JUDGES’ FEEDBACK: 2023 ENTRIES
It never fails to impress the Judges that the bar rises year after year - and this year was no exception. The calibre of the best entries once again made judging them both more challenging and more rewarding.
You don’t need us to tell you 2023 was another challenging year for small business, and with the peak entry period coinciding with the floods and emerging pressures on the cost of living and elections, we wouldn’t have been surprised to see a downturn in both number of entries, and the optimism expressed by entrants. Although many entries reflected a need to “hunker down”, adapt to changing circumstances, review their goals or adjust timeframes, the resilience and determination of the small businesses who enter The David Awards never ceases to amaze and encourage us. New Zealand's grassroots economy is in good hands and, if what we saw is indicative of the sector as a whole, we are confident it will emerge stronger, smarter and ready for growth when the upturn comes.
It’s all in the detail
Entrants seem to be taking on board the distinction between their business and their entry. This year, we saw many entries which really represent the business well - but there are many times we still feel there is probably a lot more to the business than what we are being told. Our advice is to put as much information as you can into your entry - tell us what your business does (for some entries we couldn’t even work that out!), why you do it, how you do it, and, for each category, make a case for why your business is a star performer in that area. We know this seems so basic, but it’s the single biggest issue we see with entries, year after year.
Another big variation in the quality of entries remains the clarity of pertinent detail provided. The David Awards entry form is simple - we aim to have one of the lowest barriers to entry in New Zealand. But we can’t evaluate an entry on “warm fuzzies” alone. We say this every year, but we really appreciate facts, stats, graphs, numbers and “proof” of success. We don’t evaluate entries against a whole lot of criteria more suited to corporate environments, but it helps to understand what turnover, profit, market share and/or volumes of output your business is generating. You can be reassured these details are used to understand your business better rather than as outright criteria against which it is judged.
As always, below are tips based on what we’ve seen over years of judging The David Awards entries, with some updates to reflect 2023 entry trends.
Remember, the Judges only know what you actually tell them
Entering The David Awards is intended to be an easy and necessary way to step back and appraise your progress, to compare your performance with others, and review your plans for the future. Step back and view the entry as someone who has never heard of the entrant or their business.
Every year, there are great little businesses which miss out because the entry doesn’t provide enough, or the right kind of information, to judge it effectively. Judges judge an entry on the form which is submitted. They don’t know you or your business, and if you don’t tell them what you are doing, what your vision is or how you have reached or exceeded it, they are not going to go looking for this information. Of course - and especially for businesses in the running for finalist placings - they also review additional material provided, check your website or social media, etc., but it’s your job to make sure the entry form can stand alone and represent your business effectively. It might help to get someone outside of your business to read it before you submit it.
Tell your story - keeping the business aspect in focus
The David Awards is all about the triumphs and tribulations of the ‘little guy’.
Humanness counts, so start at the beginning and tell your backstory. Who are you and why did you start your business? How do you fit with the ‘David Values’ (Courage, Tenacity, Ingenuity, Excellence and Authenticity). Remember, this is a competition, and other entrants will be trying just as hard to be recognised for what they are doing, so blow your own horn! Don’t hold back - tell why you are better than your competitors, tell why you should be a winner!
Make sure you include enough information too, from a business point of view. The Judges want to see how you are constantly working on, as well as in, your business. In addition to your passion and clever ideas, show that you have a plan for growth and can articulate what you are doing to get there. They also need to evaluate whether what you are doing is a hobby, or is - or is on track to being - a real business, so tell them what makes you a business!
You don’t have to be profitable in the early days, but do you have a plan to be able to make an income from your business in the future? Show your ability to adapt and grow. As you grow, are you remembering who your customers are? Show how you seek and adapt to their feedback. (Ask them questions. They’re on your side!)
Think about things like:
How can you fine-tune your offering?
How can you pivot your offering if you’re not achieving the success required?
Are you regularly seeking expert mentoring advice?
How well are you connected to your community?
Choose your categories strategically
When selecting which categories you enter, read the descriptions on the Categories page on The David Awards website. It may be better to enter those which match best with your strengths, rather than those which match the general aim of the business (for instance, a single-person business selling marketing services might actually not perform best in The Most Outstanding Use of Marketing category, but walk away with the Solo Meo award, or vice versa).
Having good, solid general information as the basis of your entry is essential, but it won’t always help you stand out from the crowd in a category where other entrants are also performing well. Selecting a category to enter opens a field for category-specific information on your entry form, so use this opportunity to shape your entry around each of the categories you enter. Be guided by the category description on the Categories page at thedavidawards.co.nz, and include anything else you think is relevant to that particular category in the category-specific field.
Bear in mind that different Judges judge different categories. While all Judges see the general information fields on an entry form, only the Judges for each category see the information in that category’s field. Don’t assume Judges from one category you have entered will see information provided in the field for another category, and don’t be afraid to duplicate relevant category-specific information in another category-specific field.
In 2023, by far the most popular category was the Solo Meo Award, followed by almost equal entry numbers in the Most Outstanding Social Impact Category and The Most Innovative Business. The latter has previously been a category in which there have been fewer entries, so this might be an area to watch in future. Reviewing the entries received underscored the prudence of our decision to drop The Triumph over Adversity Category from The David Awards this year as it was becoming increasingly clear that with the impact of Covid and the ensuing economic climate as well as floods and other events, almost every business would be ticking all the boxes for this one.
