Startup Pitching Advice
On Tuesday I attended the University of New South Wales Startup Pitch Event. There were some great ideas - but they just weren’t expressed right. Here are a couple of things I took away from the pitching.
1. Make me feel the problem.
Mathspace is using the internet to make learning math easier. They listed a few problems (ie. manual marking is time consuming for teachers) at the start of their presentation - but I never connected with the problem. They never really made me understand why maths had to transition to the internet because they talked in the abstract - devoid of any real story or experience. I doubt many in the room were teachers - but everyone has done high-school maths - we’ve all faced homework where you struggle through each problem kind of hoping its right only to find out the next day in class you were completely wrong and the time was wasted.
The biggest problem startups face is ensuring people understand what problems they are solving. For example, Shop2 are doing a social commerce app - but why I would want to have a profile of everything I’ve bought? I can only assume the problem they are solving is there isn’t a good way to share clothes/fashion you’ve bought with friends. Throughout their pitch I was just trying to work out why I would use it - or who their target market was and why people would be compelled to use it.
Tell me a story - make me feel the problem - invoke a memory or an experience. If you can’t do it directly then at least give me someone to emphasise with, even if he/she is fictional - Sally the fresh out of uni teacher is much easier to relate to than ‘teachers’.
2. Tell a Story.
Mijura told an excellent story - even though I couldn’t relate to the problem directl - the pitcher introduced Kim the bank manager. Although they weren’t solving a problem I have, by introducing this character with a backstory I could understand the problem - I could see how annoying it would be. They had my attention.
More importantly, they used the story to introduce the problem and to discuss their solution. At the end, they brought Kim when asking for funding so they could ‘reach out to people like Kim’. This was a great conclusion, it made the pitch feel cohesive and whole.
3. You should be the most interesting thing on stage.
The best pitch of the night came from Locongo - the speaker was charismatic and immediately made me feel the problem and gave me a solution. Locongo is a travel experience business focused on letting you do the things the locals do. I was hanging on to every word after the story he told - I had felt the pain of finding things to do while travelling and I wanted a solution.
The speaker didn’t present slides and this is helped as he had to sell the entire idea through speech. What’s more powerful - writing on a powerpoint slide or being able to speak to a crowd and developing a rapport? Too many of the presenters relied on uninteresting, text-heavy slides. Slides where used as a crutch for communicating their ideas.
4. Acknowledge the Elephants.
A lot of the startups had major problems which they failed to acknowledge. Everyone talked about their solutions or the problem they were solving but many failed to tackle the elephant in the room.
One group (whose name escapes me - Spoilz?) were developing a check-in app that allowed bricks-and-mortar stores to give discounts to get more people into their shops. While they attempted to tackle competitors by naming apps like FourSquare - they missed their specific competitive advantage (what would stop FourSquare from doing exactly the same thing?). Similarly, they missed the biggest issue - getting users to download their app (how are they going to gain traction in Australia when FourSquare hasn’t?).
Mathspace is pretty much a direct clone of the Khan Academy. Throughout the pitch I had this unsettled feeling because they ignored this - they didn’t tackle what they were going to do differently, or how they were going to compete. It is perfectly fine to bring an existing business/idea to a new market - but you need to justify why the original player can’t enter the geographic market. In this case, Mathspace may have a legitimate advantage because educational curriculums are in different markets - but that doesn’t tackle why someone wouldn’t use the Khan Academy (especially because it is a not-for-profit) where the materials are appropriate.
Locongo also failed to tackle the major scaling issue in their one minute pitch. While this may have been due to time constraints - the biggest issue with their business will be expanding in to new geographic locales while keeping customer (ie. experience offerors) acquisition costs down. Another related issue is how they would deal with complaints. I spoke with the pitcher afterwards and he informed me it would be an escrow style service. While this is maintainable on a small-scale, it could potentially be labour intensive and lead to big branding issues (see the AirBnb disaster earlier this year). Aim to give your entire pitch without slides - then use slides to increase clarity where needed.
5. Tell me exactly what you’re doing.
During some of the pitches I was still trying to work out exactly what they were making. Tell me in plain terms - don’t dress it up in buzzwords or marketing speak - let me know how as a potential consumer I would use your app/service - or what the end result of using it is.
For example, PretaWeb were pitching a product called PretaCloud but they didn’t explain what it was. I had no idea whether it would be something I could use or if it was a CMS.
Similarly, Alex North from Posse (a great idea with a great team) only spoke in abstract terms. While this was acceptable because it was clearly a recruiting style pitch rather than an investment pitch, at the end of the presentation I still didn’t know how Posse worked or what exactly it did, or why I would visit the website.
You need to have a single sentence describing how I will experience your product as a consumer - otherwise you’ll have people not really knowing what you do and not really caring either.
6. Just do it.
While the above criticism may be unwelcome for some of the presenters, overall they all did really well, and most importantly they are out there testing their ideas and doing what they love. Everyone who pitched put themselves out there - and it can be incredibly tough to pitch for the first time - so congratulations if you’re reading.
A few notable mentions of the night: Handshake (B2B sales/transaction app for iPhone and iPad - think Square for B2B, PhotoMerchant (online ecommerce sites for photographers), and Sneaking Duck (online fashion stores with a bunch of verticals - ie. Sneaking Duck is for eyewear).