By Scott Olster
April 13, 2012

Sure, you may have a brilliant business idea that could very well change your industry, maybe even the world some day. But, as plenty of budding entrepreneurs learned Thursday at Rice University’s Business Plan Competition, a solid idea alone will not win you much in praise, prizes, or, most importantly, investment.

On the first day of Rice’s competition, which is widely touted as the largest and richest of all business plan competitions, a panel of previous years’ winners and finalists gathered to discuss what it actually takes to win the top prize. As it turns out, the ideal qualities in a successful business plan competition team are not all that different from those you’d want to see in any solid business group. Here are a few highlights that emerged from their conversation:

Razzle and dazzle them

Even a profitable solution to some of the world’s most serious ills can fall on deaf ears if the presentation falls flat. “We seemed to make the judges ‘ooh’ and ‘aah,'” said Jenny Corbin, CEO of TNG Pharmaceuticals, last year’s winning team from the University of Louisville. “‘Aah’ over the grossness of our product. And then we made them laugh.” TNG pitched a cattle vaccine that tackled the vicious horn fly, a pest that costs the cattle industry around $1 billion a year.

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So, whether it’s by showing off that shining personality of yours or coming up with a slick (yet meaningful) presentation, keep your audience on their toes.

Get to know your judges

In between your formal pitches, speak with the judges who have set aside the time to spend a few days and seriously consider your business ideas. “The most important thing in this competition is meeting the judges and being in that environment,” said Gautam Gandhi, whose medical device and patient safety startup Clearcount won Rice’s competition in 2004. “Before I even presented, I met every judge and they knew a little bit about the company.” Gandhi, who is a judge at this year’s competition, is currently at Google (goog), leading the tech giant’s new business development projects in India.

Competition judges are often leaders in their respective industries and even if you don’t go home with a prize in hand, you will still have several valuable contacts if you put in the effort to get to know them.

Take the criticism with a smile

Accepting criticism, especially in front of an audience of several strangers, is never fun. But that’s precisely what many business people do every day; they sell their ideas and their products, often to skeptical strangers. So get used to taking it like a champ. “Look at the critical questions from the judges as them giving you the opportunity to validate what you just said,” advised Darren Olson, CEO of RhoMania, an iPad wine menu app startup and a finalist at Rice’s competition last year. “Do not lose your cool.”

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But it’s also wise to bear in mind that each judge, as with any potential investor, has her own view of what makes a solid business plan, and judges may not always agree with each other. “At some point, the feedback [will] contradict. So don’t listen too much,” said Nicholas Seet, whose startup Auditude won the competition in 2004 (Adobe (ADBE) acquired part of Auditude’s business in November 2011 for around $120 million). ” You have to go and see for yourself what’s true and what’s not.”

Practice, practice, practice

The best way to cool your nerves and smooth the edges of any business pitch is practice, plain and simple. “It will totally replace all of the confidence issues you have,” said Seet. “Being comfortable with your material that you can do it with your eyes closed, will come across as a much more powerful presentation.”

It’s not only about the big prize

Winning is great, and at Rice, some teams go home with several hundred thousand dollars in tow. But landing a prize is not the only reason to enter a business plan competition. “The point is to launch a company,” said Bob Gillespie, CEO of InContext Solutions and a former Rice finalist. “It’s not to get your picture taken because you won a contest. The point is to have a viable product and grow a business. It’s not to win.”

One key to taking home a prize that was not mentioned outright at the winners panel? You need to deliver a crystal clear message, the kind of pitch that judges and potential investors can not only understand but believe in as a viable business concept. You can put on a great show and get some laughs from your audience, but if you don’t communicate what you are trying to sell and how you are going to sell it, you are just a player on a stage, not a business team. Judging from the performance at the practice-round presentations today, plenty of finalist teams have their work cut out for them.


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