While nothing in life is free, winning a small business contest can be a good way to raise cash to help you grow your small business. There’s always the lottery, but your time is better spent on contests that recognize the success you’ve had to date and the potential for future success. These contest awards typically include cash prizes as well as free access to products and services such as software or advertising. And even if you don’t win, your efforts will often not go unrewarded. You’ll typically be featured for pubic voting on the sponsor’s website in an early round, and if you happen to make it to the finals, you’ll often get to pitch your ideas to high-power business people and venture capitalists—netting you expert feedback and valuable contacts even if you don’t win.
When considering small business contests to enter, start with local and regional competitions—as the pool will be smaller, and the audience will be more targeted. There are thousands of them each year, and the best way to find them is to enter “small business awards nomination” or “small business contest” along with your city/town, county, region or state into a search engine. (Try filtering the search results for the past month to find those that are currently accepting nominations.)
Additionally, if you know about a national contest with regional qualifying rounds, search to find one in your area. For example, the Small Business Administration (SBA) 2017 InnovateHER: Innovating for Women Business Challenge, that will award a total of $70,000 to three winners, begins with regional qualifying rounds sponsored by local SBA offices. These offices must submit finalists by May 17, 2017 so there are many local contests currently in full swing.
Another option is national small business contests that you can enter online. Many of these begin with a preliminary online qualification that is followed-up by an in-person competition for the finalists. Others are online only, and may consist of professional judging, popular voting, or a combination of the two.
Tell your compelling small business story to compete for:
- The FedEx Small Business Grant Contest
This FedEx sponsored contest will award the grand prize winner $25,000 cash and $7,500 in FedEx Office print and business services. The silver prize winner gets $15,000 cash and $5,000 in FedEx services, and 8 bronze winners get $7,500 cash and $1,000 in FedEx services each. The contest is open to all for-profit US small businesses with fewer than 99 employees (including online businesses) that have been in continuous operation selling a product or service for at least six months. The application asks for general information about your business, your logo and three other pictures, as well as an elevator pitch for your business (which can optionally be a video), your take on why you started your business and what makes it special, and your explanation of how you would you use the prize money to make a significant impact on your business. Judging begins with online public voting (you’ll get a voting badge for your website and social media posts to take people directly to your entry) to narrow the field to 600. From there judges will winnow the field down to 100 finalists, based on votes revived and evaluation of entries, each of which will be asked to submit a video that answers the question, “What is your passion as an individual and business owner and how is that passion reflected in your business?” The 10 prize winners will be selected from those video entries. See the full contest rules here, and the contest FAQ here.
ENTRY DEADLINE: March 29, 2017
Take a look at your competition here, so you’ll know what you’re up against and you can craft a killer entry. Then GO HERE to submit an entry for your small business.
- Tech.Co Startup of the Year Award
Startup businesses under 4 years old, with less than $4MM USD funding at time of application, and that have a live and viable product, are eligible to enter competition. This contest is a bit of a work in progress: The date for the finals has not yet been announced and the prizes have not yet been defined, even though the deadline for entry is April 20, 2017. But, last year they gave away over $250,000 in prizes to 5 winners, and all finalists got the opportunity to pitch their company to business experts and venture capitalists, so that’s a win regardless of the cash prize values. To enter, submit the online form to provide information about your business. Judges will select the applications that will be open for online public voting, and the votes will help determine the 100 Semifinalists. Those top 100 will be invited to a live competition at the Innovate! And Celebrate conference to take place sometime in October, 2017 in San Francisco, CA. Five finalists will be selected for a final pitch and then a winner will be selected. Read the contest FAQ here to get all the details.
ENTRY DEADLINE: April 20, 2017
- The Valpak Shop Small® Contest
This contest (run by Valpak with promotional partner American Express) requires that your customer nominate your small business for the prize by explaining why your business is special to them, how your products/services make them feel, and how your business builds strong relationships with them personally and with the community as a whole. The winning entry wins a $5,000 American Express Gift Card and the nominated business wins a $5,000 American Express Gift Card and a 12-month Valpak marketing campaign to help grow their business. Three second prize winners get a $1,000 gift card and the nominated businesses get $1,000 gift cards and 3-months of Valpak marketing. Winners are determined by a judging panel with scores allocated based on the content of the answers to the questions in the nomination form, with 50% of the score allocated to “Compelling nature of the story about what make this business special.” Your business can be nominated by multiple customers, so you increase your odds by getting as many as possible to nominate you. While there is no public voting component, all entries are posted online here. Read the full contest rules here.
