Whether you're part of a business, or a business owner, there's still plenty of time to apply for a business award or two this year.
I’ve been a “grand finals” judge for both local and national pitch competitions and startup awards, and as someone who’s been in the shoes of both the applicant, and the judge, I wanted to share my thoughts on key things to consider when writing an awards application, and what turns judges on (and off) as they read through your application!
As a startup / small business mentor and provider of entrepreneurship workshops and programmes, I make sure that my mentees and attendees know that if they want the best possible results, it is never "Just do it" (sorry Nike.)
It's create a strategy, then execute it!
I hope this post can be used as an overview that breaks down the process and helps with your execution! Let me know if you have any further questions after reading it!
Why apply for awards?
There are a vast number of benefits that can come with winning an award:
However, benefits are not only limited to the award winner. Depending on the competition and the terminology used, being “nominated”, “shortlisted” or named as a “finalist” can also attract press, and raise your profile.
Reaching this stage of an awards process is public confirmation that you are among the front-runners in your field.
Once you’ve decided to go ahead, let’s put first things first.
Pick the right awards…
The awards that you decide to enter will play a big factor in your success.
Try to even the playing field for yourself by competing in the right arenas. Businesses vary wildly in their characteristics, so you’ll need to be savvy and take this into account.
If your business has been going for 6 months and you feel you’re going to strike it big, then focus on rising star, best newcomer, or “One to watch” awards in competitions that are aligned to your size, industry and company type.
If you’re a company of 5 people doing amazing work across a single region, don’t apply to awards that attract high-growth startups who have raised millions and doubled their headcount three times last year!
If you're a different type of business, trying to go toe-to-toe with companies like that is not a sensible strategy.
Know your strengths and weaknesses and understand where you can (and can’t) compete successfully.
If you’re an apple, you must firstly recognise that you're an apple, and then focus on competing with other apples.
Now you’ve started, go all in!
I’d suggest applying for multiple awards if you can. Once you’ve decided to put the effort in to make one application, applying for others will increase your overall chances of success.
It also allows you to leverage the effort you put into applying for the first award, so have a look through all the categories on offer, and see if there’s an opportunity to apply to more than one.
Award applications may be accepted at any time of year depending on the organiser, but February to June seems to be a particularly busy time with lots of awards opening and closing for applications during this period. This gives you a good window of time to get your head in the “awards headspace” and to submit several applications.
The first time we do something, we will rarely be at our best. As a result, you may have some regrets about your first application, BUT now you can take the lessons learned, and make each application better than the last.
If you only apply for one award, you won’t benefit from this phenomenon! You will have gambled everything on your “best worst” application.
Next, to get off to a good start with the judges, some context is useful!
Before launching into answering the questions you need to answer for your submission, take a step back and briefly explain what your business does, the problems it solves, and who it solves them for.
When applications lack this, for the judge it feels a bit like starting to watch a film after the first hour has passed! A little background information helps to tie things together and helps your whole application to make more sense.
Given that word count limits can be an issue, you’ll need to be creative to ensure that you’re able to include all the key points!
Errrm, cut the BS!
We have “highly engaged,” “satisfied customers”, “we’re an innovative company…”
On the surface these sound o.k., but in terms of substance, they offer little value or reason to give you a “tick” in the box and move you into the “shortlisted” pile.
Steer away from bland, commonplace language that says nothing very distinctive or exciting about you, or your business.
Judges want to see energy, enthusiasm, dynamism and personality! Remember that your application needs to stand out enough to make it onto a shortlist if you’re to have a shot at winning, so think hard about exactly what your USPs are and how you will describe your business.
Every entrepreneur has to work hard to keep the physical (or virtual) doors to their business open, and this almost always requires facing challenges, sacrifice, dedication, and creativity. Also bear in mind that good customer service should be a given, and not a bonus.
So, consider what it is that makes you and your business stand out above all the other great businesses that have also applied!
(If you’ve gone above and beyond, then give us the details… and if your customer service is truly exceptional, demonstrate this by explaining “how” and “why”.)
Proof, proof, and more proof!
Stats, revenue, reviews, testimonials… Whatever you do, don’t forget your evidence.
Invariably, winning entries tell a tale of success and are usually filled with so many examples, they simply cannot be denied.
Without this, applications fall by the wayside.
I strongly advise that you start collecting “impact data” as soon as you start your business and if you haven’t up until this point, start today!
Review what you’ve achieved so far, gather your data and commit to tracking it on an ongoing basis. For example:
On reflection, exactly how are you making a difference? What progress have you made?
You’ll need this data to understand how well your business is doing, and what it’s achieving, and judges need to see this too.
Next, you'll want to cherry pick the most impressive information and communicate this to the judges. If you can, weave all this impressive information throughout your entire application. (You'll also want to make sure any new “killer stats” that you uncover are also showcased on your website and in your marketing materials!)
Become a perfectionist
Perfectionism is the enemy of many an entrepreneur because it results in procrastination, so when I say perfectionism, I don’t mean the type that causes paralysis (otherwise you’ll never actually submit your application) BUT if you’re in it to win it, your inner perfectionist will make sure you bring your “A game”.
I started my applications some time in advance of the submission date, then put them down and picked them up again at least 20 times. Seriously!
I’d do something totally different, come back to them in a few hours and rip them apart (again.)
A hurriedly “fired off” application that would have benefitted from additional drafts and more time to improve it won’t do you justice. If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well!
Ask for feedback and consult the experts where possible
Ask for feedback from multiple people several weeks in advance of the final submission date to avoid stress, as people may not have time to respond immediately.
Choose people who are honest and “harsh, but fair”, have some knowledge of business and entrepreneurship, and are eagle-eyed and will pick up on weaknesses in your application.
Sending out my 2nd draft, I was told that the info I’d put together was impressive, but not engaging or compelling. I was also treated to a few choice analogies to explain the oomph that they felt was lacking.
So… it was back to the drawing board, where I spent time trying to figure out how on earth I could action their comments to improve my entries.
In summary, have I “walked my talk” and applied all this advice myself?
Yes! Here’s my story:
In 2021 I decided to attend training to better understand how to apply for awards. (I tend to come at most challenges like I’m studying for an exam. I immerse myself, read everything I can on the topic, buy books, go on courses or watch videos, then go at it.)
In 2022, it was time to take action and to apply the knowledge I’d gained. I researched many awards, and got a massive spreadsheet built which helped me to decide what I would apply for.
I am planning to update this post with a link to the spreadsheet I put together in due course!
What were the results?
I did well, but some final results are pending, so the jury is still out!
I applied for multiple awards with 3 different awards organisers and received either a win or a finalist result in one or more of each organisation’s award categories.
If you class becoming a finalist as a “result”, that’s a 100% strike rate across the 3 awards.
The outcomes were:
Was this time consuming? Yes, but it has been absolutely worth it.
The Small Awards, organised Small Business Britain announced that they had received a record number of entries this year, so I felt especially proud of making the finals in two categories. The great thing about the effort expended is that these results and organisations will now be positively associated with my business (and me) forever.
Best of luck on your awards journey!
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