Rising Stars 3.0: ‘Tech founders can apply today to compete online from anywhere’

Kane Fulton, October 13, 2020 4 min read

Esme Caulfield is the brains behind Rising Stars, our competition that seeks to find the very best early-stage digital tech startups. Reimagined to help founders during Covid-19, Rising Stars 3.0 returns as an online competition in 2020 – and you can apply today.

Having hit the pause button on the competition’s energetic live events, Esme is confident that going virtual will make it even easier for companies based anywhere in the UK to benefit from the profile raising, connections and prestige that accompany being crowned a Tech Nation Rising Star. We chatted with Esme to find out why it’s an opportunity that’s too good to miss.

In a nutshell, how does Rising Stars work this year?

Esme Caulfield: As Rising Stars is now an online competition, there will be no live events or requirement for companies to travel. Don’t worry though – we won’t be asking anybody to sit through a four-hour Zoom call! That’s not what we want for the Rising Stars experience. Companies can still apply through our website, and successful ones will be asked to pitch to our judges virtually in private. Those that progress will receive online pitch training and coaching to help them in the semi-final. We have different judges for each stage of the competition; they’re based from all over the UK and are made up of tech community leaders, entrepreneurs, and investors – including Playfair Capital, SFC Capital, and Praetura.

Why should companies apply for Rising Stars 3.0?

We’ve thought hard about how we can give our Rising Stars something with permanent value. We want to give companies at each stage of the competition exposure and raise their visibility. We will be announcing our Regional Winners in December – spotlighting a different region each day, and supporting the announcements with press releases.

For our 20 UK Finalists, we will be building an online platform to showcase them – a kind of virtual stage that’s more permanent – where people will be able to get a feel for our companies. It will feature two videos recorded by each of our 20 semi-finalists, with the first being one of their pitch and the second a ‘meet the founder’-style interview.

We chose those formats because the former is a great way to find out about a business, and the latter is useful for learning about its team. That’s not something we were previously able to achieve through placing them on a stage to pitch for three minutes. Hopefully we will see a much better picture of who the founders are and what drives and inspires them.

Those videos will sit next to judges’ feedback on the platform and we’ll add a link for visitors to make contact. We will use it to give founders maximum exposure, reaching out to VC firms and other useful contacts on their behalf – and obviously they can use the platform to market themselves. It will be especially handy for investors who will be able to check out companies in certain sectors and niches.

We’re also going to hold a winners’ showcase at the end in the form of pre-recorded interviews. We’ll also announce the winners of our sector and diversity awards, which will see our judges talk about why they chose our winners.

Our 10 Rising Stars 2.0 winners collecting their awards

So, it’s especially one for companies looking for exposure?

We know that people take notice of our Rising Stars semi-finalists and winners, who we can guarantee will get attention from participating. Last year, our Rising Stars 2.0 companies received more than 30 pieces of regional and national press and more than 3,000 people read each of our announcements. Another addition for Rising Stars 3.0 will be our VC office hours event that will see founders get four 15-minute meetings with various VCs in an hour. Those are based on general expertise and advice – there’s no pitching involved. It will be an opportunity for people to grow their network and receive decent honest and objective advice.

How do you find companies for the competition?

Our Entrepreneur Engagement Managers (or EEMs) are a huge help in finding companies from across the UK; they are critical to the competition’s success. We have data and our pipelines, but the EEMs work tirelessly to find and develop relationships with founders. They have local knowledge which helps when finding companies that are not based in big cities or – before Covid-19 – coworking spaces.

How do you ensure that Rising Stars is a diverse competition?

Rising Stars has valued diversity since day one, being inclusive of underrepresented founders from all different backgrounds. Two years ago we built the competition to be regionally focused, and last year 90% of its competing companies were from outside of London. I’m proud of the fact that 40% that entered were female founded. Our Rising Stars events have always been amazing, but they were attended by a relatively small number of people. Being an online competition means that founders can compete – and be discovered by people  – from anywhere.

Can you tell us more about the pitch training?

It will be provided by Sunderland Software City, who are an amazing partner to work with; they have just been nominated for the People’s Choice Award as part of the North East Dynamo awards. They’ve already been delivering virtual pitch training for enterprises, so they have a great handle on what they’re doing. The nature of the training will change this year; before, it was about how you would create your three-minute pitch and engage with the audience. Now, it’s going to cover how to craft a good pitch remotely and deal with the fact that, when you’re in a virtual room, you don’t have that immediate audience feedback.

Why does the application form ask ‘How has Covid-19 impacted you’?

One of the key things we are looking for is market traction. That may look very different now to what a company imagined it to look like a year ago. We want to give founders the opportunity to talk about how Covid-19 has impacted them – whether that’s positively, negatively, or not at all. When we talk about traction, it’s not just about revenue – it can be user growth, developing your team or product. It can have many different meanings.

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