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Is your small business “inspiring”? Could be worth $100 grand.

Shine A Light Web site

It may not be Vegas, but it’s just as much a crap shoot. Or just plain crap.

Anyone who has read this blog for any time or listened to me on the radio can probably surmise that applying for contest money is not a viable funding plan. If you’re not a fan of grants (and I am definitely not a fan of applying for grants), then entering contests, no matter what the payoff, is business folly. But Amex and NBC Universal have something going here with their Shine A Light contest if you have some pretty Machiavellian skills with PR and an active and loyal network (got a couple hundred loyal friends on Facebook and you might just pull this one off). Now, normally, the odds of winning a contest like this are as remote as winning the lottery. But the stats are on your side if you’re a super-networker and you understand how to turn on the media.

The goal of the contest, sponsored jointly by American Express and NBC Universal, is to find a small business that is an “inspiration” to the rest of us uninspired folk during this recession. What constitutes an inspiration is up to you, but the folks at NBC and Amex think it involves three criteria: innovation, community service, and customer service.

Someone other than the business owner has to nominate the business by detailing how that small business is “inspiring.” The story goes up on the Shine A Light site on iVillage and visitors vote on the one business they like the best starting September 14. (Visitors can only vote for one business, but they can change their vote an unlimited time until the close of voting.) Any story that gets 50 “spotlights” (user votes) becomes a “Finalist,” but only 150 stories will go to the judges for final judging. How those 150 are chosen is totally arbitrary — all the top vote-getters go into the Shine A Light staff black box and out comes 150 (or less) for the judges to nibble on. These 150 finalists go to a final panel made up of Diane von Furstenberg, Ellen DeGeneres, and JJ Ramberg (of MSNBC’s Your Business).

Nominations close on September 13.

The judges will choose three finalists on September 24 and one winner on October 19. Each finalist will receive a $10,000 grant and the winner will receive a $50,000 grant and $50,000 in marketing support (whatever that means, but it sounds like a lot of stuff). The winner and each finalist will be featured on NBC and iVillage, so the promos alone are worth it.

But why, oh why, am I, the hard-headed, sensible, down-to-earth, don’t-buy-the-fantasy author and consultant advising you to take a look? Because it’s September 7 (nominations started on August 18 and close on September 13) and 1820 businesses have been nominated. A random sampling of 30 out of the 1820 revealed only 3 that had 50 or more “endorsements” (not votes — voting starts on September 14), and there is only one more week of nominations. 20 of the thirty had zero endorsements (not even the owner of the business had endorsed the story! Ouch!) This statistic means that the number of qualifying businesses (50 or more votes) will probably number 300-400, which isn’t bad as far as odds go (the odds are much more against you in a VC presentation). So if your business is truly inspiring (and you’re savvy enough to make it sound like a real audience draw for NBC) and you have a network that you can enlist to pull you over that 50 person mark, it’s a worthwhile effort.

Remember: even if you can scare up the critical number of votes, the “finalists,” i.e., the top 150 nominees, will be chosen at the discretion of the Shine A Light staff. Okay? You’ve got to have a great network AND a great story. If you don’t have a great story, go back to funding your business the sensible way. If you do — and you have the media savvy to make your story exponentially appealing to TV folk — then you’ve got a real shot.

(You should always remember that anything a network or television show does is for their advantage only. They never care about you or anyone else in this world — they care about ratings and advertisers. You are always just meat for the display case. Always. That’s not cynicism. That’s the business they’re in, and the numbers that business lives by are hard, unforgiving, and ungrateful. Whenever you’re featured on TV, the purpose is to make their numbers look good. If you know how to do that, you’ll thrive.)

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