A lot of the teams I spoke to over the week at the Imagine Cup wanted to know what makes a great entry. I told them all most of this, but I thought it might be useful to put it all down in a blog post for all to see.
Make sure that the purpose of your entry is clear. The categories by which the entries are judged in the competition are available for everyone to see, and some of the most important ones are concerned with the purpose of your system. It needs to be very clear who your entry is aimed at, the problem that it solves, and the way that it solves it. Just wanting to "make things better" is all very well, but you need to have clear focus on motivation (why you are doing this) and deliverables (what your project produces). All the entries that I saw in the world final had good, clear, focus, but I've seen ones in earlier rounds which have been very vague about what they do and who would use them.
Don't add too much. Some of the entries suffered because they contained too many functions. The power of modern development tools makes it very easy to add a forum, a mobile client, an expert system or a map to a solution. But before you put these in, consider how much they improve it. Do the features add value, or are they distractions from the core purpose of the solution? The judges are looking for a good solution to a problem, and too many bells and whistles might confuse. However, one thing that does impress is attention to detail around the core idea. If you can show how you have considered what happens if parts of the system fail or are abused by users this adds greatly to your credibility and that of your approach to the problem.
Don't re-invent the wheel. Always try to find ways you can make use of existing systems or software to make your entry better. If users of your solution need a username and password to get access to it, don't create your own user database. People hate being given new usernames and passwords to remember. Instead see if you can use existing login systems such as Windows Live logins or FaceBook accounts to identify users.
Make your hardware viable. Lots of teams are now adding hardware to their project, which is absolutely great. But if you have a hardware element you really have to add sufficient detail to your presentation to give everyone confidence that you can deliver on that part. Simply adding up the cost of the components you have used to build the device and then saying that is how much they will be priced at is not enough. And saying that you expect the cost of the device to be half the price of the parts "because bulk buying will make them cheaper" is also dangerous. If you want to sell hardware you usually have to pay someone to design the circuit board, someone to build it, someone to write the instructions, someone to put it in a box, someone to ship it, someone to put it in their shop and someone to provide warranty support. And you might want to make some profit.This might mean that your device will have to sell for five times the cost of the parts to be viable. We are not looking for detailed business plans and cost projections on this, but you do need to make sure that you have given proper consideration to this issue. You could see if your local electronics department can give you some help on pricing hardware, a good story here can be very useful to your project.
Have a way forward lined up. It is really nice if you can show a clear path forward with your entry. Rather than saying "After this presentation we plan to show this to a few people and see if we can get started. " it is much better to be able to say "We have ACME Manufacturing or the local Board of Health on board to take this project further". Best of all you can get letters of support and engagement from such people and get them into the presentation somehow. Don't be afraid to start small and then build up, this is actually a really good idea.
Don't fall in love with your project. Passion and enthusiasm are great. You should have belief in what you are doing. But if someone comes up with a solid objection or an idea which is better than yours then make it your business to use what they have said to make your solution better. And don't assume that everyone will flock to use your system just because it is there and it is yours. You need to show that there are compelling reasons why your system should be used. People are motivated to do things out of good will, but there is a limit to this, and beyond that they will go for things that either make their lives easier or save them money. Showing that your system does either (or both) of these things will make it much more compelling.
Make your presentation tell a story. If you look at the finalist presentations you will find that all of them told a story with a definite beginning (set up the problem) middle (say what we have done) and end (say where we are going with this). There are a number of ways you can do this. Scenarios are good, as is a bit of role play. Look for things that engage the audience and don't be afraid to add things to keep the audience interested during the talk. And then rehearse until everyone is happy with their parts and you have got lots of feedback about how you can make it better.
Look like a team. This is very important, and pretty much everyone this week did this really well. Even so, in some presentations I saw members of the team looking into space or staring at the floor when their team presenter was talking. Even if you have heard the words a hundred times or more (and with rehearsals you probably have) you should still look at the person talking and appear to agree with them. It all helps to build confidence that everyone really knows what they are talking about, and you are all in agreement with it. It is best if the presentation can be spread around the team members, with everyone playing a part. Matching dress, even if it is just the same colour trousers and shirt, does play a huge part in making a team look like they mean business, and that is the message that you want to send out.
Enjoy yourself. And remember that this is just the start. Your Imagine Cup entry is not the only great thing you will ever do. It is just one of the first. Whatever you do, whether you make it to the final or not, taking part in the competition will make you better. Potential employers are always looking for people who do stuff. The Imagine Cup is some of the best stuff you can do. The competition is great fun, win or lose. Entry into competitions like this all help build up the brand that is you. So go to it.