I’ve been hearing a lot of pitches lately. Aside from last week’s Open House at StartupYard, where we welcomed 8 pitches from local startups, I’ve heard dozens more in the past few months. last week, I was at LeWeb, the French startup conference, and it seems that pitching is the new black.
Some have been elevator pitches, some casual and conversation, some long and more formal, in conference rooms, at booths, on-stage, and on the bus or in a taxi. Interestingly, an elevator seems like the only place I haven’t heard a pitch this season. But nevermind- all of this pitching has drawn a few little details to my attention, and as a frequent pitchee, but a non-entrepreneur, I’ve noticed a handful of things that I wished pitchers did a bit more often when talking to me, or a group I am a part of.
Some of them seem easy, but aren’t, and others seem complicated, but are actually easy to do.
What is your Startup called again?
Wow, you would’ve thought this was obvious enough. But it is not. I would say that over 50% of the startups that pitch me mention the name of their company no more than once. And since I deal almost exclusively with non-native English speakers, they do so with an accent that ranges from the highly intelligible, to the marginally understandable. This isn’t as big of a problem when we’re both standing in front of a conference booth plastered with the name of the startup, and the founder I’m talking to is wearing a company t-shirt (which is a better idea than you probably think, btw), but I can’t tell you how many frustrating minutes I’ve spent pouring over a stack of business cards (I easily come home with 50 of them in a week), trying to match the company name on the card with the face of the founder in my memory. This happens because the founder didn’t say the name of his company often enough.
Adding to that, startup names can be fairly arbitrary, and can have weird or unexpected spellings. That’s fine, but if your accent isn’t perfect, or you’re not using any visual aids to pitch your startup, go ahead and repeat the name 2-3 times a minute. In fact, every time you would normally say “we,” or “our,” go ahead and try to say the name of your startup. It often works really well. Words to avoid are “our company,” “our startup,” and “our team.” Always say the name of the company, or “The X Company team.”
Say My Name
Oh, go ahead and laugh. But as I’ve written before on this blog, a person’s name is the sweetest sound they will ever hear from another human being. If I’m at a conference, I’m wearing a nametag. And if I hand you a business card, my name is written on it. If you pitch me, I will always hand you a business card, and a lot of investors and most accelerator folk will do the same. So use my name when speaking to me.
I think this makes people feel uncomfortable- that is, saying another person’s name in conversation, instead of just saying: “you.” But believe me, even though I know it’s a sales tactic, it still works. Why? If for no other reason, because you took the time to learn my name. That will make me instantly like you, and instantly appreciative of your attention. It works, so do it.
Acknowledge your Challenges and Be Interested in Feedback
I’m a startup mentor, and I’m an angel investor. That doesn’t make me an expert in what you do, but it makes me someone who’s worth listening to- if only because I have the tendency, when I’m really impressed, to give people money. And I think it’s safe to say that I would only give money to someone who seemed interested in hearing what I have to say. You don’t have to agree with my feedback, and you don’t have to pretend that I’m an expert when I’m not, but you do have to be genuinely interested in what I have to say about your ideas. Why? Because I’m in a position to help make your ideas realities. A lot of the people you talk to will have opinions- they may be wrong, but it’s your opportunity to impress them by showing that you’ve thought about the problems already.
I also notice a tendency among very polished pitches, the kind that win pitching competitions, to do away with an acknowledgement of challenges that a company may face. I think this is can be a big mistake. In the case of LeWeb, for example, I was frustrated with the winning pitch, by a company called JukeDeck, because it completely ignored the enormous technical challenges associated with the product, which generates music automatically for videos and websites. When asked about these challenges, the founder avoided the question, and talked about his experience with music theory, and machine learning, as a competitive advantage. But this is a considerable risk. The founder was refusing to acknowledge a huge challenge, and having spoken afterward to a few people who viewed the presentation, I can say that this did not go unnoticed. You need to acknowledge and address doubts that you expect to be raised. Not ignore them.
I don’t know about all investors or accelerators, but we at StartupYard are not going to fall over dead if you politely argue your case with us. We are interested in the process of discovering what you know, what we know, and how we can work together to make your product a success. That, more often than not, involves a little spirited debate. If the person you’re pitching raises an objection, show that you understand the objection, and appreciate the thinking behind it, then attempt to politely rebut it. If you don’t understand the feedback, ask for clarification. Very often, founders dismiss feedback by saying they don’t understand it, or they respond to feedback in a way that shows they don’t understand. Don’t put yourself in this position- ask for clarification, and demonstrate that you understand the objection. You don’t have to have an answer, but you do have to acknowledge the feedback.
