By Anne VanderMey
FORTUNE -- The Rice Business Plan Competition is underway in Houston, where 42 hopeful entrepreneurs are going head-to-head for $1.2 million in investments and startup cash. A few former winners have sold their companies for big sums: "I'd never seen so many zeros," joked Nicholas Seet, the 2005 winner whose company went to Adobe (ADBE) for more than $100 million. Seet and a few other former Rice contenders talked during the competition about what they learned while pitching at Rice, and how those lessons have applied to running an actual business. Here are a few of their tips:
Be prepared for everything to go wrong
Technology often fails just at the moment you need it most, but that shouldn't faze the seriously prepared presenter. Last year's winner, NuMat Technologies, used a lot of videos, which are particularly prone to technical difficulties during a presentation. To make sure it all went according to plan, NuMat CTO Chris Wilmer says he went around to all the practice rooms beforehand to test the video equipment. A Rice judge remembers seeing a presenter who took it a step further and actually brought a stack of poster boards along bearing makeshift PowerPoint slides just in case the projector failed.
Sometimes you need to ignore the judges
"Don't take anybody's advice instantly as you receive it," says Jenny Corbin, CEO of TNG Pharmaceuticals, the 2011 winning team. Just because one judge says it, "it doesn't necessarily mean that that's what the audience is looking for." Instead, she says, "look for trends and follow trends, not the oddity."
Sometimes, it's impossible to take all the direction you get: "Eventually, the advice will conflict [with] other people's advice," Seet says. "And that's when you know you're where you want to be." He added: "Half the judges liked the name Auditude and half the judges hated the name Auditude. That's when we knew we were just right."
Don't get too attached to that business plan
A plan that goes over well at Rice may not be perfectly suited for the marketplace. "Judges are one thing, and customers are totally different, and you gotta listen to the customers," says Seet, who radically changed his business model after his victory at Rice. "Everything was wrong!" he says. Seet says he switched directions more than once: "You can't be so stubbornly married to that plan."
Business plans are notoriously subject to change between the classroom and the real world. "You might as well throw your business plan out the window," Corbin says. But, she adds, "Walking out of the door here as a winner, which is fantastic by the way, you've got the backing and the expertise to help you make that business a reality."
Connecting with judges and other teams is arguably the most important part of Rice's competition. "Winning isn't a guarantee of success and losing isn't a stamp of failure," says NuMat's Ben Hernandez. Just ask BlackLocus. The team didn't make the final round when they competed in 2011, but they picked up key investors at the competition and sold the business to Home Depot (HD) in 2012.
Business plan competitions are hard, entrepreneurship is harder
You must be fanatically devoted to your startup. "I thought that after graduation, being able to focus full-time on the business, it was going to get easier," says BlackLocus's Rodrigo Carvalho. "No! It just gets harder from there."
Pitching a group of investors gets easier, Seet says, because you're used to working a big room. And there are some pretty great highs. Andrew Smith, CEO of ATDynamics, remembers when his business went from having sold six models to logging a 3,500 order. "That was a fun day for me," he recalls. "The engineers went nuts, but I had fun."
Still, "for every amazing moment, there's a moment of 'Oh God, we're all gonna die,'" Seet says. "It takes a lot of chutzpah to continue and still be able to sleep at night and maintain the relationships that are technically more important than that big exit."
Choose your investors like you'd choose your spouse
Investing partners come in all shapes and sizes. Not all are created equal. "Just be very careful who you take money from," Seet says. "It's a relationship just like marriage." You should be in the same boat to either success or failure. "They need to be standing by your side," he says, "and that relationship doesn't happen with every investor."
Carvalho says he met two VCs at Rice who were pivotal to his company's success. "It's not just the money that you're getting," he says. "You should be looking for investors that can help you."
Some investors act like helicopter parents, while others allow more independence. "If you can find the angels that have built companies," Smith says, "and understand the volatility and the roller coaster [of entrepreneurship], those are phenomenal people to team up with."
Sharpen up those PowerPoint slides. The Rice Business Plan Competition kicks off in Houston with 42 startup ideas you wish you'd thought of.Apr 11, 2013 11:31 AM ET
Got a solid business idea? Need funding? The Rice University Business Plan Competition -- one of the richest and largest of such contests -- is accepting applications.Feb 13, 2013 11:55 AM ET
Behind the scenes at the annual contest for budding entrepreneurs.
By David A. Kaplan and Anne VanderMey
FORTUNE -- It may not have the ubiquity of Facebook or the scale of Wal-Mart, but NuMat Technologies someday could change the world just a little bit. At least that's what the audacious student entrepreneurs behind it believe. NuMat is a university spinout that aims to revolutionize clean tech by making natural-gas vehicles more MOREMay 17, 2012 5:00 AM ET
Finalists at Rice University's Business Plan Competition were given 60 seconds to pitch their business to an imaginary Buffett on Thursday. Out of the 43 pitches we heard, here are Fortune's favorites.
By Anne VanderMey, reporter
FORTUNE -- Hundreds of students, business leaders, and investors crammed into the Shell Auditorium at Rice University on Thursday evening to watch the Rice Business Plan Competition elevator pitch contest, arguably the most dramatic event at the MOREApr 13, 2012 5:08 PM ET
As plenty of budding entrepreneurs have learned at Rice University's Business Plan Competition, a solid idea alone will not win you much in praise, prizes, or, most importantly, investment.
By Scott Olster, editor
FORTUNE -- Sure, you may have a brilliant business idea that could very well change your industry, maybe even the world some day. But, as plenty of budding entrepreneurs learned Thursday at Rice University's Business Plan Competition, a solid MOREApr 13, 2012 10:53 AM ET
Ultraviolet cell phone disinfectants, bloodstain testers, and a brand new use for dry ice are just a few of the pitches at this year's Rice University Business Plan Competition. By Anne VanderMeyApr 10, 2012 9:35 AM ET
All 42 teams at Rice University's Business Plan Competition were given a minute to deliver the best business pitch they could muster to a panel of judges.
By Anne VanderMey, reporter
At least one team competing in Rice University's Business Plan Competition made $1,000 Thursday night -- in 60 seconds.
It was the competition's elevator pitch round at the world's largest student business plan contest. All 42 teams were given one minute to MOREApr 15, 2011 4:55 PM ET
From an answer to trash buildup in India to building a better, cheaper light bulb, here's a look at the 42 winning ideas that will compete for top prize at Rice's upcoming business plan competition.
FORTUNE -- What do an upscale men's barbershop chain and a vaccine to combat the pesky horn fly have in common? Both are among the 42 business ideas selected to compete in the prestigious Rice University MOREApr 1, 2011 1:54 PM ET
Budding entrepreneurs take note: more than $1 million in cash and prizes will be up for grabs at the upcoming Rice Business Plan Competition.
By Jessica Shambora, writer-reporter
From iPad apps to deal-a-day websites, it seems like everybody has a business idea these days. So why not put yours to the test, with the chance to win seed money to launch? More than $1 million in cash and prizes will be MOREFeb 14, 2011 12:59 PM ET
|Much faster Wi-Fi coming soon|
|J.D. Power ranks GM tops in quality for first time|
|Dow sinks 200 points after Fed hints at stimulus easing|
|Chinese billionaire buys 007's yacht maker|
|Fed sets road map for end of stimulus|