3 Day Startup vs. Business Plan Competitions

The Sunday night after my first business plan competition was the same as any other MBA Sunday night. I went home and dutifully read cases in preparation for another day of class. The night after my second business plan competition followed suit. I had a pretty standard MBA night of drinking with other MBAs, only this time the setting was in the San Diego breeze instead of the ungodly Austin heat.

My energy and mood the night after participating in a 3 Day Startup was unlike anything I had experienced as an MBA. I tossed and turned in bed as the thrill of excitement and possibility coursed through my veins.  I could barely keep still, much less fall asleep. I felt charged up, renewed. As if my life had shifted in a new and exciting direction. Not having slept a wink, I bounded out of bed the following morning excited to continue this newly begun journey.

On first impression, students oftentimes confuse 3 Day Startup with business plan competitions. But as they begin the application process, experience the bootcamp, and ultimately participate in the event, they begin to understand just how different these two university entrepreneurship experiences truly are.

Business plan competition 3 Day Startup
Deliverables Business plan and pitch deck Functional prototype and pitch deck
Teams collaborate? No Yes
Pitch to and receive feedback from Panel of investors and entrepreneurs? Yes Yes
History 20 years 3 years
Attire Business Professional Zuckerberg hoodies

Business plan competitions are about exactly that — planning a business. In a post about business plan competitions, Steve Blank places business plans in the context of startups:

A business plan is the execution document that large companies write when planning product-line extensions where customer, market and product features are known. The plan describes the execution strategy for addressing these “knowns”….It turns out that’s a mistake.  A startup is not executing a series of knowns. Most startups are facing unknown customer needs, an unknown product feature set and is an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.

In contrast to business plan competitions, 3 Day Startup events focus on tackling these unknowns. The program revolves around testing the assumptions of a given idea for business. Do actual customers want to use the product? Do you have the right team to build the product? What are customers saying after they experience your product? Once you come up with a business plan, it does not change during the competition.  It does not evolve. 3DS is about rapid evolution and rapid prototyping of technology, business models, and market strategies.

The experience of participating in business plan competitions and 3 Day Startup events are worlds apart. As a participant in a business plan competition, you write a huge business plan in the months leading up to the event and simply pitch the judges 2-3 times at the competition. Each pitch is an attempt to advance to the next round and if you are the “last plan standing” you win cash prizes (the Rice University competition awards 1.3 million in total prizes). The pitches are usually standard investor pitches, although the MBAish nature of business plan competitions usually begets pitches with greater emphases on financial analysis and projections (aspects perhaps more valuable to an established company than the unordered nature of a startup). At the event, participants spend their time polishing pitches, sizing up the competition hobnobbing with other contestants, and delivering pitches to the judges.

Even though the events are called business plan competitions, the business plan part of the contest plays a lesser role than the pitches. You can have a bulletproof business plan and get nowhere if your pitch is weak. Weak business plans attached to excellent pitches can do quite well.

The 3 Day Startup participant experience has a much greater emphasis on creation and discovery: building prototypes, finding a product/market fit, creating branding, and so on. Another major aim of the event is to connect talent from different corners of the university. Students arrive at a 3 Day Startup event as strangers but leave as friends and in some cases, as cofounders. The bonds created between students in the fields of business, technology, design, law, and others is a big part of how teams achieve enough diversity of talent to execute successfully.

The 3DS experience has prolonged intensity. Pitching on Friday night is less about impressing a panel and more about a conversation between participants and mentors on the technical and market feasibility of a given business idea. Deliberation, criticism, and in-depth analysis ensure that the ideas chosen on Friday night capture the hearts and minds of the participants. The experience continues with talking to potential customers, acquiring actual customers, designing business models, creating prototypes, and much more. The sum of the work consists of pitches, prototypes, and feedback from panelists so that the newly formed businesses can take the first steps after the weekend is over.

The spirit of a 3 Day Startup event is collaborative — 3 Day Startup is not a contest. There is no winner. Or rather, to put it in little-league-baseball-everyone-gets-a-trophy terms, everyone is a winner. Certainly, some participants shine more than others. but the overall experience is rewarding for everyone. 3DS is about more than the companies that present on the final night; it is about the innovative teams that form because of the relationships they forged working together over the weekend. One of our most innovative teams connected at 3 Day Startup, but the idea for the company itself never progressed past Friday brainstorming pitches.

One benefit of both 3 Day Startup and business plan competitions is that a participant can repurpose the output of these events in other settings.  This idea is a big part of our philosophy of using the university as a vehicle to move your startup idea forward. Some students have participated in 3DS and used the learning and output of that experience to have success in other business plan or commercialization plan competitions. Some students have taken the opposite approach, participating in business plan competitions first and repurposing the acquired knowledge to become the rockstars at a 3 Day Startup. Both approaches reinforce success.

Another benefit of both business plan competitions and 3 Day Startup events is that participants get access to distinguished panels of seasoned entrepreneurs and investors. In an interesting post, Vivek Wadhwa implies that contacts and connections made at competitions might be more valuable than actually winning. We agree with this mindset and took a cue from competitions to make sure we arrange ways for participants and panelists to connect. We take this idea one step further by bringing in mentors throughout the weekend to increase these opportunities.

Your decision about whether to participate in a business plan competition or a 3 Day Startup should not be either/or. Your time at school is precious and these free opportunities* will not be available in the real world. Do both and reap as much as you can from each experience.


Shout out to Rob Adams, the man behind Venture Labs business plan competition.

* 3 Day Startup is always free.  Most business plan competitions charge an entry fee. Note that both events have opportunity costs (they “cost” time).

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