Why I’m throwing my hat in the Venture Madness ring again this year.

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Anyone in Arizona’s startup community knows that we have an electric entrepreneurial scene going on here. From ingenious new ventures to whipsmart founders to experienced investors, there’s a reason one VentureBeat article said, “Arizona is becoming the next hotbed of startups.”

As a Phoenix startup founder on my second business, I’ve seen the rich potential for local entrepreneurs. One especially exciting opportunity is Venture Madness, the competition presented by Invest Southwest and Arizona Commerce Authority. On the surface, it’s 64 emerging companies competing against one another March Madness-style for $100,000. But its value goes way beyond that.

I know because I participated in 2014. And even though my company, Iris, didn’t win, I’m applying again this year. For one, Venture Madness connects investors with the strongest young startups around. It puts a spotlight on entrepreneurs who are turning inventive ideas into promising young businesses. Not only do those founders get much-needed visibility, they get an education in what matters to the investment community.

They also get an education in their own worth. Make no mistake, competing in Venture Madness takes grit. It’s a grueling process and you’re going up against founders who are smart, committed and tenacious. Competing tells you if you’ve got what it takes to make it – and since the criteria centers on demonstrating “unique value and early market traction,” you’re forced to evaluate your startup’s caliber with ruthless pragmatism, rather than starry-eyed optimism. After all, you’ll be judged by experts: industry leaders, top executives and investors who’ve seen it all.

You’ll look at your startup with a new perspective and ask yourself questions like:

  • How is my value differentiated from competitors?
  • How am I solving this problem better than anyone else?
  • Am I building the right company culture?
  • Do I seem confident and prepared?
  • How could my pitching skills improve?
  • What’s the investor’s point of view and how can I adapt my pitch accordingly?

In the end, Venture Madness isn’t about winning a big cash prize. (Though don’t get me wrong, $100K is a sweet prize pool and a welcome helping hand for startups.) It’s about lighting a fire under founders and pushing their business into the next phase of development. It’s about sparking some well-deserved recognition in the local community.

But mostly it’s about cultivating a network of valuable and instructive relationships, from investors to advisers to mentors. Venture Madness opens a door, regardless of how far you make it through the process. And given that every founder is on a lifelong learning curve from the moment they decide to launch a business, that’s something no AZ startup should miss out on.

—Aly Saxe, CEO, Iris PR Software