29 November 2019

Pitching an Event

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Startup pitch “events” have become a part of the modern tech work culture and make up 97% of all Eventbrite and Meetup events.

No, that's not a real stat, but you probably didn’t dispute it when you read it, right?

My point is, there are a lot of these happening all the time, the challenge is that most of them aren’t really events at all, at least not in any grand sort of way. Sometimes these tech pitches are referred to as demo days or are part of another event entirely and like many people in the startup industry, I’ve attended my share of these “events”. And, unfortunately, a lot of these are forgettable and unremarkable. Don't get me wrong, some are done well, but a lot of them, most of them, are not.

My involvement in these events has spanned from pitching, to judging, to pitch-coaching to just plain watching. In the last 6 or 7 years, I have seen over 800 pitches in cities throughout the USA, Europe, Canada and South America. 800 pitches!?!? Now, I’m sure there are folks who laugh at how small my number is and just as many that can’t believe it’s so high. Regardless, I think seeing 800 +/- of these pitches, in many markets, gives me enough of a sample size to draw some conclusions and provide some support to my suggestions on how to improve these locally, to benefit our ecosystem.

Unforgettable and unremarkable.

If there were a Regretsy site for brutal pitches, it would be filled to capacity – there’s no shortage of bad pitches, trust me. Unfortunately, some of these are actually good companies or ideas, but the pitch sucks. What truly sucks about a bad business pitch is, the person pitching is quite often heavily invested into their idea, but just can’t speak to it with any coherence, can’t articulate the problem they are solving. This is usually chalked up to a lack of sophistication in understanding the business and how to communicate the value proposition and business model effectively.

A good pitch takes practice, but only after you fully understand some of the fundamentals about your startup.

You know where you don’t see (very many) bad pitches? When the pitch event is an actual show. When effort has gone into producing the event. When the startup takes the event seriously. When there is something on the line like money or reputation. Money and/or reputation can be the inspiration to try harder to do better. Everyone wants to win money and nobody wants to be embarrassed.

I’ve encouraged local startups to go to big startup events, just to see the pitches. The pitches at these events are typically vetted and of a caliber that demonstrate a certain level of mastery in the art of pitching and some advancement in their business. When a new startup sees a seasoned startup pitching, it gives them an idea of what a proper pitch looks like and this example is engrained in them as a benchmark for them to build their presentation to. They up their game.

Which is why we should put more effort into making pitch events grand or special in some way.

Let's not forget that pitch events are a complete waste of time and are critically important. Two points of view that are both right, depending on a number of factors. Entrepreneurs must not let themselves get caught in the trap of endless pitching for the sake of pitching - this is a time vampire. It is important to understand the value of each pitch event and what you intend to get from it. Entrepreneurs should select pitch opportunities based on their needs at the time.

So, we have to be cautious not to promote these events as the end all be all for startups. Pitching is a part of the startup journey, not the destination. They should be able to pitch well, but pitching well comes with a deep understanding of their customer, the problem they solve and the opportunity they have ahead of them.

Pitch events can help a startup get noticed, they can help in recruiting, they can help in getting their story out to industry and to media and they can help in attracting investors. This is what these events have focused on to date, and it’s worked (for the most part) pretty well in doing these things. All of this is just more effective when it’s an actual event or show.

Things that make it more effective are the audience, when it's a show, you can invite the entire community. Not just the usual industry players, but people outside the ecosystem box. Include school teachers, bankers, friends and leaders from other industries. When people from the outside see good pitches, they are amazed at the great things happening in the city and try to help the startup by talking with them to understand what they need.

I have brought people from outside of the tech industry to these events quite a few times and they are floored by the ideas that entrepreneurs are working on in getting to market – this gets them excited for what we (collectively) are working on. I hear comments like, “I never knew this kind of stuff was going on in our city!”

When these pitch events are seen as important events or shows, the founders up their game. They spend more time making their story better, they practice over and over and the result is the language they use in describing their solution evolves to a sophisticated state that pushes the startups below them to attain that level of understanding of their own business. Pitching actually helps entrepreneurs in crafting a compelling story which comes through in their marketing and sales efforts and materials.

Competing for space on the stage for big pitch events puts pressure on founders to be better. Better pitches begets better pitches. Better pitches puts pressure on the entire ecosystem to create better events with better pitches. Better pitches puts pressure on the founder to be better and perhaps give them a better sense of when they are “ready” to hit the stage.

Visuals are important to pitch competitions, each company should have some visual or deck behind them when presenting. And, to help founders connect with their “ask” after they pitch, organizers of events should recap the presenting companies and their ask in a handout, on a web page or on the screen at the end of the pitches.

Anyways, I believe if everyone put a little more thought and intent to making pitch events more of a show, make it special for the founders… by putting something on the line: a cash prize or a spotlight. Both will create an audience.  it will create the incentive they require to bring their A game and inspire others to be A players too.

Last night, Platform Calgary hosted the Junction Founder Showcase with cohort 3. I think the pitches were great; the room was dark, the attention was on each founder as they spoke and it created an atmosphere of excitement. The presentations last night will no doubt inspire others in the audience to tune up their presentations, by giving them ideas on what to say and how to say it. The folks from outside of our industry that saw the event last night will tell others what an amazing group of entrepreneurs our city has along with some of the great ideas being made locally.

There are many pitch events in our city that are doing this and kudos to the organizers for thinking of the founders. When we raise the stage, when we turn down the lights, when we give them a mic, when we have people sitting, when we have a projection of their slide(s) behind them and when we ply the audience with alcohol - the founder takes it up a notch and performs.

These events make the celebration about the founders, they are meant to feel special - these events are all about them, after all. Putting the founder up on stage, gives them some credibility and actually helps to facilitate discussions with potential investors, customers and employees. By creating special events around pitches, we can affect their success in getting these key introductions and conversations going, by doing nothing more than showcasing that what the founder is doing is worth celebrating.

I love that many in our city are doing this with events now, they get better and better every time and hopefully it sparks others in the community to do the same, giving buoyancy to all startups and helping to bring outside attention to what tech founders are doing in the city.

All founders are trying to 'make the world a better place', let's start with the pitch events.


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