Getting hold of free money in 10 steps / by Solveiga Pakstaite

How the hell are we going to pay for this thing?

There are several ways that you can fund your next greatest idea. First, there’s the age-old strategy of moving slowly and steadily until you can secure early revenue. However, this method is maybe not suitable if you’re developing a new product and need cash injections to build the product to enable you to sell it in the first place.

An increasingly popular way of getting cash in is simply going for an investment round and selling part of your company to an investor. The other way is called bootstrapping and is the route that I have been going down to develop our product, Bump Mark. This means that you apply for various pots of free money. Yes, FREE MONEY - it’s out there. Almost two years in, I still own all of the company and have been able to build a small team and crack on with some really exciting development work. The key, in my eyes, is to build as much value in your company first before selling a part of it. Here are the three main types of funds we have received:

  1. Competitions
    These are usually run by private companies such as Shell, Rolex, etc.

  2. Grants
    These are often offered by research institutes or accelerator programmes

  3. Match-funding
    This is the hallmark of government funding - usually much larger amounts than the other formats

I was no pro at applying for funding when I started but through working with people who are ace at this, I have picked up a few tricks. Remember, your idea is only as good as how you communicate it.

Here is my 10 step process I go through with everything we apply for:

1. Finding applicable opportunities

  • Sign up for newsletters with this information - this will usually be organised by accelerator programmes or sector-specific initiatives

  • Run a Google search once in a while with the obvious “startup”, “award”, “competition”, “prize”, “grant” etc. and also add some keywords linked to your project to find more specific opportunities

  • Queue all the opportunities you are interested in applying for in whichever task organisation tool (e.g. Trello) or calendar system that you use - include the prize amount, a link to the application and any notes. Set up a notification 1-2 weeks in advance of the deadline if that helps you.

  • Make sure you are aware of what the application involves (pitch video, lobbying for votes) and determine how long it will take to prepare.


2. Pick up the damn phone

  • Usually, there will be one or two things that you’re not sure how to interpret from the prize description. Don’t guess - clarify.
  • A call is far more effective than an email. The benefits are twofold:
    • You’ll get your answer much faster
    • You’ll get the opportunity to properly introduce yourself, tell the prize co-ordinator a bit about your project and to make them expect your application.
  • Making this personal contact may get you some insider information that nobody else has

3. Try to not leave it until last minute

  • Some grant bodies start reading applications as soon as they start coming in - some even reply to you before the deadline with feedback for how you can amend your application!

  • Some coordinators will look at a last-minute submission in an unfavourable light - “if they can’t even get organised enough to submit with time to spare, can we trust them with this wad of money?”

  • Let’s face it, it’s less likely to be your best work.

  • To avoid this, properly schedule some time into your calendar to write the application at least the week before.


4. Read the bloody mark scheme

  • Most prizes will have a pre-written criteria which they expect their judges to follow when selecting successful candidates

  • Some will make this mark scheme available - if so, print it and tick off each point as you add it into your application. Repeat important points if you must.

  • I like to even use the same subheadings as the mark scheme to frame my content - these poor judges will be reading loads of these things, so make it easy for them to find what they’re looking for

  • If there is no publicly available mark scheme - pick up the phone…


5. Don’t see the word limit as a target

  • You’ll make your life and the judges’ lives so much easier if you’re succinct with your story and what you’re trying to achieve

  • Can any complex concepts be explained with a diagram or picture instead?

  • Bullet points are good


6. Make it as evidence based as possible

  • Always backup your claims with stats - if it can’t be proved it doesn’t exist

  • Infographics are trendy for a reason

  • Don’t be general about what the money will be used for - break it down to specific costs and support those numbers with real quotes if possible

  • Show what you’ve done already and be clear with which milestone this prize money will help you achieve


7. The judges are only human - research them

  • Despite what I just said, the judges will get more excited about projects that include elements of things they are passionate about (even if they’re not supposed to)

  • Google search them, stalk them on LinkedIn, speak to your contacts that know them/have met them before

  • Also - speak to previous winners to get an idea of what the judges are looking for, and if you get to an interview stage, what they are likely to ask.

  • Be selective about what to reveal


8. Get a fresh pair of eyes on it

  • They will definitely see something that you don’t - give them the mark scheme and see if they interpret it in a different way

  • Ask them to tell you which bits can be cut - the less, the better

  • If you can, give it to somebody who doesn’t know much about your project - you might be forgetting to include something really key that seems obvious to you


9. Ask for feedback

  • Many programmes will send you feedback as standard and some will clearly state that they do not have the capacity to offer feedback

  • If neither of these things happen ask for feedback through the official channel

  • If they say ‘no’, try contacting one of the judges directly (but obviously be polite about it)


10. Repeat

  • One of the keys to getting as much free money as possible is to apply to as much as you can

  • Once you write a few applications, you’ll be able to recycle a lot of the content

  • When dealing with online submission application forms, don’t forget to save your answers into a word doc so you can file it

  • You could file the applications into topic specific folders such as ‘business plan competitions’, ‘engineering’, ‘cleantech’ as the focus between all of these will be rather different

  • Look into paying for a grant writing service - you then don’t have to worry about spending time on applications and you get more than you pay them!