In 2014, Ted Baker was sitting in his office and musing, “I wonder what kind of ideas people have. Let’s find out what people are thinking.” As the CEO and Executive Director of Innovation Connector, an incubator in Muncie, Indiana, he and his team decided to put on a pitch competition to answer that question and created an inclusive pitch event that was open to anybody. The result — they created a hit that highlights what’s happening in their community and celebrates entrepreneurship.
“We really make it about the people, the pitches, their product, or service.” — Ted Baker
As ecosystem builders, we should always be looking out for successful and sustainable programming that can have a positive impact on the entrepreneurs in our community. If you’re looking for an interesting programming element that celebrates the ideas and entrepreneurs in your community, Innovation Connector’s BIG Idea Pitch Competition may offer some inspiration and potentially spark some new ideas for you.
Make it About the People
From the beginning, they decided to make it more than just a pitch competition. “We surrounded this with educational measures,” said Ted. Following the baseball metaphor theme that had emerged in naming the event, they added some training camps — a series of workshops to educate their participants.
Another key early decision was to remove as many barriers as possible for participants, making the event open to anybody, at any stage, any type of business, and making the application process as simple as possible.
“It started out as a three-minute pitch, tell-us-your-idea thing. It was a hit.” — Ted Baker
They pulled off the event the first year with a total budget of $20,000, funded by money in the Innovation Connector’s budget along with sponsor contributions. Fifty-eight people registered, and they had a hit on their hands that would evolve and grow to have an even bigger impact on their community.
Make it Sustainable
The response from the success in the program’s first year was so positive they realized they had to continue with a yearly program. But they needed to come up with a sustainable funding model. They created a banquet funding model. The pitch event became one component of a bigger celebration of innovation and entrepreneurship in the community. The annual banquet includes keynote speakers, an innovation showcase, and of course the pitch competition. Despite the other programming components of the banquet, the pitch event is the crowd favorite. At $100 per ticket and attendance of over 300 people each year — 362 in 2018 — the program is funded largely by ticket sales but supplemented by event sponsorships.
The Educational Component
In order to make the program more than “just another pitch competition,” Baker and his team built in an educational component from the beginning. Three weeks prior to pitches, they hold a series of three workshops, which they call training camps. For these three 60- to 90-minute workshops, they bring in speakers to cover topics like: how to come up with a good idea, what would be considered a feasible idea, how to vet ideas, customer validation, pitch skills, and public speaking skills. These workshops are all free and open to everyone regardless of whether the person pitches or not. One of the training camp speakers is Ted’s pastor, a great public speaker, who teaches them how to speak and present and tell their story.
Semi-finals and Finals
The semi-finals pitch night is an intriguing spin on the more traditional pitch events. In the semi-finals event everybody pitches to a panel of judges for three minutes. The twist? There’s no pitch deck or Q&A allowed. Baker explained the rationale behind this. “We want them to depend on themselves and rely on themselves. They can’t rely on their PowerPoint.”
From the semi-finals, the judges select the five finalists that will present at the banquet event. During the week between semi-finals and the banquet, Baker and his team work closely with the finalists to get them ready and help them with whatever they need.
For the final pitches, the presenters are allowed one slide — a collage of what they’re doing, with information such as their name, their product name, and a picture of their product. This again forces the presenters to rely on themselves, and also helps focus them on the idea itself rather than a PowerPoint presentation.
Though Innovation Connector is primarily a tech incubator, the pitches don’t have to be “tech.” The pitch competition sees a mix. The number of tech-oriented business has been growing year over year. Last year 24 out of 41 were tech related.
Each of the five finalists receive a cash prize ranging from $5,000 for the winner to $1,000 for fifth place. In addition to the cash, finalists all receive a custom trophy and an impressive package of business services from the community to help them progress their idea or business. Unlike some pitch events there are no stipulations on how the prize money is spent — another barrier reduced.
Each year the program continues to evolve. New this year will be a post-event component. Everyone who pitched, regardless of whether or not they were a finalist, will have the opportunity to participate in a cohort-based educational component to help them take their idea and move it forward. They’ll meet every month for six months as a group, and Ted and his team will make sure that anyone who wants it can receive one-on-one advising through SBDC or SCORE.
Impact on the Community and Innovation Connector
The impact of the BIG Idea Pitch Competition on the community has been amazing. It has become both a catalyst for innovation and entrepreneurship as well as a celebration of entrepreneurship in the community. It has also elevated the profile of Innovation Connector in Muncie and more broadly in Indiana. Ted elaborates, “Here’s the neat part of this. People are aware of this in the entrepreneurial field. It’s really neat to know that they’ve got something to look forward to and they really take part in this. It’s just done a lot to bring a whole new sense of what we do. It’s probably done more for our reputation in our community than anything that we’ve ever done. It’s really raised the bar of what people think we do and who we are.”
Some statistics from the event are impressive. In a metro area with a population of approximately 120,000, the competition regularly attracts 50 or more people to pitch. In 2018, 50 people registered. Of those, 40 ended up pitching and Ted estimates that 18 of those ideas “were valid and had some oomph.” According to Ted, of the 23 prize winners in the first five years, 17 are in business today.
The event also attracts both TV and newspaper coverage and was written up in a state journal, raising awareness of Innovation Connector throughout the state. The result is a triple win. The program helps entrepreneurs in the community, raises awareness of Innovation Connector, and raises awareness of the entrepreneurial and innovation community in Muncie.
Remove the Barriers
Word about the success of the program has spread and other ecosystem builders from other communities in Indiana have asked Ted how the program has been so successful. According to Ted, removing the barriers to participation is the most essential element of his program’s success. “We’ve taken every barrier off. It has made this a successful event. There are so many people that put restrictions on their entrepreneurs. They make it so difficult for people to participate. They make it for only certain kinds of people to participate. We, on the other hand, don’t put stipulations on that. And that seems to roll over in how we roll in our incubator practice. It’s that attitude. We don’t want those barriers.”
Ted offers the following advice for removing barriers.
- Simplify the Application. A lot of pitch competitions have an onerous application process. Too many questions put up an immediate barrier at the beginning of the whole process. Ted and his team have simplified their application in the extreme. “Our application process is real simple. Name, phone number, email, and a 25-word description of the idea,” says Ted.
- Make it Open to All. Like the application process, having too many limitations on who can participate — types or stages of the business, for example — will limit your pool of entrepreneurs. At the BIG Idea Pitch Competition, participants may have just had an idea the previous night, or they may have been in business for years. By opening it up to all and incorporating the semi-finals event, Ted and his team have eliminated the need to pre-select the finalists. It’s up to the judges and the audience.
- Set No Restrictions. Another key characteristic of the event is around the prize money. They decided early on to put no restrictions on it. “We put no stipulations on the money. There are no boundaries, no barriers. We have found that the more free we can be with that, the better it is.”
When all is said and done, Ted summarizes the event and the thinking that has gone into its design: “It’s about helping people!”
Are you looking to have a greater impact on entrepreneurs in your community? Whether or not you decide to organize a pitch competition and banquet event like Ted’s, do follow his advice — remove the barriers and make it about the people.
Read on for more insights on this ecosystem building topic:
- Rethinking Pitch Competitions: Create Value, Not a Spectacle
- Pitch Perfect: Five Tips for Designing Effective Business Pitch Competitions for International Entrepreneurs
- Innovation Connector’s Big Idea Pitch
Missed Connections: Know other voices that connect to this story? Link them in the comments!