I often find myself on panels judging startup competitions for things like hackathons, Startup Weekends, Startup Bus, Startup etc. etc. etc. I love these things. The energy, passion, excitement, and cool stuff I see is inspiring. I end up back at the office on Monday feeling like I’m 22 again and ready for anything. But on that final day, that sweet kiss good night: the judging, if done poorly, can ruin the spirit of an entire event in the final pitches.
Startup competitions are not the same as real startups. Obviously. I do actually know a bit about real startups. I’ve started a few myself, invested in six or seven that have been successful, and sat on the board for dozens of others. After your first few, you start to get a feel for what you’re looking for. I also get a lot of in person pitches these days, something that is fairly new to me (mainly because having money is fairly new to me too!) In these pitches I look for the same couple of things that anyone else would: Market opportunity, team quality, competition, technology, and what else I could bring to the table (other than just cash.) But judging whether to invest in a company that someone has spent a year on is very different from judging a company built in a three days.
The problem is that a lot (but not all) startup competition judges I’ve sat with on panels don’t seem to know what they’re doing. I’ve seen a lot of arguments in the deliberation rooms between judges, often slinging their egos around more than their expertise. Sitting on a tech startup judging panel with “pillars of the community” who know sweet-all about technology is often an exercise in futility. So I figured I’d rant a little about what I see people do wrong, and then offer some suggestions.
Judging Startup Competitions: The Clowns
Every competition I see judges trying to show off how much they know. Being a judge is an honor, I get it. It’s also fun. But that doesn’t mean that you have to start every sentence with “Well, I’ve actually done this exact thing before, and let me tell you what I know…” We all know you’re awesome; we read your bio on the competition’s page. Nice 80’s headshot by the way. Now show a bit of class and let the stars of the show be the ones who did the work. You’re not Gordon Ramsay, and no one thinks you’re cool because you’re so tough.
If you don’t understand how something works, it’s fine to ask. Not everyone is going to be there because they’re a techie, and there is clear value in a multitude of expertise. If a competitor missed a crucial point in their pitch, it is totally fair game to prod. However, you need to listen. I cannot tell you how many times some teenager has pitched something pretty cool, and heard a judge ask them a question that was directly addressed in the presentation. We know you’re a big deal, but stop reading your American Express wine club email, and listen to the poor kid who hasn’t slept in three days for your entertainment.
Some salient advise is highly recommended. But a lot of what I hear is asinine. I’ve heard judges tell pitchers that they should dress better, or stand up straighter, or that they need a better logo. Seriously? This isn’t pitch practice – stop focusing on trappings. Let’s see YOU build something worthy of showing in a few days, built with a team of strangers, with no pitch coaching, and then let me criticize your pronunciation. Remember, these people aren’t asking for your money. They want to learn how to do this. Point out positives, approach glaring negatives with a bit of grace. Be someone to be looked up to, and don’t be a bully.
This one I just don’t get. In most of these competitions you’re dealing with people who are just dipping their toe into the entrepreneurial pool. The last thing they need is some slick-haired jerk, telling them their model doesn’t accurately take into account carried interest. I know you’ve gone to the trouble of wearing a suit to a college auditorium on a Sunday, but try and inspire people for Steve’s sake. Obviously this depends on the type of competition. If it’s a six day event, and “business people” are involved, you should expect nonsensical spreadsheets, but you wouldn’t take them seriously without doing the math yourself in a real startup, why would you in pretend one?
Big Boy Comparers
If I hear one more startup judge ask “What happens if Google decides to compete with you?” I’m going to tear up their Louis-Vuitton padfolio. The answer to this question is “What would YOU do if Google started competing against YOUR business?” Maybe don’t be that harsh, but the point is valid. The whole idea of a startup is to do something new, interesting, and competitive, with little to no resources. Microsoft don’t want to launch a tiny experimental company to see if it works – their margins need to work at their scale TOMORROW; not build a market over a few years. This is why big companies wait a while, see if something is successful, and then just buy the startups rather than gambling on their own.
Ah, my favorites. These are the wombats that assume that everything done in a competition needs to have an immediate value to the real world. This might be partly the fault of the competition’s organizers not setting expectations. Not all hackathons or startup competitions are actually about building real companies. The participants are not looking for investment (although they might think they are.) These are safe places to learn about how passion, teamwork, and resourcefulness can produce something beautiful in a short period of time. It gives newbies a way to gain insight into the startup process without the risk. Would you take your actual billion dollar idea to a Startup Weekend because you want to find a team of co-founders? That would be like using Tinder to find a house keeper. Give credit to a team trying something interesting. If it’s a non-profit, be happy. If it’s just fun and clever, that’s OK too. This isn’t Shark Tank. You’re not Mark Cuban.
Judging Startup Competitions: What to do
So now that I’ve told you what NOT to do when judging startup competitions, let’s look at some things that you should do.
Stick to the criteria
Often competitions have a theme or several judging criteria. Use these honestly, but don’t take them as gospel. You don’t have to give first place to the healthcare game if the theme was medical devices, but if it was really good, take that into account.
Be honest, but don’t be mean
You are a judging a startup competitions for a reason. Someone has to win. That doesn’t mean you have to crush someone’s dreams. Preparing them for “the real world” is the job you take if you are going to put your money where you mouth is, and invest. If the idea is terrible, you can simply say “Thank you” and then ask some questions that will show them the shortcomings. Let them work it out for themselves, or talk to them privately after the competition. You don’t have to tell them they’re going to die poor an alone, or publicly humiliate a junior school music teacher for trying something new.
Keep in mind the time frame
“This is incredible given your time constraints” is one of the nicest things you can hear from a judge. If you really are worthy of being a judge, you should have some concept of the level of effort that went into building something (unless you were brought in as the finance guy, and then the organizers made a mistake.) Don’t expect to see a startup with enterprise customers if they just launched earlier that Sunday.
Judge what has been built
Try and focus on what you can see. Usually this means the demo. There are competitions where the final product is the pitch itself, but I don’t get invited to those.
Judge the team effort
Keep in mind that most of these people only met each other a few days before the pitch. If things seem a little disjointed, that’s because they are. This is most likely the last time any of them will ever see each other. If you see a particularly strong team, give them some credit.
Be weary of pre-built teams
As a counter to the last point, know that any team that came in together. If they’ve worked on their idea outside of the competition that is called “cheating”. At the very least, it’s not fair to the rest of the teams who signed up to learn something new. My immediate reaction is to give them an honorable mention, and then go and talk to them afterwards if the idea is really good (daddy still needs companies to invest in.)