How to Win Any Business Plan Competition, From a 4-Time Winner

Alison Alvarez is a master of the business plan competition. 

Her expertise grew out of necessity. When she and her co-founder, Tomer Borenstein, founded BlastPoint in 2016, they knew they had a winning business idea: Leverage artificial intelligence to help public utilities, banks, and automotive companies analyze their massive customer lists. In their estimation, most data tools weren’t built for salespeople or others who might really benefit from them. Plus, the pair of computer scientists knew their stuff–both had graduate degrees from Carnegie Mellon; Alvarez had also earned her MBA at the University’s Tepper School of Business. 

But neither had financial resources. “Often you hear about the ‘friends and family round,'” comments Alvarez, referring to founders bootstrapping their companies by way of benevolent relatives. She wondered, “If you don’t have those, what do you do?” 

Alvarez and Borenstein decided to bootstrap the Pittsburgh-based BlastPoint through competitions and grants. Alvarez viewed it as something akin to scholarship applications, which she had grown expert at as a student. She funded both her undergraduate and graduate educations with scholarships. 

The strategy worked. In the past four years, the company has won four such competitions, ranging in size from 2017’s UpPrize, which came with a $160,000 reward, all the way to a small $2,000 payoff in the GSV Labs AI Pitch competition in 2020. 

“We got really good at that as a way to get capital for basic things,” says Alvarez. “Like, we need a printer, let’s go to a quick pitch competition,” referencing how she entered and won TiE Pittsburgh. She notes an additional benefit of her business-competition funding strategy: “Investors show up.” At that point, she says, “it becomes less about the money, more about expanding our network,” which is key, especially when Covid-19 has made socializing normally so hard. 

Here, Alvarez shares a few the tricks she uses to prevail. 

Ask to see the judging guidelines.

Competitions often try to make life easy for their judges, who tend to be high profile, busy, and donating their time, by providing them with scoring rubrics. These are handy guides that explain how to weight companies’ merits in various categories as they evaluate one application after the next.

It never hurts to ask to see these judges’ guidelines ahead of time, suggests Alvarez. “Usually if you ask, they’ll just give it to you.”

“You should know what rules you’re being held to,” she says. “And if you do that you’ll know how to tailor your presentation to address the whole rubric.”

What’s more, she says, “they’ll also remember your name as someone who had the initiative to reach out.” 

Small, real stories beat big, vague ideas.

Before entering UpPrize, the social innovation challenge funded by BNY Mellon, Alvarez and Borenstein used an example of a nearby watershed whose director wanted to understand how to balance the needs both rich and poor constituents equitably. Armed with real, quantitative calculations of the benefits–and a portrait of the watershed’s executive director–Alvarez had a real-world example to look to. She then explained how her company had the potential to help both nonprofits and companies save money and increase equity, across the nation at scale. 

“If you can get just one person to say you actually saved them $100 or a $1,000, it has a lot more impact than if you just said, ‘We have the potential to save people millions of dollars,'” she says. 

Find a memorable hook.

Even if you have real results and check all the boxes of a winning pitch, there’s still a chance your application can get lost in the shuffle. 

“Know that you are part of a really big group of people. You might 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 powerful and memorable in the beginning, middle, and end of your presentation–you never know whether judges might get distracted at some point as you’re talking, so hedge your bets. BlastPoint’s founders summarized their mission by highlighting the importance of data: “Data enables you to see where you’re going and where you’ve been; without it, you’re operating without vision.” 

Boil your business down to one sentence.

On stage, Alvarez makes all the complex data analysis BlastPoint performs sound clear and easy to remember: “It’s big data for human brains,” she says. The idea is to make your company easy to talk about during judge’s deliberations. 

“If someone walks away from what you’re doing, can they tell somebody about your business in a sentence?” she says. “And if they can’t, you need to rethink what you’re doing.”