Three Pitching Disasters – and How to Avoid Them

smaller_MG_1115The following is a guest-post by Startupyard Mentor, Jeanne Trojan. Jeanne trains and mentors startup teams personally at SY. She has lived in the Czech Republic for nearly 20 years. She is a noted expert on the local market, and a 2013 TEDx presenter with “Rejecting Normal: Four Changes for an Exceptional Life” 

Three Pitching Disasters – and How to Avoid Them

 Jeanne Trojan : Startupyard Mentor,  Presentation and Pitch Trainer

Because of my work and my involvement in the startup community, I’ve seen a lot of pitches. I’m always happy when I see a pitch that achieves what it should – making potential investors and clients interested enough to learn more about the project. But, unfortunately, most of the pitches I see don’t even get close to that goal. There are even some that I would call disasters.
Although I think there is a lot to learn from looking at the successes, there is plenty of information about how to pitch successfully. I’d like to tell you about some of the disasters I’ve seen and give you some ways you can avoid the same fate. My point is not to embarrass anyone (of course, the teams, accelerators and events are deliberately anonymous), but to show you what can go wrong if you’re not properly prepared.

1. Um… I don’t know’

Photo Credit: Brian Moore, Flikr

Photo Credit: Brian Moore, Flikr

Picture this. Demo Day. It’s the end of the accelerator program and it’s time to show the audience and jury the projects that have made it through. The venue is full of potential investors, clients and members of the startup community. During the accelerator program, a lot of time was spent with mentors of every kind. Before Demo Day, the pitch was refined by a pitch coach and members of the accelerator team. The founder has just finished delivering the pitch and it’s time for the jury Q&A.

Jury member: ‘How much does your product cost? I didn’t notice anything about price in your pitch.’ 

Founder: (After a long, uncomfortable pause and a glance at the other team members) ‘We don’t exactly know yet.’

I’m stunned. Is it a joke? No. The founder really doesn’t know what he’s going to charge for the product. He acts as if the question never occurred to him. All of that time, mentoring and coaching and no one brought up the topic of price? No one thought it was something important to discuss? Unfortunately, this incident isn’t the only time I’ve seen a founder embarrassed to realize that they don’t have some basic information about their project.

Lesson: In my opinion, one of the advantages of going through an accelerator program is access to experienced mentors. The result should be that the founder has talked about many different aspects of their business with experienced professionals. It’s a shame that this doesn’t always happen. But, the founder needs to be proactive enough to realize that just because it’s not brought up in the mentor sessions doesn’t mean that they don’t need to think about it and come up with a decision.
There is some basic information that you need to include in your pitch – the problem being solved, your target market, a clear explanation of your solution, your competitive advantage, the team and how you’re going to make money (just to name a few). Make sure you’re getting help making these decisions. If you’re not in an accelerator, you’ll need to do your own research and seek out people who can help you.

After you’ve created your pitch, sit down with your team and brainstorm every possible question potential investors/clients could ask you – from the obvious to the off-the-wall.  Make sure you can clearly answer these questions.  You might even find that some of the topics should actually be a part of the pitch so go back and include them. The time spent in these question drills will pay off in the confidence you’ll have when it’s time to pitch.

2. It’s Not Funny

Photo Credit: Pulguita, Flikr.

Photo Credit: Pulguita, Flikr.

For some reason – maybe it’s the relaxed atmosphere or the perceived ‘laid back’ attitude of being in a startup – some founders choose to start their pitches with something ‘funny’. Examples that I’ve seen include dumping a bunch of paper out of a big box, wearing a ‘funny’ hat, telling ‘funny’ stories or asking the audience a ‘raise your hands if…’ question. When I look at the jury’s faces, they usually just seem embarrassed for the speaker. This is not the impression you want to leave with potential investors.

Lesson: People often don’t understand the difference between a conference talk and a startup pitch. When you are delivering a pitch, the only people you’re addressing are potential investors/clients. These are serious people with serious questions. They want to be sure that you are someone credible enough to invest in. The underlying message in your pitch should be – this is an amazing investment that is going to make money for you. Let me tell you more about it. This is impossible to achieve if you lose the respect of your audience at the beginning of your pitch just because you were trying to be entertaining.

3. ‘Oh, well…whatever…’

Photo Credit: Makelessnoise, Flikr

Photo Credit: Makelessnoise, Flikr

This happened at a recent pitch contest for mobile applications and the stakes were pretty high.
One founder got up and his whole presence said, ‘I don’t really care about this’. He started by saying, ‘Yeah, so my name is … and… uh… you know, we made this uh… app and you know…’ This stunning introduction was followed by a description of the app with lots of ‘yeah, whatevers’ thrown in throughout the pitch.

I was on the jury and I’m afraid I wasn’t very kind in my feedback. This is not the time to act cool or like you really don’t care if you win or not. In this case, it was a real shame because the application was actually great, but the delivery of the pitch killed any chance of success in the competition.

Lesson: There is NO way that someone is going to invest if the founder isn’t excited about his own project. If you can’t express your enthusiasm, have someone else on your team who has this ability deliver the pitch instead.

In this case, the founder and I talked afterwards and his persona of ‘I don’t care’ was really just covering up his extreme nervousness. Don’t let this happen to you. We all deal with nerves differently, but the best way to take control of nervous energy is to practice until you know the pitch like you know your own name. I don’t mean you should memorize it – except for your first few sentences, don’t memorize. But, you should know your story and know where it’s leading and how it fits with each slide. It’s good to be nervous – it means you care – but the only way you can control your impression is to practice a lot.

Practice, Practice, Practice

*There are tons of resources on how to make a great pitch. Here are a few you should check out:

Dave McClure: VC Pitch Advice

How to Pitch Your Startup in 3 Minutes

How to Pitch Your Business

Startup Pitch: Essential Elements