It is pre-COVID. Picture a big conference room packed with investors, industry experts, startups and a crowd of enthusiasts waiting for you to come up on stage and pitch your startup idea. The stakes are high: in the front row sits a jury made of investors and one tie-breaking judge — the only non-investor in the group. What they have to do is fairly simple: hear your pitch, ask you a few questions, leave the conference area, gather in the nearby judging room, and decide whether or not your startup idea will get funded. Wouldn’t you want to get an insider’s view of the judging room and learn the dirty secret of the world of venture capital as American VC and writer Evan Burfield bluntly put it? If you do, then keep reading.
The next lines reveal the secret, tell real-life examples of outstanding startup pitches that unfolded before my eyes, which for some reasons I cannot get out of my head, and finally highlight a few takeaways to remember.
In the past 5 years I have turned myself into an insider in the global startup ecosystem, mentored entrepreneurs in different geographies, attended pitch competitions in Berlin, Oslo, Paris and more, and ran the digital pitch portal for tech startups at Germany’s largest bank where I also championed Fintech Europe, a multi-corporate innovation platform based in Frankfurt. But let us get back to Burfield.
In Regulatory Hacking, one of the 10 best business books in 2018 according to Inc. Magazine, Burfield made the following revelation as he wrote:
I’ll let you in on a dirty secret of the world of venture capital: I can’t remember most pitches I hear, nor can most other investors. I don’t mean weeks later. I mean that if I have 4–5 startups pitch me over the course of an hour at an event, I literally cannot recall more than 1 or 2 of them when I am heading home. When I am judging a pitch competition and hear 15 startups pitch one after the other, my fellow judges and I get back to the judging room and we literally cannot remember what more than 4 or 5 of the startups do. We are all flipping through our notes trying to remind each other — Evan Burfield
The point of the foregoing statement is that when you pitch your startup idea you’ve got to find a way to make it memorable in the mind of the audience — positively. Unfortunately, oftentimes things go the opposite direction. Let’s consider the following examples to illustrate that: the first one refers to an event that happened in Berlin in a setting similar to the one described in the opening paragraph of this article. An international pitch competition before investors. There came up on stage a young entrepreneur. He appeared relax, no signs of pressure from what we could see. He delivered his pitch, did not go over time, thanked the audience, returned the microphone to the moderator and while he was walking off the stage the moderator uttered a loud but you did not tell what you are looking for? It turned out that he signed up to pitch without having formulated a clear call to action for the audience. In his thinking, I am guessing now, the mere fact of getting up there and pitch was thought to be a great occasion to practice his pitch and create visibility for his startup. Even so, he ended up unintentionally manufacturing a different outcome, which to say the least was not helpful. In my mind and most likely in that of many in the audience, he is remembered not for the value proposition he put forward but for the blunder he made. A couple of years later, I sadly learned that his startup unfortunately went under.
Not long ago, I had a similar experience, which is in fact the prompt for writing this post. It was with a different startup, at a different pitch competition, in a different setting — online. During the Q&A session that followed the pitch, a jury member asked the presenter what their “ask” was since he did not say anything about it while on stage. Well, nothing in particular he mumbled! We were invited to come over and pitch, which I just did he added. How can you shoot yourself in the foot this way ruining a golden PR opportunity, even if it is the truth, I said to myself…Some may say sh*t happens, but let’s be honest it could have been avoided in this case.
A few years ago, I attended a public speaking seminar by a certified coach of The German Speakers Association. He said something which stood out, and guess what, I cannot get it out of my head. He warned: Don’t you ever get before an audience to speak, unless you have a message to deliver. Public speaking speeches generally have one or more of the following purposes: to inform, persuade, entertain, or inspire. The same applies to startup pitches. Ask what the message is you want to get across and articulate it clearly during the ending of the pitch. When speaking before an audience of investors, your message (referred to as the ASK in startup lingo) will most likely be how much money you are raising and for what purpose. The next and final example illustrates this point.
In 2017 Google for Entrepreneurs powered an initiative that put 14 of Africa’s top tech startups on a tour of tech hubs in Europe (London, Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris and Zurich). In Berlin, the CEO of one of the startups delivered an unambiguous ask (you’ve guessed it!) that got stuck inside my head. He said they were looking to raise USD 1 million and added that only investors who could bring to the table industry knowledge in addition to the money would be entertained. Isn’t that a straightforward ask?
Everyone has got the will to win; it’s only those with the will to prepare that do win — Bobby Knight
In conclusion, there is certainly more to a great pitch than a well-articulated ask. Having an attention-grabbing opening, using storytelling to bypass mental resistance, crafting, and effectively delivering a great ending are some other pieces to the puzzle that you’ll need to consider. And yes, it is not easy to get before an audience and speak. That is why preparation is key. To use a saying in martial arts about learning a new technique, you’ve got to drill it until you kill it. Prepare, aim to be memorable and impactful — positively, and you’ll do great!
I hope the above lines will help you in your next pitch. If they have triggered memories of startup pitches you would like to share, do let me know.