum for your idea during that critical first year. Winning comes with a lot of perks, but even if you don’t win, you won’t leave empty handed. If you’re looking for a competition that’s right for your business, we’ve compiled an extensive guide to startup competitions in the U.S. that’s worth reviewing (and sharing!).

Each of these competitions can help you get your business off to a flying start, or take it to the next level.

Here’s a few of the reasons you should consider entering a startup competition.

1. Gain Exposure for Your Business

Startup competitions are a great way to tell others about your business, gain exposure, and find new customers.

There are several ways you can use competitions for marketing, branding, and PR. First is the obvious: You get to brag about it! Email your past and present clients. Put together a press release and personally drop it off at local newspapers and radio stations. Email relevant bloggers and offer yourself as an interviewee. Some competitions even include community voting, so you have an opportunity to stir up your fan base by inviting them to participate. Sharing your involvement in a startup competition, no matter what the outcome, demonstrates your commitment to your company, how you are creatively growing your business and that you’re looking for ways to serve your clients better.

Second, depending on the competition, chances are that few (if any) of your direct competitors will be one of the entrants. If the competition has a final celebration event, you’ll probably find yourself surrounded by tons of new business opportunities. Be sure to bring plenty of business cards and get ready to mingle! You never know who you’ll meet.

There are a lot more ways to unearth new business and PR opportunities during startup competition events. Award ceremonies are usually crawling with press and bloggers on the prowl for an interesting story - be prepared to give them one. Of course winners receive a whole lot more attention, but entrants also have a story to share. So if you happen to win an award, brag about it and enjoy the spotlight! If you didn’t make the cut this time, you can still approach the press with an original and interesting story.  Oh, and be sure you’re ready for the new business that will be heading your way.

2. Network with Savvy People

Startup competitions are packed with ambitious guys and gals just like you.  Whether they are just getting started or have been at it for years, they all started with an idea and built it from scratch. They’ve all made plenty of mistakes, acquired knowledge and skills along the way and have endless information and perspectives to share. Rub elbows, shake hands, ask questions and take note!  Each interaction may just save you from having to learn lessons the hard way.  And remember, sometimes the biggest “aha” moments come when you’re sipping coffee with strangers.

3. Spark Your Creativity

Entering and attending startup contests will get your creative juices flowing. The actual process of entering the competition forces you to put your business on paper, organize your ideas and brainstorm the possibilities.  In some cases, application reviewers will provide you with unsolicited (and priceless) feedback.  Attending the competition events will kick your ideas into hyper drive so you can push your vision to the next level.  Listening to passionate business leaders and exposing yourself to new perspectives will inevitably spark your creative spirit.  You’ll walk away with a notepad packed with tons of to-do’s... and even some time-saving don’ts!

4. Set (and Achieve) Goals

It’s not easy to enter a startup competition - and that’s a good thing! Chances are you will need to polish up (or write the first draft of) your business plan and answer thought-provoking questions as part of the application process.  This process will force you to think critically about every aspect of your business, nail down your vision, assess the competitive landscape, define your value proposition and set short term and long term goals.  Face it, submitting an application to a startup competition forces you to focus and refocus on your overall strategy, which may be one of the most valuable aspects of entering.

5. Practice Your Elevator Pitch (over and over)

If you don’t have your elevator pitch down perfectly (or don’t know what it is), now is the time to practice!  While attending a startup competition, you will have dozens of opportunities to tell people about your business. Your elevator pitch is a 30-second summary that quickly and simply defines your business and its value proposition.  It can make the difference between a potential investor losing interest or giving you his personal email and phone number.

Be sure to practice your elevator pitch beforehand! Make it brief, unique, and memorable. Test-drive your pitch among friends and colleagues.  Watch people’s reactions as you share it. Are they intrigued? Do they want to know more, or do they walk away after you give your spiel? Don’t be afraid to test a few versions of your elevator pitch to figure out what works best. Remember, practice makes perfect.

6. Connect with Advisors and Industry Mentors

We all need a little hand-holding from time to time and startup competitions often provide the support and instruction new businesses need.  Some competitions require contestants to meet with knowledgeable business advisors as part of the application process. Others match competition winners with exclusive business coaches and investors. If you’re smart about it, you can probably find incredible mentors just walking the floor during the competition events or awards ceremony.  Bottom line, startup competitions are a great way to find tried-and-true advice.

7. But Wait, There’s More: The Prizes!

Winning comes with bragging rights, and more! Prizes for the startup competitions we profiled range from $2,500 cash to $100,000 grants, plus non-cash prizes including free business services, access to VC’s and mentors, headline exposure to business communities and numerous PR opportunities. Combined, the startup competitions listed in our guide are giving away more than $3.3 million in cash and prizes!

Every kid in little league gets a trophy. You could say the same goes for startup competitions, but you walk away with a lot more than a certificate of participation! Every startup competition has dozens of stories of businesses that took off after participating. With so many competitions to choose from, the only question left is, which one is right for you?

Are you planning to enter a startup competition? What do you hope to get out of it?