3 lessons from the Harvard B-School business plan contest

I’m in town to judge the Harvard Business School Business Plan Contest. We held the semi-finals yesterday, narrowing the field of student teams from 85, to 10 semi-finalists. The winner will walk away with $100,000 later this month.

My fellow judges were an impressive group. They included venture capitalists form Polaris, Bain Capital, Flybridge, and Highland, and entrepreneurs from BlueMercury, HubSpot, Care.com, TripAdvisor and Trader Joe’s.

My panel judged consumer-oriented plans, including ecommerce, travel, dining and retail. Most of the pitches I judged were well-organized, polished, and thorough. A lot of the students were ex-McKinsey and Bain consultants, and they were particularly strong on strategic and quantitative analyses. But even the HBS students could stand to learn a thing or two about pitching in the real world. Here are two lessons in particular:

1)  Sell, don’t just inform.  Reading off of slides with dozens of bullet points and busy, number-filled charts may work fine in a consulting firm boardroom, but not at a pitch. We want to see more than just the facts. Tell us how you came up with your idea, and what inspired you. Show us your passion.  Bring your vision to life.

2) Teach us about your industry. Some companies pitched businesses in fields where the judges had limited experience, like airlines or restaurants. If that’s the case, educate your audience. Tell us the three keys to a successful restaurant chain. Explain why airlines tend to fail, and how you’ll avoid common pitfalls.

3) Big investments are not always the answer. Students coming out of business school are surrounded by venture capitalists. But some business ideas are better off bootstrapped. Some founders looking for million dollar seed rounds probably should be taking a different approach. They could consult on the side to fund the development of prototypes, use off the shelf technology at first instead of building their own, add founders with key skills instead of hiring employees, and get traction before seeking substantial funding.

Been to a business plan contest lately? What did you learn?

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