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3 Quick Lessons from the Startup World Series

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Last weekend in Houston, TX the best young entrepreneurs in the world gathered for the annual Rice University Business Plan Competition (RBPC), called the “Super Bowl and World Series for student entrepreneurs” by FORTUNE magazine. Since the competition began in 2002 it’s helped launch over 150 businesses that collectively raised $850 million. One of those businesses, Auditude, was started by SIVI co-founder, Nik Seet, and the company became the largest exit in the RBPC’s history when it was acquired by Adobe in 2011. The RBPC is not another academic exercise for “wantrepreneurs”; it’s the real deal for aspiring entrepreneurs.

The RBPC is also the spark that started SIVI. SIVI’s founders, Nik Seet and Ashok Kamal, met as RBPC alumni after returning to the event as sponsors and speakers. This year, Nik and Ashok also organized the inaugural RBPC Alumni Award as a way for former competitors to give back to the current crop. For more history and some startup advice watch the SIVI team present the Alumni Award at the RBPC’s culminating gala.

SIVI with Alumni Prize Winner, GestVision, from Yale University

Photo by the awesome Shau Lin Hon of Slyworks Photography

Events like the RBPC provide a real-time case study for startup success. Here are 3 lessons distilled from this year’s competition:

  • ABC (Always Be Competing) - When you’re at a competition, conference or informal event, always be on. That doesn’t translate to annoying people with your pitch or requests for a meeting; it means treat everyone like a potential asset and every situation like an opportunity to connect. Be alert and respectful whether you’re presenting, eating lunch or going to the bathroom (keep your hands to yourself!). A former RBPC company, Scan, loves to tell the story of how they were waiting in the lunch line when they met the girlfriend of the guy who led them to raising several million dollars. This year, BetaGlide, a team from India, missed the finals of the competition but still turned a $100,000 prize into a $1,000,000 syndicate by networking with investors at the RBPC.
  • Move The Crowd - When pitching your startup, explain it in simple, concise and, dare we say, fun terms. Nobody likes a complicated, mechanical or canned pitch. People tune out fast if you don’t keep the language short and relatable. Practical references and visual aids also help to rise above the noise. The Elevator Pitches at this year’s RBPC ranged from amazing to dud. The most memorable ones were clever, clear and clean. Everyone remembers the pitches featuring the coin flip,banana and spit cup (seriously). For better or for worse, pitches are like gladiator fights; entertain in order to win.

Are You Not Entertained?

  • Be Agile Without Being Wobbly - The more you present the more you get feedback. It’s critical to listen carefully and make adjustments. However, lots of feedback can lead to chaos, not clarity. The more people you speak to the more opinions – often contradictory – you’ll hear. To avoid whiplash look for patterns and listen most to your potential customers and the people who know your market.

Cheers to all of the 2014 RBPC participants and aspiring entrepreneurs everywhere!

Ashok Kamal is a social entrepreneur and co-founder of Bennu and SIVI. Connect with him on LinkedIn to discuss all things entrepreneurship, sustainability and fantasy baseball.

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