I had the wonderful experience this weekend of participating in Syracuse University’s YES Symposium, presented by the entrepreneurship department. To say the least, the day was energizing – I was surrounded by successful alumni and local entrepreneurs, as well as over 150 bright young minds looking to tackle tomorrow’s problems. I participated in a panel discussion titled “Stupid Mistakes I Could Have Avoided” with Michael Librizzi of briz.com and Dave Mueller of AT&T Premier Technologies. For the panel, it was a pretty good mesh, Michael and I were versed in tech start-ups, and Dave had over a decade behind him of starting brick and mortar stores throughout CNY. Next time I go to one of these things, I’m definitely bringing a backup stash of business cards, it seems like my card holder wasn’t ready for all the networking that was to be done.
On top of being a panelist and talking with quite a few people, I was asked to be a judge in the $1500 elevator pitch competition. Having participated in one myself, I was thrilled to be able to be a judge in the event; knowing how exciting and fast-paced these tend to be. Out of the fourteen teams that participated, we had an incredibly varied group, both in age and ideas being presented. There was very little time for us to approach all the competitors afterward (and absolutely no time for reproach in between the pitches), and I am still bursting at the seams with tips on how some of these teams could have outdone themselves and improved their pitch.
Dress the part. This doesn’t mean that you are required to wear a suit of some sort, however if your business proposal is a formal business that expects that attire, then you should be in it. Nice jeans and a clean shirt work for a more informal business proposal. Two years ago, a woman wear an entire chef’s outfit for her restaurant pitch. It was memorable and played to her strength, which was perfect.
Know your lines. This goes for any business pitch, but even more so for an elevator pitch. This isn’t a speech you are reading to the judges, its a one-act play that you are putting on to entertain, inform, and amaze. Memorize your talk, and keep a set of your talking points (not your speech) handy, if you were to lose your place. I absolutely hate it when people are reading off a paper for me, it feels like a lack of preparation. Memorizing what you are going to talk about shows preparation, and confidence.
Know your limit. These competition rules that you are entering are passed out and posted much in advance. In conjunction with my last bit, you should not go over the allotted time period by more than missing your “thank you”. It’s important to get everything you have to say about your product and why the judges should give you the money above the other equally qualified competitors.
Don’t be a statue. Avoid sticking yourself behind a podium unless required to do so. Get out in front of it, be active and move around while giving your talk (but don’t pace). You should be so energetic in your talk that you need to have duct taped your shoes to your legs else you would be jumping out of them. And most importantly, smile! An average idea will seem less mediocre to the judges if you are doing back-flips in your presentation over your idea. However, there is a line in this matter, be careful not to cross it.
Attach yourself to the product. Why should you be working on this product/invention/idea? Give a one sentence kickoff some point to show that you belong doing what you’re doing. However, I absolutely do not care what degree you have, whatsoever. It does not make you better in my eyes that you have a college degree, or an MBA, or an MFA, or a PhD (unless you are the leading expert in your field). People have been incredibly successful with much much less. I get incredibly irate when people waste their breath to even throw that out in any presentation. When I would pitch UtiliTeam to people, I simply pointed out that I was a “Computer Science student and most importantly, a gamer”. There, I establish that I am a geek, and that I play video games. So of course a tech start-up focusing around video games is a legitimate place to find me. Find something that shows that you belong, that you had a connection to this idea more than a money making scheme. By relating yourself to your market, or your product, you instantly make yourself appear more knowledgeable about what you are presenting.
Paint a picture. Not literally, unless it involves your idea, but you should be giving a clear and concise picture to the judges. In the time that you have, you should be able to answer the following questions:
- What problem are you looking to solve?
- Who are you looking to target?
- Why will your target market want your product, or how will you create a need?
- How will your idea make money?
- How will your idea grow through it’s success?
- What makes your idea unique?
Save story time for later. A few people will tend to try to tell you a heart wrenching story about their lives and how they overcame adversity to get to the point where they are today. While it may be a great story, the judges want to hear a great idea that has the opportunity to turn a profit. If you waste your time telling the judges how tough your life has been, you will either lose their attention, annoy them, or simply waste time you could have better spent talking about what makes your idea better than the others. And since you are being timed, this is an important decision to make. Stories should be kept to ways your product or idea has or will change someone’s life.
Attack your weaknesses. There are some business ideas that are amazing, but have some outright questions that will be asked immediately after your pitch. You should be able to identify these big questions, and answer them in your pitch. For example, this young lady had a great idea for a cafe in which pets and owners alike could be eating together. The cafe would provide healthy food, and a welcoming environment to like minded people to mingle and meet. Great idea, absolutely nothing was said about the sanitary issues that come with bringing animals into a eating establishment. What happens when an untrained animal does number one or two on the floor? What about bugs (fleas/ticks/lice)? This isn’t limited to this sole situation too, but if you finish your pitch leaving the judges with more questions then you did answers, you need to rework your approach.
Get harsh criticism. Being optimistic is great, but you need to find someone who hates your idea, and can tell you why. Finding opposition to your idea lets you identify potential issues or holes your pitch may have, and you can learn what others are going to like or dislike about it. Don’t take one persons opinion for it, they might just not be in your market. The important thing is, don’t let a friend, or loved one lull you into a sense of security and perfection because they think your idea is better than sliced bread.
Be weary of your market. Judges at these competitions are incredibly weary of trends, and will avoid them at all costs. It is this reason why fashion pitches/plans tend to do poorly at these competitions. Woman no longer get a weekly perm, your hammer pants have been long since donated, and baggy pants went out of style years ago. Start ups take time, money, people, and its very risky to consider starting a business where the winds may have changed direction by the time the company opens it’s doors. You want to be careful that your idea is not focusing on a trend, or a trendy market.
Know your costs. This goes into researching your pitch, answering the questions before they are asked, but it came up a few times yesterday. People were offering to start up companies that had incredible start up costs, and the return on investment would be incredibly slow. While it wasn’t in the competition – take a gym start-up: not only could you consider something like “Curves for Women” trendy (which would be a red flag) but at the same time you need to buy a multitude of top-of-the-line very expensive gym equipment, and then you need to charge reasonable rates to get new customers in the door. One elliptical machine can be a few thousand dollars, and you want to charge $240 a year. Either you have a very small gym to start off, or you have to expect to turn an entire town into customers before you break even in a few years.
While this isn’t a surefire way to win a competition, and it isn’t nearly everything that you need to cover when considering a pitch, it should put you in the right mindset for planning for your next pitch or business plan competition. Hopefully you find this helpful – and good luck.