This is the first installment of Pitch Directory; A four-part series presented in partnership with BDO VC Pitch Day. This series examines pitching from four different perspectives, exploring the definitive sources dedicated to understanding what it takes to successfully pitch a company or idea. Check out part two, three, and four.
It’s difficult to truly encapsulate what a good pitch can mean for a company founder. Delivering a concise and engaging presentation can lead to any number of benefits: finding the perfect mentor, landing a spot in a coveted startup accelerator, securing funding, and even hiring the top talent that you need to see the vision come to life.
Harder still is trying to describe what makes a pitch “good.” For every example above, that pitch must be slightly tweaked to cater to the audience. Sometimes, however, the pitch is so good it wins with anyone within earshot. There is no absolute definition for a flawless pitch, and that’s what makes it one of the most fascinating and polarizing skills required to scale a startup.
There isn’t a single magic formula for the perfect pitch–the influencing factors vary far too much. So here’s the alternative: Through four segments, four veterans will weigh in on the current pitching ecosystem within the technology world. Hamayal Choudhry, the young pitch contest champion who recently won a major competition while attending university; Sunil Sharma, the accelerator director that has personally graduated hundreds of founders and startups; Sophie Forest, the VC partner who has heard thousands of investment pitches and divvied out millions of dollars in funding; and Jerry Weissman, the corporate guru who readies CEOs for IPO road shows and influences countless Fortune 500 executives.
Pitch Directory brings four unique perspectives together to offer a consensus on the best qualities a pitch should have. It’s impossible to master the art of the pitch—but as Idowu Koyenikan wrote, “Opportunity does not waste time with those who are unprepared.”
Here Comes the Pitch
In the summer of 2018, Hamayal Choudhry found himself on-stage with his business partner Samin Khan, pitching their medtech prototype SmartARM to a crowd of Microsoft execs including CEO Satya Nadella. As a third-year university student, Choudhry was competing in Microsoft’s Imagine Cup, an event that would see him and Khan pitch close to a dozen total times, each time in front of unique audiences.
The grand prize was $85,000 in cash, $50,000 in Microsoft Azure grants, and a personal mentoring session from Nadella. The SmartARM team won it all by nailing their final (live streamed) pitch. But as someone who had never pitched a product before, the experience was completely new to Choudhry.
“The different and weird part was that the idea you’re talking about up there seems a bit wild and out there. It’s an arm with a camera in it that can pick things up,” says Choudhry, referring to their SmartARM device. “There are multimillion dollar companies out there that aren’t able to make this. So why me? Why should I be the one to make this work?”
Choudhry realized that in order to develop the right mindset, he had to separate himself from what he was presenting.
“When you are pitching, it turns out it’s not so much about the idea or the product, but about you.”
“There’s a lot of people who are qualified to make what I’m making or do what I’m doing, but why shouldn’t you invest in me doing this? We tried to weave this into our pitch as much as possible,” says Choudhry. “You’re trying to sell yourself as much as you’re trying to sell your product. The passion, experience, the skill you have, they go hand in hand with what the product can do.”
Choudhry also had his business partner Khan on-stage pitching with him, which added a different dynamic to the mix. Both of them viewed the company a bit differently, so they decided to each focus on describing a part of the idea they were passionate about.
The most strenuous part of the competition was shortening their pitch. At first, the team was chatting with mentors for 10 to 15 minutes, but by the end, had to deliver a tight pitch in three minutes. This meant learning from each successful pitch and augmenting the next one. For example, an early version of their pitch saved a heartfelt video testimony for the ending—the winning pitch opened with it, connecting the product with the audience right away.
“Shortening the pitches taught us what our strongest points were,” says Choudhry. “Imagine being in that elevator with someone—you won’t have 10 minutes to talk to them. You’ll lose them in 30 seconds. This kind of thinking really helped guide us to show what our key strengths were.”
And, because there always has to be a curveball, during the final competition-winning pitch, the SmartARM prototype malfunctioned on-stage, resulting in an incomplete demo. Choudhry and Khan had to react fast and decide what to do.
“It came down to us having three minutes, and when I realized it wasn’t working, 15 seconds had already gone by,” says Choudhry. “We could have debugged the problem and made sure the audience saw it work, or we could have carried on and presented what we had practiced. It came down to keeping the show going and keeping everyone interested and excited.”
“At the end of the day, everyone only knows as much as we tell them, so we had to keep them engaged.”
Choudhry has a few final pointers for those hitting the pitching stage soon.
“Be charismatic,” he says. “If you’re charismatic, and if people like you, they’ll like the product you’re pitching as well. It’s also very valuable to consider the impact you will have on your customers, and really see quantitatively how great it can be and how you can measure that impact.”
As a young student, it can be a bit difficult to really acclimatize to a rigorous pitching environment. Presentations in class may be similar, but they do not hold the same kind of weight that a pitch for prize money does. With shows like Dragons’ Den and Shark Tank currently on the air and often being the only examples of pitching most people have ever seen, Choudhry is careful to realize the audience he is pitching in front of.
“Investors on shows like those are usually looking for a quick return, so when you’re really trying to shake up an industry and have a meaningful impact, you definitely have to be in it more so for the long run,” he says. “They have different philosophies and show the different ways people want to invest their money.”
Choudhry, Khan, and SmartARM are now taking everything they learned from their Imagine Cup pitches and putting it to good use. The team is currently applying to be part of Y Combinator where they will have to pitch their ideas once again for a chance to be part of one of the world’s most renowned incubators. They also have different prototypes out in the world working with real patients and in hospitals.
Check out Pitch Directory: Part Two, where a globally-recognized accelerator director tells you why it’s important to be aware of what you’re trying to achieve, Part Three, where a leading venture partner explains the importance of following through after delivering a pitch, and Part Four, where a corporate mentor shares the same advice he gave to the CEOs of Netflix, Yahoo, and Cisco.
Techvibes is the official Media Partner of the BDO VC Pitch Day 2019.