Pitching for Payroll: How we Boostrapped $1,226,500 in Pitch Competitions
Apologies for the overdue post and for neglecting the weekly cadence we originally promised. The past couple of months were punctuated by a series of disruptions, and while we’ve come to anticipate unexpected spikes in startup chaos, Q2+Q3 were especially unusual. Specifically we encountered an accelerated deadline to consolidate & scale our Houston operations (which included a 7000 sq ft demo), inclusion into a enterprise accelerator, launching two new outposts (WeWork + Puerto Rico), winning $200K in pitch competitions to fund our research to 3D print from recyclables, as well as our first NSF/SBIR submission. The past quarters continue to humble us as we recognize that we have many, many lessons learned to pass along in future blogs!
Since our last post on how to hack an event we have received several requests from startups asking about our experiences pitching and placing as a finalist in almost every competition we have entered globally, despite our transparency that we are not fundraising.
ON MAXIMIZING YOUR ODDS OF WINNING
While I personally think we may have gotten lucky on more than one occasion & certainly don’t claim to have all the answers, below are things we’ve been told by judges (often investors) that helped us make the final cut despite sticking to our open-source, socially-driven and bootstrapped position.
Have a plan for the money
Many startups exhaust their allotted pitch time-sharing their successes & projections for the future, but neglect to reveal why they chose to pitch and what they will do with the proceeds from winning. Considering that most of the judges will be VCs, treat a pitch as an investment opportunity. Investors want to bet on a winning horse, and have confidence that their endorsement will yield measurable returns. I usually end our pitch with the phrase that goes something like this:
“With your vote (or the $award amount/Euros) that you can provide re:3D today, we will purchase $xxx in materials (or hire number of people) to accomplish fill in the blank by fill in the date).
If you are not wearing company apparel, you might as well be naked
Peter Thiel made the comment in his book “Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future” that if a co-founder isn’t dressed like an engineer, he won’t invest in them. In short, Peter places his bets on companies where the leadership looks the part. For this reason (and because I prefer to take on an alter ego to help quench competition nerves), it’s imperative that if you are selling your idea to likely a panel of investors onstage, use yourself as real estate to enforce your brand in the 3–5 minutes you have live, and YouTube capture that may endure online afterwards.
Sure, we might take it too far with a flight suit adorned with flair, but it also has proven more than once as a valuable conversation piece that guides dialogues we want to have. For example, our entire team dons the suit during pitch competitions as we believe additive manufacturing is gender agnostic, it’s a tribute to our NASA roots, and the patches tell a story (our genesis in Chile/factory in Texas, our Kickstarter success, and open-source commitment).
Know your audience
We all recycle pitch decks, but taking a few minutes to adjust slides to reflect the city/ sponsor/ event logos on at least the final ask slide is a small jester of appreciation that can go a long way. We also try to drop in the name of the city or sponsor in our pitch script to acknowledge our hosts, and the role that they might play in our future success. Inspired out of good intentions to graciously acknowledge the organizations that provide us with a platform to share our mission, it has had the added benefit of helping us score some People’s Choice votes (or so we have been told).
Demo your product live, and if you can’t, have a representative prop
Fun fact: in almost every competition where we didn’t score first place, we failed to provide a product demo and/or representative product to the judges. While these were also admittedly our weaker performances, it is worth exploring if our pitch would have been more meaningful if the judges could have had personal engagement with Gigabot.
Finding creative ways to let the audience/judges engage with your product/service allows others to develop a personal connection to what you are doing, and also proves you aren’t full of sh$t.
Leave behind something to be remembered
Although we have struggled with the sustainability of the gesture (and have had judges decline our tokens for the same reason), we typically try to leave behind a small print (usually a paperclip we made on Gigabot) that holds our business card and a tech spec flyer.
Forewarning: leave behinds require skilz I haven’t quite mastered. If you chose to distribute the items when you walk onstage/into a room you run the risk of distracting your judges, so I like to pass them out at the end. However, this does pose a logistics problem if your goodies are not organized, and requires some forethought into how/where they will be stored while you are talking. Coupled with our flight suit, and the 3D printed stool I cart around when Gigabot can’t travel, we do run the risk of looking a bit like a circus.
My best advice: if you can have a teammate in the room, have them stand to the side and quietly distribute your swag when you finish your Q&A. If you go solo, practice walking, storing and distributing your handouts at the end of your pitch and pre-game any possible snags.
I’ve been accused more than once of sounding too scripted and taking my enthusiasm too far (e.g once Matthew remarked I might need to tone it down so the judges don’t think we are suggesting they will go to hell if they don’t support us). However, while at times I need to work on curbing my passion, we do often here positive feedback that what we are doing resonated with listeners. Consider letting yourself and others feel your struggles, focus and vision when you pitch, and invite them to join you at a forefront of a revolution.
Make friends with the AV guys & save your slides in multiple formats
If you ask well in advance, the organizers will almost always let you verify everything is honky dory. If not, and you are prepared, they will usually let you offer a backup version of your deck on USB.
After blundering or going slide-less due to formatting hiccups on several pitch down selects I’ve learned to always have the following handy on a thumb drive: a PPT in wide screen and normal format as well as a PDF version of our slides.
ON MINIMIZING POSSIBLE PENALTIES
Below is a complication of my own misses as well as experiences relayed by our peers. While painful, we’ve also witnessed many startups (including ourselves) still make the finals or win 1st place after experiencing these blunders. Ultimately most pitch organizers set up competitions to encompass a holistic experience that considers a pitch + the promise of your solution, so don’t beat yourself up too hard if things went a little smoother in front of a hotel mirror.
