I attended the CSU Blue Ocean Collegiate Competition yesterday in support of four amazing companies from the CU New Venture Challenge: The Space Research Company, Native, NuBru Coffee, and BOOM Algae. It was an exciting event, with thirteen teams of collegiate entrepreneurs competing for a $20,000 grand prize. There were some wonderful pitches and many interesting businesses.
I found myself experiencing some cognitive dissonance during the event, just as I have every year at CUNVC. I don't get this feeling during demo days from Techstars, Mergelane, or Boomtown, and I can finally point to exactly what bothers me: Pitch competitions are essentially a zero sum game.
In Boulder's amazing startup community, one of the flavors of Kool-Aid that we drink is the "not a zero-sum game" concept. It's essential to having a successful, vibrant, and inclusive community. (For a better explanation than I can provide, read this Forbes interview with Brad Feld or read his book, Startup Communities.) Unfortunately, a pitch competition is exactly a zero sum game. We start with dozens of excited entrepreneurs in the Fall, mentor and teach them for months, and then in one day, we crush them, one by one, until only a couple remain to "claim the prize."
Why are we teaching these young entrepreneurs something that we don't actually practice ourselves? Having judged pitch competitions, I'd also like to point out that judges are asked to do the impossible. Which is better: Curing cancer or preventing head injuries? (Space Research vs. Change Composites). For that matter, is it better to prevent head injuries or improve the travel booking experience? (Change Composites vs. Native) The reality is that these are all good things, but they are apples and oranges. (Don't get me wrong - Native is a GREAT product with an awesome team, and their win was well-deserved. But, I'm pretty sure Devon could pitch returning to manual typewriters and get the crowd nodding in agreement.)
Instead, here's what I propose: Let's get rid of pitch competitions, and instead do "demo days." Yes, we may need to filter the teams down over the year to have a manageable final pool, but let's do it like it happens in the real world: teams get points for progress, for meeting with mentors, for delivering on key metrics. Then, let's run the final like a Techstars demo day. Have the top ten teams pitch (with Q&A) to a group of judges/investors, and let each judge distribute a share of the "prize money" to whichever companies she feels merit it. After that, have a public pitch to let the teams show off and generate excitement in the community. If we insist on a "competition," offer accolades for "most money raised," "best social impact," "mentor's choice," and "audience choice."
Awards are nice, but if we want to encourage and cultivate the next generation of entrepreneurs, let's treat them like entrepreneurs, and not basketball teams.
In any case, when someone asks me to run a collegiate entrepreneurial challenge, that's the way I'll do it.