Around this time of the year, social media feeds tend to fill up with pictures of smiling founders and pictures of naff carved glass paperweights as the business awards industry gets chugging.
There are a lot of cynics, sapping energy from everyone with their bitter complaints about how pointless awards are. Like anything in life, it isn’t black and white, there are significant downsides, but those cynics would do better focusing on helping people rather than criticising everything they’re not involved in. I’ve seen a lot of founders gain a great deal from awards.
Some of the founders walking up to the stage won’t know how they’re making the next pay run. And will be holding back the tears when they’re being highlighted as a winner when they feel like the biggest loser. Collecting an award on the Thursday night and laying people off on the Monday morning.
There are some bad awards. Some of them are easier to spot than others: tickets costing £100s, an entry fee, no judging by respected experts, no credibility to the organising group. Generally it pays to do your research, and save sinking precious cash into something which is going to be an instant disappointment.
There are three reasons I’ve seen first hand that justifies taking awards seriously, and one big reason to not:
More than anything else, being nominated for an award, and winning one, helps create momentum. If there’s one thing I’ve seen that new companies and founders need more than anything else it is this. A sense of making progress, a sense of moving forward, a sense that they’re on the right path can make a big impact. Of course, if the founder isn’t savvy, this validation that they’re on the right path might be a false positive. And I’ve seen a lot of that, too.
This momentum won’t land you investment, but it might get you the meeting. We’ve seen increased urgency in the weeks following an award win, or some recognition.
That momentum helps with one other fairly significant thing: recruitment. Recruiting is a huge barrier and challenge for startups, and not just because of skills shortages. Joining a startup is a pretty foolish thing, chances are you have no job security, it might affect you getting a mortgage – there are plenty of factors. But by winning awards and getting the headlines it can help others realise you’re moving in the right direction. This stuff shows that others think you’re serious, and it can have a big influence on getting new staff to buy into your mission.
Sorry for using such an icky word.
I was on a judging panel for an award once, and one of the companies shortlisted mentioned how being shortlisted in a previous year had led to a national distributor taking them on, even though they didn’t win the main award. If it’s a credible award, you don’t know who might be watching. It isn’t just customers, the raised profile can lead to stacks of other opportunities.
For me, it got me onto influential boards and steering groups, and into other rooms that helped us to put forward our plans and ambitions. This wasn’t the original desired outcome, and it wasn’t just winning an award, but it all contributes.
But there’s a downside to that exposure. You might have just put a big target on your back for competitors or those cynics. You might not have chosen to be placed on the pedestal, but now – here you are.
There’s another thing I’ve seen which maybe isn’t the first thing you’d think, but is a big factor. Being shortlisted for an award can be an opportunity to bring along the friends and family who have made sacrifices in their lives so that you can pursue your vision.
Having a supportive network around you is important for business – but you always need friends and family who know you – when you’re at your best and worst. Those who pick up the kids when you’ve got an urgent client meeting, who get you to turn your email off at midnight, and who understand if you need to cancel your summer holiday at the last minute because “something has come up”.
A lot of people talk about the sacrifice that founders make, it’s usually their families around them that make the greatest sacrifice.
There are stacks of other upsides, being able to learn about and meet other shortlisted companies, finding ways to collaborate and trade, and just having a night out with the team to say thanks. A good awards night doesn’t feel disappointing if you don’t walk away with the big prize, because there’s stacks more to celebrate and value from the evening.
Be selective over which awards to enter – what’s your objective? Just to get some recognition? Don’t bother. Only put energy into the ones which will help you to achieve something, by getting in front of the right people, or evidencing your credibility.
But one big reason not to enter awards: don’t believe the hype. There are plenty of companies that have won awards and gone pop within months. Don’t think an award is validation. Don’t do it for the ego boost, and don’t slag off the other businesses in your category if you’re not successful. The thing about business awards is that almost every other shortlisted person has had to give something up to be there. It might have been easier or harder for them, but that isn’t important. Life isn’t Britain’s Got Talent, you don’t get sympathy points.
Finally, awards don’t put cash in the bank. All the opportunity in the world might present itself in that moment, but you’ve got to put in the work to take advantage of it. If your number one priority right now is to focus, all of the distraction from something like this could be fatal.
Make your own mind up, awards aren’t compulsory, and not winning one doesn’t mean you’re not worthy. But at the right time, winning that certificate might just be the ticket.