The Hustle

Five Things I Learned from MN Cup

Entrepreneur Jess Schaack takes us behind the scenes at the largest statewide startup competition in the country.

Five Things I Learned from MN Cup
Patterned light bulbs by Relamp. (Photo courtesy of Relamp)

When I entered the MN Cup back in March I didn’t fully know what I was getting into.

I had launched my decorative light bulb company Relamp only weeks earlier with my husband Rob and friend Nick Nobbe. We spent almost a year developing our Printed Light Bulbs and were just beginning a market test to prove the concept. We had patents pending, five press mentions lined up, 20 happy customers and big dreams to become the stylish alternative to the classic filament (or Edison) bulb for consumers who love home décor.

The seven months that followed very busy growing our business and participating in the MN Cup—sometimes working on one at the expense of the other. There were highs and lows, and an incredible amount of work. Now that it’s complete I can tell you it was all worthwhile—even though we finished just outside of the prize money.

Here are five things I wish I had known before I entered:
 

1. Business competitions are a little bit like beauty pageants

You know those movies where a pretty girl decides on a whim to enter a beauty pageant only to realize she is up against experienced and savvy contestants? For a chance at winning she must work twice as hard, learn fast and undergo a fundamental change in her approach. That about sums up my experience.

The competition is different for every team. Younger startups may attend every event and be creating their business plan, pitch deck and video from scratch. More mature startups have most elements ready and simply show up to pitch. Most are in the middle. Know where you are and get started on the rest.
 

2. Startup is a vague term

The only rules for the competition are that the business must be based in Minnesota and make less than $1 million in revenue. There are no rules for years in business or amount of funding raised. The result is that teams competing in the same division are often in very different stages.

We were up against two experienced teams with several years in business, high revenue and investors. One had a few million in funding and the other went through a top accelerator program. While it was intimidating, these factors don’t always guarantee the outcome and we learned a lot from them.
 

3. It’s very subjective

Judges have a tough job. They are tasked with choosing the most innovative startup idea based on opportunity, progress and plan. This sounds simple until you consider the various stages, industries and missions of the companies. Once each judge selects their favorite, they must reach consensus with a group of 12-25 peers.

Our general division judges voted based primarily on progress, which resulted in our 3rd place finish. In other divisions an emphasis on opportunity or plan allowed younger startups to take the prize despite more established competitors. In the grand prize competition, where division winners complete, a non-profit competes against a tech company and food brand. Bring your best and be proud of your effort.
 

4. Everyone is in it for different reasons

It’s not all about the $50,000 prize money. The MN cup is many things – startup advocate, business education, mentorship program, community of professionals, local investor hub and competition. As you progress through the rounds, you feel the shifts and start to see how it all comes together.

We entered for the experience and chance of prize money. Some teams were looking for expertise to help them launch their company, overcome a challenge or brainstorm new markets. Others used the platform to find investors for their next round of funding. It can really be what you make it.

The MN Cup volunteers, including judges and mentors, were there for reasons that ranged from wanting to help the entrepreneurs, networking, living out their Shark Tank dreams or to find companies to invest in. This is simply good to know – and sometimes entertaining to watch!
 

5. Everybody wins

Being a part of the MN Cup really is a big deal. If you are lucky enough to make it in, your business will not only undergo a healthy audit through the various rounds of competition, but you’ll immediately be on the map for entrepreneurs, accelerator programs and investors on both a local and national scale. You will get emails, event invites, meeting invites, LinkedIn messages and press interest. These could all mean huge things for your business.

Through MN Cup we refined our business, met amazing mentors who are now on our advisory board, learned how to pitch for funding (when we want it), created a powerful brand video, met awesome entrepreneurs who are now friends and were introduced to contacts for some of some of our dream customers to whom we’re currently talking to. We’re so grateful to have been a part of it.

Good luck to those of you who will be entering in the next competition! Entries are due April 2019.

Jess Schaack
Founder/CEO
Relamp

Jess Schaack has a business degree from City University London and worked for iconic brands in cool cities before living out her startup dreams as Founder/CEO of Relamp. She had her light bulb moment when she realized it was the only home décor element she couldn’t get excited about. So, she and husband Rob invented the printed light bulb to make a statement with the lights on and off. Learn more at relamp.com.

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