Consider that I may have something of value to teach you
I’ll give you an example: just recently at LeWeb, the Paris startup conference, I spoke to Alban Margaine, a co-founder from a startup called Braineet. He gave me quite a good pitch for their startup, which is an “idea engine,” of sorts for connecting retail brands with customers who have interesting creative or marketing ideas. I raised a few objections, and he handled the interaction beautifully: he showed that he understood those questions, and countered by showing me some data which supported his argument. He didn’t tell me I was wrong, he simply showed me a reason why my assumptions might be inaccurate. But then he did something that almost no startup co-founder ever does: he asked me about my own experiences, to see why I had drawn the conclusions that I did.
I think that pitching becomes an adversarial, game-like exercise for many of us. We begin to forget that it carries with it an opportunity to learn and profit in ways that we hadn’t expected, but ought to have been ready for. So remember who you’re talking to, and treat them as a resource. They will appreciate your interest, and your thirst for knowledge.
Success is the intersection of luck and perseverance.
LeWeb speakers Peter Pham and Jeff Bonforte touched on this during their talk this week at the conference. Bonforte relayed a story in which he had been working on selling a company for several months. Deals had fallen through, term sheets had been drawn up and abandoned, and the situation oscillated between hopeful and miserable. Then his electric car ran out of energy while it was near the Google headquarters in Mountain View. Google had not been part of the conversation about this company up to this point, though he had known people there. Events transpired, and Google ended up buying the company he had been trying to sell less than 12 hours later.
Benforte doesn’t attribute this turn of events to luck, nor to his own industry. Instead, he simply states that his perseverance, playing out over months of hard work, finally met with a lucky outcome. He had been plugging away at selling this company for a long time, and he would have continued. At the same time, he had been honing the sales pitch he had used for potential purchasers, and he had raised a lot of awareness of the deal in the offing. By the time it happened, his luck simply caught up with his hard work. Had he not worked hard, it’s unlikely he would have been prepared to make a deal in just 12 hours- but had he not been lucky, he would not have made the deal that day. Still- he probably would have found luck another day.
A lot of founders get burned out on pitching. They can’t be blamed for this- it’s thankless, emotionally exhausting, and harder work than it seems. But you shouldn’t let yourself forget this: every time you pitch, every time you talk to an investor or a partner, that could be the moment you write about in your own autobiography. Every pitch you do could be the one that gets you where you want to be. It isn’t plain luck, and it isn’t all hard work: it’s being prepared when the two meet that counts the most.
Know what you want to accomplish and control the conversation
When you pitch, you have to have a goal in mind. And that goal has to fit the venue in which you’re pitching. State that goal, in your pitch, very clearly, before finishing. If the person or group you’re pitching to has to ask you what you want, then you have not used your pitching opportunity to accomplish much. Worse, by not stating your specific goals and challenges, you don’t control the conversation about moving forward, and leave yourself open to being picked apart on one of a million details.
I witnessed a pitch at LeWeb for example, going horribly wrong. The startup was a “suggestion box,” app for large companies. The founder had been vague and unclear about what the unique competitive advantage of the startup was (since the technology was not new in itself), and the panel really wanted to know. Worse, the founder didn’t make it clear what the company was trying to accomplish by pitching. When asked whether they were looking for investment, and if so, what for, the founder didn’t have a good answer.
It struck me that if the founder had simply stated that he wasn’t sure what his advantage was, he would have elicited advice rather than criticism. But instead, he reached a bit too far, and started talk about how his company was “reinventing email.” Red flags rose, and the panel had nothing but more challenging questions about the company’s strategy. That’s where things went downhill. The founder and panel began vehemently arguing about whether the idea was innovative or not. The founder lost control of the message, and began desperately trying to list ways in which his product was unique- none of which sounded unique at all, given that he appeared so defensive. The crowd turned sour as well.
This problem is, I think, the most common cause of a pitching disaster, particularly on stage, when a pitching session includes a panel, which they do at many conferences. The pitch seems to go fine, but it becomes clear when the panel begins to ask questions, that the founder has not made clear what they want to accomplish by pitching. Raise awareness? Money? Recruit partners or employees? If the panel doesn’t know the answer, they don’t know what about the pitch was important, and they will simply target the weakest aspects of your pitch, bringing up things you aren’t necessarily willing or able to talk about. The point of focus will be the value proposition that the company is making, and that proposition may be difficult to support in a 5 minute pitch. In some cases, founders try to backpedal and cover for their weaknesses, in an attempt to head off the objections, making the situation even worse. Instead, acknowledge your challenges, and make them a part of your pitch. This will put you in control of the conversation, and steer it towards positive solutions, rather than highlighting problems you haven’t addressed.