Alison Alvarez is the master of the business plan competition.
Her expertise grew out of necessity. When she and her co-founder, Tomer Bornstein, founded BlastPoint in 2016, they knew they had a winning business idea: leverage artificial intelligence to help public services, banks and car companies analyze their vast customer lists. In their estimation, most of the data tools were not built for salespeople or others who might actually profit from them. In addition, a pair of computer scientists knew their stuff – both had advanced degrees in Carnegie Mellon; Alvarez also earned a master’s degree in business administration from Tepper University’s School of Business.
But none of them had the financial resources. “You often hear about ‘friends and family,'” Alvarez remarks, referring to founders who maintain their friendships in the way of benevolent relatives. What happens, she wondered, “If you don’t have any, what do you do?”
Alvarez and Bornstein decided to raise the Pittsburgh-based BlastPoint through contests and grants. Alvarez saw this as something similar to scholarship applications, which she focused on as a student. She has funded scholarships for undergraduate and graduate degrees.
The strategy worked. In the last four years, the company has won four such competitions, ranging in size from UpPrize to 2017, which came with a $ 160,000 reward, up to a small prize of $ 2,000 in the 2020 GVS Labs AI Pitch competition.
“We were really good at it as a way to raise capital for basic things,” Alvarez says. “Like, we need a printer, let’s go to a quick lot competition,” referring to how she came in and won the Pittsburgh TiE. She notes another advantage in her financing strategy in business competition: “Investors appear.” At this point, she says, “it’s becoming less about the money, more about expanding our network,” which is especially key when Covid-19 has made memberships usually so difficult.
Here Alvarez shares some tricks she uses to win.
Ask to see the judging guidelines
Competitions often try to make life easy for their judges, who tend to be high profile, busy and donate their time, by awarding points. These are useful guides that explain how to weigh the benefits of companies in different categories when evaluating one application after another.
It does not hurt to ask to see these judges’ instructions ahead of time, Alvarez suggests. “Usually if you ask, they’ll just give it to you.”
“You need to know what laws you are held to,” she says. “And if you do, you will know how to adjust your presentation so that it addresses the whole of Rubikha.”
Moreover, she says, “they will also remember your name as someone who had the initiative to reach out.”
Small and true stories win big and vague ideas
Before joining UpPrize, the social innovation challenge funded by BNY Hotel, Alvarez and Bornstein used the example of a nearby watershed, whose manager wanted to understand how to balance the rich and poor component needs equally. Armed with real quantitative calculations of the benefits – and a portrait of the CEO of the watershed – Alvarez had a real global example. She then explained how the company has the potential to help both nonprofits and companies save money and increase equity across the country.
“If you could just make one person say you’re really saving them $ 100 or $ 1,000, it’s a lot more impactful than if you were to say, ‘We have the potential To save people millions of dollars, “she says.
Find a memorable hook
Even if you have real results and tick all the boxes of the winning pitch, there is still a chance that your application could get lost in the shuffle.
“Know that you are part of a very large group of people. You may be lucky if judges remember one thing about you,” she says. “But know that you have control over what that one thing is.”
Put something strong and memorable at the beginning, middle and end of your presentation – you never know if judges might be distracted at some point while you are speaking, so fence off your bets. The founders of Blastpoint summed up their mission by emphasizing the importance of data: “Data allows you to see where you are going and where you have been; without it you are operating without vision.”
Boil your business into one sentence
On stage, Alvarez does all the complex data analysis that BlastPoint performs in a clear and easy-to-remember sound: “It’s big data for a human brain,” she says. The idea is to facilitate your company during the judge’s hearings.
“If someone moves away from what you do, can he tell someone about your business at trial?” She says. “And if they can’t, you have to rethink what you’re doing.”