The number of entries can vary widely from category to category, and the most popular ones one year are not always the ones with the most entries the next, although there is seldom a huge or unexpected swing. While The David Awards doesn’t provide running entry numbers for each category, past interest in a category as well as any current business trends (e.g. the current popularity of social/business initiatives) can be a useful indicator of likely interest.
If you have a feeling your chosen categories might be attracting a lot of entries, it can be a strategic option to choose at least one you think might be less popular - as long as it also suits your business. Definitely don’t be deterred from choosing a category to show off your real strengths, but if it’s likely to be in a category with more entries, make even more sure that you stand out from the crowd with an entry that really showcases you to advantage, includes more ‘proof of success’ (see below) and highlights what you do differently from others who might be entering the same category.
Provide ‘proof of success’
Judges usually end up with a handful of entries which stand out as particularly strong - but it can be hard differentiating between them. The first thing they do is look for ‘proof of success’ or indicators as to ‘how good’ the business is, what it does better than others or why it is ‘exceptional’.
When you say in your entry you have done something, try to ‘prove’ it. Providing examples and quantifying successes is helpful - so when saying your business has grown, let the Judges know whether it has grown by 20% or 200%. If you’ve got ‘lots’ of new customers, let them know how many more. If sales are ‘stronger than you ever hoped’, what is your turnover? How sustainable is your business - how are forward bookings looking or how do you create and manage a pipeline?
Financials really help the Judges get a feel for the business and its potential. They are not looking for the business that makes the most money, but providing this information gives them good insights into what you are about. Your numbers don’t have to be huge and the information doesn’t have to be very detailed, but very often, when two businesses are in the running as finalists or winners, it can come down to who has added more - or more relevant - ‘proof of success’ in the entry.
Previous entrants - change it up
If you have entered before, bear in mind that while some of the Judges will be familiar with your previous entries, some will probably not. Include everything as if you have not entered before, but those Judges familiar with your previous entry may also be looking to see how things have changed: detail the new initiatives you have undertaken, recent challenges you have overcome and how much progress you’ve made.
And if you’re taking another shot at entering, think about whether it could be beneficial to try your hand in a different category. Sometimes it’s easier to differentiate yourself when judged on different criteria.
2023 - a big improvement in brand management
After being singled out last year as an area to improve, it’s gratifying to see a big improvement in brand awareness and management this year. There are still some entries reflecting a more casual - and sometimes disconcertingly lax - approach to brand management. As it’s a persistent issue, the Judges thought it worth including it again in this feedback, as small businesses work so hard to be truly competitive that it’s unfortunate when they unintentionally let themselves down on the branding side.
The Judges noted specific issues regarding brand management.
Business names are part of your brand arsenal, so take time to work out some brand standards around yours. If you don't know which words get capitals, if the name’s written as one word or with spaces, if you include a "The" in the name or not, or how it's actually spelt, how will your customer who you really are? You’ll also lose some of the professional look and strong brand which sets a well-thought-out business apart. Whatever way you decide to write your business name, make sure everyone who has anything to do with the business sticks with the same one!
Another problem arises when businesses have sub-brands or "trading" names. There may be good reason for these, but make sure a customer isn't provided with a bewildering array of names and no way of knowing why there’s more than one or which entity does what. You might even need a rebrand, and although rebranding is difficult, if you find yourself with a name that no longer works or you need to reposition your business, a good, clear rebrand may be your best option.
There are some instances where versioning is unavoidable, for instance, you may use one domain for overseas and one for New Zealand, but this would need to be managed carefully (including email addresses) so as not to dilute your brand or confuse your customer.
If you have multiple domain name versions, including for search engine optimisation, it might work best to have one main one and the others just redirecting in the background (talk to your domain provider to get this properly set up for SEO).
Think about how you will tie in your business email address(es). It’s confusing if you’re using a .nz web address but your email uses a .com. Or if your domain is yourname.com but your email is from firstname.lastname@example.org. You might own both versions, but choose one to actually market.
When you have a domain name, it would be more professional to use a domain based email rather than a gmail or other provider-based address for any business-related activity. And if you have a business email, use that rather than a personal, non-business one for any business-related purpose (including entering Awards!).
As your business expands into social media organically, and you optimise your SEO, you can easily end up with an array of diverse website, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, email and other URLs, hashtags, handles, names etc. Each on their own might work well, but from a brand perspective, it's best if there is uniformity, or at least a strong overlap, in these identities. Take a quick overview of all of the social media brand-related names and elements you are using. Do they all provide a cohesive picture of a strong, focused business, or are they more than a little confusing?
The Judges’ final tip is, as always, to take the time to proofread, spellcheck, and rewrite what you’ve written before you click ‘Enter’!
The last word from them is, “It is a pleasure and a privilege to gain deep insight into the best of New Zealand’s small businesses, and a deeply humbling experience for all of us. Our ‘Davids’ truly do us proud, and we wish you well in all that you do.”
Entries for 2023 open 1 May. Make a note in your diary and we look forward to seeing you back next year!
This information is provided as a goodwill gesture, to help entrants improve both their businesses and their entries in future. It doesn’t apply to the People’s Choice Award, where the sole objective is to get votes for your business, nor is it intended as a blueprint for an entry, and adhering to it doesn’t guarantee you a better chance of being a finalist or winner in The David Awards, or of getting better results from your business. However, the Judges hope sharing some of these insights may be helpful, and if you can make use of just one or two ideas, they will be delighted.