How to create a startup contest
This year was my second time helping global technology consulting firm Capgemini build an international startup competition. Entitled Scrum7, it aimed at showcasing the best innovation has to offer in a rather specific field: sport-tech. This was inspired by the fact that Capgemini recently became Global Innovation Partner of Rugby Sevens, an international tournament that has seen rapid growth in recent years. The Scrum7 finale took place last week in Paris at VivaTech — France’s leading tech event — and it was quite a thrill.
Last year’s startup contest, on the other hand, featured a much wider variety of tech fields. Indeed, the intention of 2017's InnovatorsRace50 was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Capgemini group by showcasing the breadth of technological innovation today. And it handily succeeded in doing so: we received almost 1000 applications, from which 5 winners were chosen, each representing a subset of today’s innovation landscape.
Yet, despite obvious differences in design, many of the teachings from both contests were quite similar. Here they are, to be shared with anyone thinking of creating their own startup battle:
1. Sourcing is everything
Having startups apply to a contest, especially one that is backed by an established company, is not exactly hard in 2018 (or 2017). However, having the right startups apply, with a strong business case, proven traction and a good attitude, remains hard (and probably always will). Last year, because the scope of the competition was intentionally large, we resorted to a public call for entries, which expectedly brought many flawed or incomplete projects to our doors. Many more good ones applied, still, and that was obviously the essential part, but the selection process took more work — and more time.
Meanwhile, this year, startup sourcing was largely handled internally by Capgemini’s Applied Innovation Exchange (AIE) ecosystem, i.e. the company’s innovation labs. The thought process behind that choice was that a) the theme of the contest being more niche, it made more sense to directly target the most relevant companies; b) it would de facto prevent off-topic startups to try their luck anyway, as some had the year before. And so, 3 AIEs in Paris, London and San Francisco shortlisted the most exciting sport-tech startups in their respective markets. 2 of them were then selected to represent each country, one per competition theme — Performance and Experience.
Although that process implied less “sorting through the haystack”, it still required quite a bit of work from our AIE colleagues to essentially pre-approve each candidate.
2. Telling a story
A successful contest is one that generates engagement and enthusiasm beyond its immediate domain. In order to reach that kind of traction, one must find a way to create a thread, or a story, that will resonate with the contest’s audience. That may be harder still than finding startups: the Netflix generation is all but saturated with storylines and has therefore never been harder to satisfy — no matter how much money or resources you’re willing to throw at it.
In both contests I worked on, we were intent on creating a story and did our best to make it stand out. 2017’s journey was about helping working startups get to the next stage throughout the competition with the help of Capgemini experts. We organized various topic-specific workshops all over the world for our top candidates on legal, tech or communication strategies during a couple of months, which (again) proved a tricky task to grasp. The goal, though, was to provide concrete help for burgeoning companies which often still lack in one — or more — aspects of business making. Many startups told us they were surprised at how useful Capgemini’s experts advice turned out to be!
This year, with Scrum7, the story was different: because we had self-sourced candidates and because sport-tech was a very specific field, our finalists all already showcased a robust product (or solution) and business model. What they did not all possess, however, was a rugby-specific feature. So that was the journey they embarked on with us, first developing a feature that fit the game of rugby (and more specifically rugby sevens), then testing it out. In order to ensure proper testing conditions, we partnered with university rugby teams in France, the UK and the US. Our startup finalists went on to meet those teams and live-test their features with them, getting valuable feedback and insights on their work. There’s just no better way to know…
3. Going out with a bang
The last key element of a successful contest is its ending. You have to find a way for competing startups and audiences alike to find the experience compelling. Luckily, President Macron provided the perfect platform: 3 years ago, then-Economy Minister Macron fostered the launch of VivaTech, an international tech conference taking place every spring in Paris. In those few short years, it has already become the biggest of its kind in France. This gave Capgemini the ideal opportunity to showcase leading startups — and the battle to select the very best among them.
With InnovatorsRace50, we setup a finale event in a 300-seat conference room on the second day of VivaTech 2017. 10 startup finalists got 3 minutes each to pitch their startup, after which a jury of 8 executives, entrepreneurs and tech journalists selected the 5 winners live — and on Facebook. This was also made into a web series later featured on Youtube for everyone to get a sense of what had happened. The finale clearly was the peak of the whole contest, and I still vividly remember the subtleties of broadcasting judges’ scoring live (not an easy feat, it turns out: see Oscars 2017). The organizing team was about as relieved as the winners — and some of the other contestants — that the game was now over.
This year, we decided to go for something a little more unusual: because our theme was sport-tech, we replicated a rugby-style tournament over 2 days, during which the 6 finalists got to face each other in their respective themes. Another innovation was that the “matches” did not simply consist of regular startup pitches, but each second half had the contestants debate on a given tech topic. The resulting “tournament” was, again, broadcast on Facebook live, and, to give an extra layer to our presence at VivaTech, matches were intertwined with expert-driven discussion panels on tech, business and sports. By the end of the second day, we had our winners and, once again, the highly enjoyable feeling of a project coming to its rightful term.
There would be many more things to say about — and improvements to make to — these projects. The more experience you get in the field, the more you can find ways to fine-tune contest structure, audience experience or even topic relevance. Yet, I contend that you will always encounter these key elements in a startup contest — and should definitely keep them in mind as you build your own. Let the games begin!