The key is not the will to win … everybody has that. It is the will to prepare to win that is important. — Bobby Knight
At 500, we pitch a lot. In fact, the only steady drone is the fits and starts of founders tweaking their pitch based on constant feedback and their latest pivot. Pitching is an important skill yet most founders start out horrible. This is partly due to practice but mostly due to focus and comfort level. Let me explain.
Most founders know their product so intimately that they revert to explaining it in a nail in the eye detail that most investors (and other technical founders) can’t comprehend. Remember that clear communication to your target audience is essential if you want your message to get across. This is the single reason why pitching is so important.
Pitches require a story that flows like the river styx through the hellish landscape that is pitching investors. In some respects, the only thing that matters is that you can tell your story in such a compelling way that the chastity belt of funding magically opens. That is the reason it’s so critical to practice pitching.
What’s Your Story?
Pitch prep is all about figuring out your story. Every company has a story that needs to be told. The simpler and more relatable your story is, the more people will connect with it. Connection to you and your vision is at the heart of a great story. Without that connection, people will tune out.
Most founders make the mistake of focusing way to much on their technology or product. Most investors either don’t care or don’t understand. What investors do understand is a good story about the problem you can solve profitability. It may seem shallow, frankly it is, but the art in telling your your story is to compel an investor to ask you for more details or the next meeting. A good story will even ensure that you will meet the right investors and not waste your time.
Since story is so important, most of pitch prep is centered around finding your story. Once you get your story down, the rest is just practice and stage presence, which is harder than it sounds.
The Only Rule of Pitch Prep
Andrea has only one rule for pitch prep. If you show up, you have to pitch. There is no use being at a pitch prep with no intent to actually pitch since it’s the community feedback that is going to be the most valuable. Conversely, if you comment and don’t pitch, then how will any one take you serious. You really have to step up to the podium and put yourself out there. That is the only way to get better and be able to participate in group feedback, which is extremely valuable.
Breath and Have Fun
The most striking problem that most founders have pitching is not breathing (trying to talk to fast) and not having fun (looking stiff and generally terrified). This makes pitch prep both fun and sometimes painful to watch. Most of this is due to nerves and the fear of public speaking, which can all be conquered by practice.
What is really great to see is when a founder nails a pitch or lands a joke that works. Those are the days when you truly feel the passion of what a founder wants to convey. It’s those days that motivate you to work hard to pitch great.
If you want to learn more about how to pitch like a pro, check out Andrea’s Pitch Please post on the 14 must read pitch lessons. It’s fantastic.
Late Night Pitch Prep
500 Startups San Francisco has a tradition that forms the legend of how incredibility awful Marvin concocts mixed drinks. Actually, I don’t even think you can call it a mixed drink. Rather, it’s a vile elixir of seemingly random spirits and condiments that takes an iron constitution to not feed every mud shark in San Francisco Bay.
Late night pitch prep is part fraternity hazing, part tough love and part sadistic support group. The whole goal is to pitch good enough so that you get a “reasonable” shot of Marvin’s magic elixir of “you better not fuck this up.” It’s competitive yet supportive since you pray that your shot will be at least smaller than the poor founder who looked to much at the confidence monitor or worst yet, violated the cardinal sin of going over time. There is no wrath like the sacred breaking of the time other than maybe not showing up.
To put this in perspective and to turn your stomach a bit, Marvin’s magic elixir has no set recipe, the ratio of alcohol to condiments is random, sometimes the plastic cups melt from the chemical reaction and the color can range from dark as night black death to day glow agent orange. The stuff is truly vial. He even goes so far as to save you a shot if you don’t show up or mess up later. Ugh! I shutter the thought.
If Marvin is being particularly sadistic, you have to take a shot before you even get to pitch. For those poor souls, the shock to the system of Sriracha blended with Bacardi and Vita Coco makes the presenter momentary invincible to even the most sinister critic of their less than stellar traction metrics. Marvin’s elixir is the ultimate kick in the ass motivator to prepare, prepare and prepare some more.
LAUNCH Mobile Success
It’s one thing to pitch in front of your peers and get feedback and entirely different pitching in front of an audience and investors. Thankfully, we got the opportunity to pitch at LAUNCH Mobile and Wearables two weeks before demo day and it went fantastic. We ended up 1st on Friday and 2nd overall, which gave us a free week long design sprint from Pivotal and the opportunity to apply to the LAUNCH incubator. It was thrilling to see how well our pitch was received and all the pitch prep paying off. It’s a real testament to 500’s pitch prep program.
What was even better about the LAUNCH Mobile experience is that I did it deck-less. For whatever reason, my computer did the pinwheel of death every time it was plugged in. It was extremely frustrating to experience yet as in all live performances, the show must go on and going up without a deck felt comfortable and effortless. There is something to be said for practicing your pitch until it’s so automatic that it flows without the crutch of slides.
The Main Event
Our entire time at 500 was spent improving our one metric that matters and preparing for the main event — demo-ween. Demo-ween is our final exam. It’s what we all worked hard to crush.
The day started off with most of us riding down to the Computer History Museum in style via a stretch Hummer limo. Pretty darn cool and a great way to reflect on all the hard work leading to today.
The Computer History Museum is a fantastic venue for a demo day. The companies that have invented it’s contents are some of the most stellar technology companies in history. What a place to showcase the next great technology innovation.
All the companies that presented crushed it. Everyone did their best pitch ever. It was great to see all the hard work pay off. Congrats to Batch 14! You guys all rock.
If you want to check out my pitch, see below. Feel free to leave a comment about what you thought.
Think You Have What It Takes?
If you read this blog then you probably has some aspirations to start a business or you already have one you are working on. If you think you want to join an accelerator, then I would highly recommended applying for 500 Startups. Before you apply, I would HIGHLY recommend reading the following post by Andrea about how to interview for an accelerator. It was invaluable.
Once you think you are ready, you can apply to 500 Startups here.
Stumbled Upon This
This post is part of a three part series on my companies experience at 500 startups. If you found this out of order, the best place for you to start is here.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.
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