How to get your start-up shortlisted in competitions

How to get your start-up shortlisted in competitions

Posted: Thu 14th Jul 2022

When you're looking to get a foot in the door with your new business, every new contact, pearl of wisdom or snippet of publicity is invaluable. That's why it's a good idea to enter competitions aimed at start-ups.

Entering a start-up competition puts you in the running for the prize that comes with the top spot – this could be cash, investment or mentorship. However, the chances are you'll gain plenty of expert insight and make some pretty stellar contacts regardless of where you finish.

At The Pitch, we sift through hundreds of competition entries from hopeful start-ups each year. We also help universities and larger businesses manage applications for other contests, too.

Here are some pointers for putting together a knock-out competition entry for your start-up.

What judges look for in start-up entries

When scanning through entries, there will be certain criteria that shortlisters will be searching for.

Some will be specific to the competition, while other elements – like below – are more general. Consider them when you write your entry and you'll have ticked some big boxes for the judges right off the bat.

Show that your start-up is eligible

From the off, be clear about why you're a good fit. Check the entry criteria and read up about the competition to see who the judges are, what they care about and the kinds of businesses they're looking to support.

Size or industry might be a major concern, or perhaps there's an environmental or community focus. Mirror the language used in the competition's guidelines when writing your application, to quickly let your reader know that you hit all the criteria.

Have a clear one-line pitch

A lot of competitions will ask you to sum up your business in a single sentence or a tweet (280 characters), so be clear and concise.

Cover what you do, the problem you're solving for customers and why that matters. Make sure you remove all the jargon – if in doubt, get someone outside of the business to sense-check your explanation.

Demonstrate traction – even if you're pre-launch

It's important to show that your business has momentum; that people are interested in and engaged with your brand. Show the judges that there is a real appetite for what you're offering so that they can see your potential for success.

If you're already trading, you can do this by sharing any strong sales figures and highlighting any growth that you've already gone through.

If you've not made any sales yet (not all competitions require you to be up and running), you'll need to demonstrate your idea is viable in other ways. Look at your social media following and engagement rates, beta tests, or the results of any market research you've carried out.

Explain who is behind the business

An innovative and well-thought-out business idea can be impressive, sure, but without the right team behind it, how far can it realistically go?

In an application, judges want to see who's steering the ship, so make sure you talk about the talent and experience behind your business.

Think about how your team connects with the business concept too. The most powerful applications tend to come from start-ups who've experienced a problem first hand, so explain why you're the right team to be taking this particular idea forward.

Show forward planning

Think about why you're entering this competition and how you'd use the prize to grow and improve your start-up. Talk in your entry form about how the specific reward on offer would benefit your business and help take it to the next level – and what that next level looks like.

Show the judges or investors that you've mapped out the future of your business and know where you want to take it. This will give them confidence in you as a leader, as well as in your brand's longevity.


A smiling Black woman presents business stats on a whiteboard to judges in a modern office environment


How to stand out from the crowd

Sometimes, shortlisters will have hundreds of applications to wade through in a single day. It's easy for each application to blend into the next.

The key is to make yours memorable – here are some ideas for how.

Think holistically

The most impressive businesses aren't simply about financial success. Set yourself apart by talking about your company's mission, principles and values in several different key areas.

For instance, you could outline your sustainability efforts or describe the ways your company engages with and benefits its local community.

These details – the ones which show that your business is making the world a better place – could ultimately be what gives you the edge over another business.

Toot your own horn

There are no prizes for being modest in this game. So, set your humility to the side and get ready to shout about your achievements.

Won other competitions? Exceeded funding targets? Outpaced your original sales forecast? Tell the judges – no-one else is going to, after all.

In particular, go hard on the proof points. This is the evidence that proves your company's worth and potential. Think test sales, testimonials, customer surveys and your own relevant successes as a founder.

Invest your time

More likely than not, whoever is sifting through entries in these competitions and picking shortlists won't know you or your business. They'll be reading between the lines, trying to paint a picture of who you are and the way you run your company.

A rushed entry form that's peppered with typos will plant ideas in the judges' heads about your start-up, your commitment and your professionalism.

Show them just how seriously you take your business, how much time and energy you're willing to dedicate to its success, and how capable you are as a leader by submitting a polished application.

No one will be expecting dazzling writing worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, so don't stress if you're not a natural writer. Get someone else to read your form over before you hit send, to check for any errors or confusing passages.

Yes, this takes time. But if you save all your work, then you can repurpose and adapt it for other competitions, instead of having to write it all from scratch every time.

Apply for The Pitch 2022

The Pitch is a free competition that gives start-ups the support to grow and the platform to raise investment.

The competition is open to all start-ups, from side hustles to those looking to scale. Apply now and you could be in with the chance of pitching to a panel of investors at one of our regional semi-finals.

Find out more and start your application

Enterprise Nation has helped thousands of people start and grow their businesses. Led by founder, Emma Jones CBE, Enterprise Nation connects you to the resources and expertise to help you succeed.

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