ENTRY DEADLINE: April 15, 2017
- Miller Lite Tap the Future
Open to new US small businesses (operating for less than 5 years) with less than $5M in net income and less than $15M in net assets, the Miller Lite Tap the Future competition enables entrepreneurs to pitch their businesses in a competition to win one of five $20k semi-final awards or one $100K grand prize. To enter, submit the online application (which will include a request for financial information). Judges will cull those entries to select five semi-finalists in each of five regions for semi-final live-pitch competitions. The winners of those will compete in the live-pitch finals for the grand prize. See the complete rules here, the contest FAQ here, and view winning entries and pitches from last year here.
ENTRY DEADLINE: April 14, 2017
- America’s Main Streets Contest
Sponsored by STIHL, Inc., as part of their Independent We Stand initiative, a “movement” designed to promote independent business owners and the importance of “buying local,” this contest is designed to, “help promote the importance and strong economic benefits of these Main Streets and the small businesses that help them thrive.” The winning Main Street will receive $25,000 in cash and related prizes to help with revitalization efforts. (See a full prize list here.) Any US Downtown Improvement District, Business Improvement District, Independent Business District, Independent Business Association, Local First group or formal Main Street organization is eligible to be nominated, and any US resident can submit a nomination. You’ll have 300 words and one picture to make the case for your Main Street. The winner is decided based on public voting in combination with a judging panel. So, this contest is a great opportunity for you to band together with your fellow small business owners to get your community behind the Main Street district in which you all live and shop. Get the full competition rules here.
ENTRY DEADLINE: June 5, 2017
Take a look at already submitted nominations here to help you craft your entry and outdo the competition. Then GO HERE to submit an entry for your Main Street.
NOTE:All of these awards accept open nominations with no fee. Be very cautions of awards competitions that require (sometimes hefty) entrance fees– they are seldom worth your time and effort.
As you’ll quickly realize by examining the nomination requirements for the above awards, they can be as simple as completing a short form with a basic description, or can require pages and pages of information, and in some cases even require you to disclose confidential financial information. (If you are asked to disclose something confidential, make sure that it will be kept confidential by the judges.)
Additionally, in many cases you’ll be given the opportunity to promote your entry among your customers and social media followers. Make sure you allocate the resources to do this enthusiastically, as the publicity and exposure (and potentially new customers) you get may be worth far more than any prize itself.
If you are going to embark on an entry, make sure you put your time to good use. Pay close attention to the award criteria, and craft all of your answers to address them. Entering a Small Business Funding Contest, a recent post from Entrepreneur provides great high-level advice. These two older posts are also helpful: How to Win Business Awards – From a Judge’s Perspective provides helpful insight for helping your nomination form stand-out in what is likely a very large crowd. And, Nomination Promotion: How to Promote an Award Nomination provides advice on how to generate support for public voting portions of an Award selection process, as well as how to promote your victory when your small business wins an award.
Raising money to grow your small business is hard. Winning money to grow your small business isn’t much easier, but it can be more fun. It gives you the opportunity to engage with your customers and with your fellow small business owners to promote your business and your local neighborhood.
Don’t let modesty prevent you from nominating yourself for any small business award, or from asking your customers for a nomination or a vote. However slim you think your chances are, they are guaranteed to be zero if you don’t enter the field.
While not a small business contest, The LAY’S® Do Us A Flavor® The Pitch Contest will require your best small business product development, branding, and marketing skills to win the $1 Million Grand Prize. Register for free and you can create as many custom potato chip flavor entries as you like using the “Create My Flavor” tool. First give your flavor a name, then choose 3 custom ingredients to use (from a huge browsable or searchable list or create your own), then pitch your chip with a 600 word description, a custom photo, or a video you’ve uploaded to YouTube. You can optionally select color and image options for your bag. Once created, your flavor is live and can be viewed in the Inspiration Gallery. Judges will select 7 semi-finalists who receive $10,000 each, and 3 finalists. Public voting will determine one Grand Prize winner of $1 Million from among the 3 finalists and the two runners-up will each get $50,000. See the full rules here. Slight chances of winning aside, playing with the Create My Flavor tool is a fun and creative diversion. Give it a try now; bet you can’t create just one.
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