Mar 24, 2015 · 4 minutes

For the past couple of months, we’ve been trailing the incredible speaker lineup for Pandoland 2015 in Nashville (June 15th-17th -- tickets here, etc!). The real heart and soul of the event, though, is the startup competition with a $100,000 top prize.

Applications for this year’s contest open today.

As with last year’s event, the $100,000 awarded to the winner isn't just a check. It's an investment by a syndicate of high profile investors from Valley firms and beyond, each committing $10,000 of their own money, at terms negotiated live on stage. Anyone who watched last year’s on-stage drama, featuring investors from firms like Sherpa, General Catalyst, Revolution, Forerunner, First Round, and others will testify: Those judges take this as seriously as any other investment.

screen-shot-2014-06-10-at-2-32-09-pmThe qualifications are simple: You must be in the market for funding, and you must have raised less than $1 million in outside capital. You can’t have taken part in another startup competition in the two months prior to the event -- and, of course, you have to be able to come to Nashville between June 15th-17th 2015 to pitch on stage. That's it. Everything else is fair game.

Your product or service can already be in the market, but that’s not a requirement -- in fact, we love the idea of you launching something new at the event. You can be a ten-year-old company, hard-scrabbled and bootstrapped the whole way. You can have revenues, or not. You can be from anywhere in the world – last year a Mexican company, Sr. Pago, was the judges’ favorite, and we awarded the "Pando Prize" to a Nashville company, Artiphon, based across the street from the conference venue. We just want to find the ten best companies who we think are most deserving of the investment, and increased awareness.

That said, companies should remember that, again, this isn't a normal startup competition where you get a big oversized check at the end. Pandoland is more like SharkTank than Disrupt. Last year's main "winner," Sr Pago, didn't actually walk away with the $100,000 investment because in an awkward on-stage term sheet negotiation, the founders refused to give the judges basic information about the business while at the same time demanding what seemed like an unreasonably high valuation. Instead, the judges settled on an agreement to be the last $100,000 in a deal, should the founders raise at their desired price. Startups that enter this year's event should be ready, willing, and able to share the full story of their company with judges and the Pandoland audience, on stage.

(Once again this year we’ll also be awarding the Pando Prize, a $10k, no-strings-attached check written by Pando to the startup that our editorial team likes the best. Last year’s winner was the brilliant Artiphon -- check out their latest Kickstarter campaign here.)

We think there's a lot of great things about this approach: The winning startup get a real investment from ten of the country's best and most visible investors -- and we all know getting that first commitment can be the hardest part to fundraising. And for the audience, it's an illuminating look at what actually goes on inside a pitch and a funding negotiation. This thing is for real, meaning there will be no handouts on offer. Any investment awarded will be well earned.

The other thing that makes our startup competition unique is our mentor program prior to the main event.feetz-press-pic We understand that pitching your company to our panel of top investors can be daunting, which is why we will hand-pick a top industry mentor to work with each startup in advance of their pitch and also to stand on stage alongside them to come to their defense. Perhaps best of all, your mentor can also help negotiate the term sheet at the end of the process.

Last year, the mentors included Evernote's Phil Libin, Walker & Co's Tristan Walker, and Bonobos' Andy Dunn. Pando Prize winner Aritphon turned its mentor -- Marc Ruxin of Rdio -- into an actual advisor. And Braintree's Bill Ready's defense of Sr Pago's technology was the biggest factor that swung the judges in the company's favor. This year’s list will be just as high profile and should play a major role in getting the winning companies across the finish line.

To make sure we have all the information we need to select the ten most deserving finalists, we’ve partnered with AngelList for the application process. If you already have an AngelList profile, you can apply quickly and easily without reentering all of your company's information. And even if you don’t, it’s still as simple as completing a few text fields and, optionally, uploading a short video.

We can't wait to start sorting through the startups that apply this year. Applications close May 1st, and we’ll let the ten finalists know a week or so later. The earlier you apply, the more time we’ll have to consider your entry.

Go here to start your application…. and good luck!

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