You don’t have to win a pitch competition for the experience to be extremely useful, as this founder’s experience proves. 

By Twain Liu (Founder, Senseus)

Recently, Guardian Activate gave my startup, Senseus, four minutes on stage to share its story and try to win US$40,000 worth of media coverage. Twelve finalists from Bulgaria to London to Baltimore with ideas spanning from playground toys to a scientific social network were selected for the Guardian’s Tech Talent Day at the Metropolitan Pavilion in NYC where we presented before a diverse judging panel (male and female technology executives and investors). It was fantastic fun and a different experience to be on the other side of the pitch for a change; I was a judge at Droidcon 2012 where 30+ startups pitched and I’m a former strategic investor.

Although the result of my hard work prepping for the pitch wasn’t the US$40,000, I feel like I won so much more. Here I’m going to share five lessons I learnt from the experience.

Confidence Favors the Prepared

Public speaking is nerve-wracking for everyone, including the President and the top CEOs. That’s why they work with their advisors and speechwriters for weeks to hone their scripts and get conversant with challenging questions before they take to the stage and the microphone.

The more preparation, the calmer and more confident you can be.

As a broad guideline for the pitch deck, read Guy Kawasaki’s 2005 post on the 10/20/30 rule. For a more detailed guideline try How to pitch to investors.

For the Q&A preparation, get your most naysaying and skeptical friends to quick-fire “How’s your startup going to overcome this?” questions at you and watch lots of Q&A videos with successful founders like David Karp of Tumblr on Youtube.

Don’t leave what you’re going to wear to chance either. Choose an outfit you’ve worn before, are comfortable in and that represents you well professionally.

Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse

And time yourself. Shave off one or two seconds each time until your pitch is ten seconds shorter than your allocated time to give yourself a few moments to take breath between slide transitions.

Get so familiar with your slides you won’t need to refer to your tablet or crib notes to prompt yourself.

Always practice in front of an audience or a mirror because both will tell you lots about whether your body language is good or not and if you’re meeting the eyes of the audience.

Travel in Advance

If you have to fly for 5+ hours to get to your pitch, make sure you arrive with a day to spare to accommodate for the jet lag. It’s important to be alert and on-the-ball for the handful of minutes you’re on the pitch stage.

Manners Matter

At management school, the first thing our lecturer said was, “Well, you probably all think you’re going to be some hotshot CEO one day but the reality is you’re never going to be the most important person in the company. Do you know who that is?

The caretaker in the basement.

Without him, the electricity doesn’t get switched on; the doors don’t open; and none of your big deal transactions happen.”

So remember to thank the security guards and registration assistants who let you into the room and the people operating the projector that show your slides.

Put Feedback Into Practice

As well as the feedback that my system is “very interesting” and the judging panel “loved the richness of its analysis,” it was suggested I replace my demo video with a simpler slide showing how 5-stars is broken.

As soon as I returned to my apartment, I did exactly that. I put in a slide of TechCrunch’s 2009 article, YouTube comes to a 5-star realization: its ratings are useless and a slide quoting Apple (“Loving it is easy. That’s why so many people do”), Jason Goldberg’s observation that the next wave of disruption will be “emotional eCommerce” and Om Malik’s article, Why data without soul is meaningless.

The following day I approached one of the pitch judges, thanked him again for the feedback and showed him I’d taken it on board. Pointers from people who’ve reached the top of their professions normally cost lots of $$$ in consultancy fees so take every opportunity to get their insights following a pitch.

Yes, the $40,000 winner’s prize went to another deserving startup. Nonetheless, replacing my demo video with a simpler slide may be the improvement that helps me raise hundreds of thousands or millions from the next investors I pitch to.

So that’s why getting feedback is the most valuable win in any pitch competition.

Are you a female-founded startup that’s raised less than $1M? Then apply to get some feedback at Women 2.0’s next PITCH Competition.

twain-headshot-mainAbout the guest blogger: Twain Liu is the founder of Senseus (@gosenseus), a patent-pending system to enable e-commerce and improve business intelligence. Her experience includes strategic investments at UBS investment bank where she was board observer on 20+ tech investments. Previously, she worked in data startups. Feel free to get in touch: twain[@]
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