This month on International Women’s Day, I had the privilege of mentoring business owners from the Ukraine, who were in DC as part of the State Department’s GIST program. They would be presenting their businesses to the State Department later that evening and I, along with my fellow Seed Spot mentors, were to give them feedback on their pitches.
Of course, the other mentors and I wanted to congratulate them on their bravery, inquire if their families were safe, and generally acknowledge that regardless of their pitches, just by virtue of being selected for the program – they were extraordinary. The business owners, for the most part, were polite but wanted to get down to business. When asked what the best part of the program was, one of the ventures said, “We got right to business, right to the point.” The other entrepreneurs nodded in agreement.
We were under a time crunch – we always are during pitch competitions where pitches are timed. Information has to be sacrificed for waning attention spans or simply to fit everyone in. It’s the nature of the competition. Often the ones rewarded are not the ones with most promising companies but with the best stage presence. Like my Dad often says about parenting, the test to become one is not indicative of the skills needed to succeed. Sometimes, that’s also true of pitch competitions.
Pitch Competitions are Popular
And yet, organizations keep doing competitions, businesses keep applying, mentors and judges keep, well, mentoring and judging. The number of pitch competitions in every organization I’m a part of has increased exponentially. Shark tank can take some credit, but we can also blame our internet attention spans.
I myself am automatically entered into a pitch competition by virtue of being a WBE star this year. It’s not something I normally sign up for. (In fact, I usually make my business partner Heather do it). But I encourage my clients to enter these competitions because it really is good exposure and “gets you out of your comfort zone.” So this is yet another example of me taking my own medicine.
Reasons to Pitch
- Exposure. I know the true value is not in being chosen as the winner of the competition but having a bigger stage to get your message out. If you’re pitching in the right room, only one or two people need to be interested enough to follow up. I’m not seeking investors or raising a round so a couple more clients who finally get what I do is enough.
- Market Validation. Would I love to be able to have a huge (both physically large and monetarily substantial) check to get a picture with? Sure! I’d love to deposit into my bank account a quantitative reminder that I’m on the right track.At the same time, Heather Cox and I often remind our clients about the year Diversity Masterminds® was in the pitch competition. Heather delivered our pitch and got to the second round, pitching in front of a convention center size crowd. It was exciting and she did great. She didn’t move on to the next round, however. There were 5 great companies selected. The winner of the competition that year was Suzy’s Swirl with a pitch about boozy ice cream. Who can compete with that?
We left knowing that we did just get free advertising to our target market.
It’s a bummer to lose a competition you entered. People listened to the work you’ve been putting your heart and soul into. Then, they ranked and judged you and you came up short. Depending on how far you came out of your comfort zone, you may have had to overcome fear to get up on stage and tell people about yourself. It’s not easy.
These tips won’t make it easy – just easier.
- Do Remember your Why.This week I also participated in the third session of the SAGE program and we had a wonderful workshop on our “why”? If you don’t know about the importance of Why, Simon Sinek’s TED talk is the origin story. Your Why is the foundation of your business, the seed that will grow into your brand story. When you remember that Why, you can tell a great story about your company. If you ignore the crowds, the judges, and the big check, you can just tell your story authentically which is a valuable and meaningful skill. Go back to the problem you’re solving and why? Why this? Why you? Why now?
- Do Appeal to the Heart..and the Head. You need to appeal to humans’ love of stories while also positioning the business case which is the trickiest part of the pitch to master. Sometimes they are all heart, describing a big problem and people we empathize with but when it comes to numbers, there is no “there” there. Others are a jumble of statistics and jargon where even if they are really well presented, most of the audience is left thinking “Huh?” I’ve seen both and while I prefer the former, you can’t leave out the business part of your business.
- Don’t Rely on Your Tech. Practice, practice, practice – obviously. Usually you can have slides of some sort or a demo BUT do not let the reliance on your tech derail your entire pitch. Know your presentation so well that you could deliver it if you’re woken up out of a deep sleep. Ideally it won’t come to that but with our short attention spans, there’s no telling where pitch competitions will go next.
- Don’t Leave Empty Handed. I mentioned the big check and if you leave with one, Hallelujah! Just in case you don’t, prepare an “ask” for the audience, a call to action, that lets you know that they listened. If they respond to your call, you know that your target audience got it. Ask for them to sign up for a demo, try a free trial, get your newsletter. Or ask for an introduction to an expert, potential client, or referral partner. Ask for something so you don’t leave empty handed.
No opportunity wasted
While I can critique the length of time for pitches and the nature of these competitions, they are efficient. It’s a great way to get a bunch of people in the same room to hear a little about a lot of companies. Then the interested parties can follow up.
Going back to my opening story, all the mentors would have gladly spent more time with the Ukrainian entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs, on the other hand, were eager to absorb the feedback, revise their pitches, and get to the State Department stage.
They knew they had a great opportunity ahead of them and didn’t want to waste any time.