DO NOT go over the time
In our experience this can be an automatic disqualifier and judges are extremely critical of those startups that run over, as it can be a signal of lack of prep. Rather than risking elimination, end on a slide early or cut part of your script. Only the A/V guys will know you have a couple of slides remaining, and now that you have made them your friends, they won’t blow your cover:)
Prepare for the worst
Stay flexible: we’ve been informed while walking onstage that a minute or more was cut from all of our presentations. Consequently I’ve since memorized a 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 minute versions of our deck (which was a good strategy until we were given a random 7 minute evaluation a couple of weeks ago). We have also had the location/stage change minutes beforehand, lost or were given a mike set up we didn’t anticipate, had clickers/slides fail, etc. However frustrating these unforeseen events are in the moment of pre-pitch panic mode, it’s really important to keep in mind that the experience is not about you. Rather, it’s an event that likely took months to craft. Your pitch is a reflection of the host’s mission, goals, anchor sponsors and team invested in your success. Being selected to pitch, is an honor in and of itself, often set in the backdrop of a larger event with thousands of moving parts.
So, when the logistics don’t jive with what you rehearsed, pause to breathe in appreciation for the opportunity, put on your big girl panties and roll with the adjustments.
The worst part of start-up conferences is that you seem to have access to a steady supply of coffee and alcohol, but water can surprisingly be hard to source. As there is nothing worse than cotton-mouth on stage and no one wants to hear you smacking your parched lips over a microphone (guilty), be sure to hydrate throughout the day of the festivities. I shoot to drink 64 oz the night before and 16oz an hour before I go up due to nerves, and the likelihood that I just vomited.
Don’t let throwing up throw you off
Secretly painfully shy, I’m notorious for being a nervous wreck before going on stage. Just ask any pitch organizer whose been privy to my pacing, multiple questions and profuse sweating. Needless to say, the first time we made it on a “big stage” and I caught a glimpse of the magnitude of the event, I threw up. In front of Bono (who was giving the closing remarks after I pitched last). While I am likely the only person to recall the rather awkward celebrity encounter, I managed to stumble on stage and we won second place. Thankfully the judges couldn’t smell my breath.
Have your family & friends on standby
People’s choice should be celebrated just as much as first place! Also, several pitch competitions have a wild card vote to enable a start up to forward based on votes or social media shares. This strategy paid off for us in the Austin Bunker Muster and Web Summit Semi finals, as well as the Gentleman Jack Pitch Competition in SF (winner chosen by the audience).
WHY WE WERE TOLD WE LOST
They didn’t think we needed it/ Revenue or success was too good
While it’s critical to talk about how awesome your team/product/community is, it’s just as important to share why you need the accolade and how the judges can help you scale.
Revenue and or/success wasn’t significant enough
Investor-types will be scrutinizing you for big numbers. While often an unrealistic expectation, what you can do is offer details on your barriers to entry, plans for growth and proven reoccurring revenue. These facts might not thwart the toughest critics, but will show you appreciate the risks you are undertaking and have a plan for success.
Our market is overrated/they weren’t convinced
We’ve struggled with relaying opportunity in a market that hasn’t been 10X for 30 years. For this reason we’ve found it imperative to really know our stuff on the trends that impact our niche offerings as well as our LTV. Rather than spending your 60 second response reinforcing data investors might know, share how you have big plans to capture the unknown, and milestones you’ve set along the way to verify you are meeting growth targets.
The judges decided they’d work with us regardless if we won
This has been the most frustrating feedback we’ve received to date as we have yet to form a partnership with a group who said they gave their vote to another company because they were convinced our organizations were already aligned. However ultimately I take the blame as I clearly failed to explain not only how identified with our audience, but also why we needed their support immediately and how the partnership from winning would better enforce our relationship.
ONCE YOU WIN
Support the organizers
The team behind the scenes worked incredibly hard on your behalf. Send updates on your progress (with pics videos when possible), share online shoutouts of milestones the experience enabled. Credit the award as part of your journey when sharing progress with outside communities. Also, be open to ways you can provide KPIs for their fundraising efforts to recruit $$ for next year’s pitch competitions and future winners!
Thank your team & community
Every win is a reflection of an amazing team & community that is invested in the same mission. Pause to appreciate how much so many give and ensure that they are credited for the accolade!
Get to work!
Winning is the easy part. The hard part is ensuring what you promised the judges is actually accomplished. Remember, actions speak louder than words!
Finally, Have Fun!
Questions/feedback or comments? Email email@example.com:)
For context/those that asked: below are the events that form our biases:)
- Start-Up Chile Demo Day 2013–2nd Place (Santiago)
• Websummit 2014–2nd place (Dublin)
• Collision 2015–1st place (Las Vegas)
• Detroit Homecoming 2016 — Finalist (Detroit)
• Bunker Muster 2016 People’s Choice Winner — $5000(Austin)
• Atech 2016 — Finalist (Aruba)
• Hello Tomorrow Industry 4.0 2017 Winner-$16500 (Paris)
• Wired/Gentleman Jack 2017 Winner- $5000 (San Francisco)
• Austin Creator Awards Finalist 2017- $180K (Austin)
• First Wave/Bunker DC Pitch Winner — $20K (Washington DC)
• WeWork Creator Award Global Finals- $1M (NYC)