Verified case study

How to run a fair start-up pitching competition

by Joe Kay | 5 October 2016

Client testimonial

“Enswarm’s Decision tool was a major contributor to the success of Business Rocks as we scaled up our annual event into the Manchester Central Convention Complex.  

We wanted to do things better than other pitching competitions, so together with Enswarm we set and published the judging criteria months in advance based on potential, not traction.  This meant that early stage start-ups had the same chance to win our £50,000 prize as teams who had already been trading for several years.

If we had not have had Enswarm’s digital scoring to keep our judges focused there would have been no way that we could have chosen the winner from our 80 start-ups so quickly and fairly. The Decision software took away all of the pain from running our pitching competition; we will definitely be using it again to run Innov8 at Business Rocks 2017.”

Jonny Cadden, Founder Business Rocks

Client profile

Business Rocks is an international tech, music and investment conference. In 2016 the event brought together 2000 founders, business leaders, VCs, journalists and community shapers from across the world to create a totally unique event. The event saw:

  • 2000 delegates over 2 days

  • 200+ tech investors

  • 300+ tech exhibitors

The event’s mission is to bring the biggest speakers in world tech to Manchester, UK and unite global tech clusters in the city.

The event builds international partnerships with universities, schools and libraries to stream the talks from the conference and spread the education to India, Africa and beyond.


Executive summary

Pitching competitions are a standard feature of technology conferences, yet decision-making can be biased by a judging panel’s subjectivity.

Business Rocks wanted to offer a better pitching competition (Innov8) to start-ups and judges.

They partnered with Enswarm. Using the tool ‘Decision’, they reduced scoring complexity for an impartial outcome to the Innov8 pitching competition.

Accelerating the decision-making process and improving the objectivity of the judging process saved time and built credibility with the start-ups involved.

Interestingly, Decision predicted the overall winner of three rounds of pitching at round one.



Business Rocks is a large UK technology conference. The 2016 Manchester conference featured Steve Wozniack (Apple co-founder) as the headline speaker, attracting over 2000+ founders, business leaders and venture capitalists.

As part of the conference, Business Rocks wanted to offer a pitching competition.

Some start-up founders are cynical about participation in pitching competitions, citing the subjectivity of the judging panels, and a tendency to focus on traction alone as the dominating selection criteria.

Business Rocks wanted to create an opportunity for start-ups to compete on the quality of their pitches against a range of clearly defined criteria.  

In doing so, they hoped to improve the effectiveness of the judging process and attract the best start-up talent to the event.


Enswarm help organisations make complex decisions.

In any group there are dynamics, some people talk, some people feel the need to dominate. Being loud does not equate to being right. Often the better-informed voices are lost in the noise, either through personality or group pecking order.

Enswarm’s Decision tool acknowledges the problems that people have when making decisions together. The tool provides groups of people a framework to help them make choices more effectively by removing cognitive biases and speeding up the process by focusing discussions.

The Decision tool does this by data enabling decision meetings based on the independent input of attendees and automatically generating reports to capture the entire decision process.

The Business Rocks 2016 Innov8 pitching competition involved 3 rounds with 80 start-ups competing for a first prize of £50,000.

The first step was to decide on the judging criteria and publish it in advance of the competition.

The Criteria were:

  • Potential

  • 3 Year Plan

  • Current Focus

  • Market Understanding

  • Team

  • Presentation

  • Use of £50K prize 

The structure of the competition was straightforward.

Round 1 gave 80 start-ups the opportunity to pitch for 5 minutes, with an additional five minutes for questions.

The judging for round 1 was carried out using the Decision tool. The choice of who went through to the next round was based on scores alone. Round 1 scores were calculated quickly across locations using Decision. There was no need to wait for scores to be compiled and calculated.

80 start-ups were cut down to 10.

The semi-finals and finals (rounds two and three) took 10 start-ups to three, and then down to the winner.

The judging process for these rounds involved a combination of scoring on the Decision tool and a judging review.

Judges were rotated around locations to bring balance into the process. Decision’s algorithms normalized fluctuations in judging scores, e.g. if a judge has a tendency to score high, Decision calibrates accordingly.

For the semi-finals and finals, Enswarm facilitated a data enabled judge’s meeting, where they presented a strong data set, which focused the conversation on qualitative differences. This helped the judges choose between start-ups where the scores were tight. The winner was unanimous.

This is similar to how Decision has been used for recruitment and procurement processes within organisations.


Decision predicted the winner of the pitching competition at Round 1.

The pitching competition ran to a high standard of fairness, thanks to the combination of the Decision tool, clearly defined criteria, and rotation of judges.

The accelerated decision-making method leads to a faster, more accurate judging process.

Long term, the data-driven unbiased process of the Business Rocks pitching competition will act as a differentiator from other start-up events, to attract the best possible selection of start-up talent.

Other competitions could learn from this approach to improve the fairness of their judging procedures using Decision.



Joe Kay

Founder and CEO of Enswarm. Enswarm's vision is to help humanity progress in a more intelligent way by removing the negative effects of human bias from teamwork. We do this by delivering simple, intuitive, digital tools, enabling people to make more creative, effective and transparent decisions together. We want to make office politics, groupthink and bad group practices, a thing of the past.


Media, Technology

Success factors

Makes the world a better place


Written in conjunction with Case Study Ninja.