I’m not usually the kind of guy you find judging a startup competition. In the jungle-like ecosystem of entrepreneurism, I’m the worker bee, or maybe the howler monkey, but definitely the guy who likes to work on cool new stuff and talk about that stuff. Constantly. That’s why I write so much. I don’t want to be a writer, I just can’t shut up.
My point is, I’m not really into startups for the glamour (of which, as an aggregate, there is very little anyway).
I like it when products sell (not launch), and I like it when companies grow (not sell). I know the other parts are healthy components of the startup lifecycle, and I don’t dislike them, in fact, I’m still a big fan. But if you give me my preference, I’d rather be in a whiteboard meeting than a board meeting.
I’ve also been through the startup ringer more than a few times, in disparate circumstances. I’ve taken a service startup past the $1 million annual revenue mark, was number four at a company that later got acquired three times in one year, and have been on at least one public ride and at least one spectacular failure.
Thankfully, I’m batting over .500.
Finally, I can rarely say no when asked for help. This makes me a giant sucker, sure, but I’m hoping there’s some sort of purgatorial play there.
So even though there’s a part of me that finds judging an entrepreneur somewhat distasteful, I see the merit of it as an exercise to make that entrepreneur better and more successful. So I judge startup competitions for those aforementioned three reasons. 1) I want to bring an entrepreneur’s perspective into it. 2) I can do it. 3) I can’t not do it.
What I’ve learned after judging maybe a dozen of these competitions is you’re not really filling the role of the investor or the customer, you’re preparing the entrepreneur to face the investor or the customer. And in that, there are three things you need to do.
1) Do some research
It’s not cheating. If you can get any background or history on these companies ahead of time, go ahead and do so. This saves the judges from asking basic questions like “How do you plan on selling your product?”
And as for remaining true-to-life, any investor or customer that is listening to your pitch cold is doing someone a favor, and likely not interested in your product anyway. In my mind, the entrepreneur is there to sell, not to explain.
When it’s time for Q&A, I make sure I have some feedback to add to the questions. Sometimes it’s about the product, sometimes it’s about the pitch. But it’s always along the lines of whatever question I’m about to ask, never like “Those jeans are horrible! Have you applied for a patent?”
3) Don’t be a douche
Unless you’re actually in a position to be able to write a check at the end of the pitch, don’t be overtly negative. Especially with college or very early stage startups. You’re there first-and-foremost as a learning experience for when they go to pitch to real investors and customers.
Most of the time, when I hear abject negativity from a judge, it’s because they don’t know enough about the subject matter to be able to ask relevant questions, but they don’t want people to think that. Like Shark Tank. If you don’t have a question or constructive feedback, keep your mouth shut.
Can you tell I’m talking to previous judges I’ve worked with?
So there, now you know everything you need to know to judge a startup competition, provided you have a decent amount of experience as an entrepreneur.
And if you’re ready, let me know. Then maybe next time I can duck out and just have them call you to take my place.