I enjoyed reading a recent Fortune article that provided a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the judges at a Rice University startup competition. It didn't hurt that my old friend Robert Winter was prominently mentioned!
However, I think it's hard for a reporter to truly understand the dynamics of a judging team. I've been a competition judge many times, and I've noticed a couple of patterns that would surprise most people.
1) The judges are highly likely to agree.
On stage, we try to put on a good show, and nothing entertains like differences of opinion. But backstage, the first words are often, "So I think it's pretty clear which team is the winner, right?" In 90% of the cases, the winner is a unanimous or near-unanimous choice.
2) The investing styles of the judges plays a major role.
A panel of angel investors will probably look at things differently than a panel of VCs, and vice versa. I'm very focused on short-term go-to-market, since as an angel investor, I need my companies to demonstrate traction so they can raise more money. A prominent VC that leads $10 million rounds will be far more focused on the big vision. On the other hand, all of us tend to agree, the team is the single most important factor.
3) We don't always give first prize to the team in which we'd most likely invest.
I've judged competitions where we deliberately avoided giving the prize to the most fundable team. Why? Mostly, it's a question of fairness. Pitch competitions can pit a bootstrapped startup against a funded company that's been around for years. It's not fair to judge them the same way. We also want the prize to actually make a difference--the funded companies that compete are like bullies who don't need the money or recognition.
If you want to know our true opinions, follow the money.
4) The judges probably know each other.
Some investors feel comfortable in front of a crowd, others don't. If you fit into the first category, you're probably a regular on the circuit. In most cases, I know at least a couple of the other judges already.
It's also the case that the chances that I'm going to work with one of the judges in the future is orders of magnitude higher than the chances I'm going to work with one of the contestants, and I act accordingly.
5) Ultimately, the process is fair.
Us judges aren't getting paid for our work, and most of us like to think of ourselves as good people. It simply isn't worth it for us to go along with any attempts to rig the competition.
Final thought: The judges at a pitch competition, like any investors, are likely to be wrong. The VC success rate is about 10%, and it's even worse for angel investors. Just because you didn't win, doesn't mean you won't succeed. Remember, Fred Smith got a C on the paper where he outlined the idea for FedEx!