Presenting at a startup pitch event can make an entrepreneur feel like a rock star, or an utter failure. One of the first times I pitched at an event as an entrepreneur I was feeling great about our presentation. It had music, animation, and on top of providing some of a rock concert atmosphere, our business was already profitable whereas most of our competitors merely had ideas to pitch. I thought we had the whole contest locked in. Then an investor asked a question I had no idea how to answer. I assumed I had blown it for our team.
More recently I had the opportunity to be a judge at a regional Slush startup pitch event in Hong Kong. Several startup teams were competing, based on the merits of their respective businesses or plans to start businesses, for the grand prize of attending the main Slush event in Helsinki, Finland, taking place this week. Moving from the pitching side to the judging side opened my eyes. Much of what I thought was critical for a good pitch presentation doesn’t matter much to the judges after all. And things you might ignore or include only if you have enough time are critical. Based on my experiences, here are seven tips to win the next time you’re presenting at a startup pitch event.
1. Don’t stress about your presentation. Your slide deck doesn’t matter as much as you think it does. BitMex, the winner of the Hong Kong event I judged, had an entirely forgettable slide presentation, and yet they won. Another competitor, uHoo, had a glitch with their primary slide and couldn’t get a video, the main part of their presentation, to play. Sure, it threw off their presentation, but it didn’t matter to any of us who were judging because they still managed to show us the value in their business and team.
2. Have a good elevator pitch. If you can’t communicate clearly what it is you do in 10 seconds or less then you need to refine your pitch more. This is important in many areas of your business besides pitch events, such as when you’re selling to customers. I’ve seen pitches where after 10 minutes I still don’t know what the entrepreneur is talking about. Don’t be that entrepreneur.
3. Deliver your elevator pitch first. The last thing you want to happen in a timed pitch event is to get to the end of your time and have the judges still not understand what it is you do. This happened to at least one contestant during the Hong Kong Slush event.
4. Avoid buzzwords and cliches. Don’t use the word “disruptive” in your pitch unless you’re Clayton Christensen. In fact, just don’t use the word at all, because it has been used to the point where it immediately removes credibility from your pitch. If everyone is disruptive than no one is.
5. Include credibility factors early in your pitch. Your business may appear silly or unworkable up until the point where you mention that your app has 300,000 active users, you’ve shipped tens of thousands of units, or you’re already doing a hundred thousand a month, despite just having launched six months ago. Get those details into the minds of the judges as soon as you can so that the rest of your presentation will be taken more seriously.
6. Talk about your team. You matter. You might have a great idea, but an idea by itself isn’t worth much without the right team to execute it. What makes your team the right team to manage this business? Why are you passionate about your business? To judges, and more importantly to investors, your team is easily 50% of the reason for choosing your business, so don’t skip over talking about it, even if you’re restricted to just a few minutes. It might be the first thing you want to mention as one of your credibility factors.
7. If you don’t win it doesn’t mean your idea is bad. How much does a judge truly know about a business after listening to a three minute pitch and asking a few questions? These pitch events are not necessarily an accurate measure of the viability of your business. Don’t take it too hard if you enter one and don’t win. One of the companies that didn’t make it into the top three nevertheless had a great business with substantial revenue and the potential to be scalable and highly profitable. If you have a real business that is doing well you don’t need a pitch event to validate it.
Pitch events can be fun. They can bring young startups attention and funding. Bonus tip: One of the most valuable parts of doing a pitch event is being forced to put your idea in front of someone other than your team or friends and get feedback. Even if you’re not interested in fundraising or attention, presenting at a pitch event is worth it for this reason along.
What are your tips for the entrepreneur who is getting ready to rock a pitch event?
Joshua Steimle is the CEO of MWI, a digital marketing agency with offices in the U.S. and Hong Kong.
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