As some of you may already know, in July I attended my first ever Startup Weekend in Tampa, FL. Overall it was an incredible experience that allowed me to network with many entrepreneurs and business owners in the Tampa area, and I highly recommend that anyone interested in starting a business get involved in at least one of these events. As I am new to the area, this event allowed me to begin getting established in the local business community. My initial pitch went on to take home the winner’s trophy, even though I didn’t know a single person when I walked through the front door. Here are five things you can do to help develop a winning pitch at Startup Weekend – and everywhere else.
1. Dress For Success (The Business Too)
One of my favorite rules to live by is “Dress for the job you want, not the one you’re in.” If you want others to take you seriously, you must first be willing to show that you take yourself seriously and adjust the manner in which you present yourself accordingly. Upon entering the venue for Startup Weekend Tampa, it was immediately apparent that I was the only participant to walk through the doors in a suit. I met this realization with a slight awkwardness until I began to notice how many other participants immediately placed me in a leadership role based on nothing more than my appearance! Within 20 minutes of my entry into the building, I had exchanged cards with five small business owners and many of them asked what idea I was pitching, and which team I was going to be on. As I wandered through the halls listening to developers in shorts and t-shirts discuss their ideas, projects, and industry, it also became very apparent that out of more than 100 participants and coaches, I was one of the few graphic designers in the room. This skill set alone made me valuable to many teams throughout the weekend, and I made many contacts while producing logos and mock-ups for other teams.
When it comes to the business planning portion of the event, it is also important that your company or idea be presented with the same level of seriousness. If you plan to pitch an idea during a Startup Weekend, it is my own recommendation that you recruit a graphic designer to go with you. Having a graphics person on your team will allow you to present your idea to the judging panel in the most professional manner possible and as most participants in these events are developers, designers are very hard to find later in the weekend. It will be very difficult to produce the logos, printed collateral, or mockups your team requires if you do not have access to this type of resource. Scrambling to find someone to produce a logo or mock-up is not a scenario any team will want to run into while trying to build a company in 54 hours.
2. Pick Up The Phone
Do not be afraid to pick up the phone and call friends, family, former coworkers, acquaintances, or business owners who may have valuable knowledge and experience within the industry you intend to do business. As this event goes on throughout the weekend, it was my experience that Saturday calls to executives were very casual and most did not mind that I was calling as they were out enjoying their weekends and not encumbered with their own work. These calls allowed me not only to validate my team’s concepts before our final pitch on Sunday, I also gained commitments from industry insiders in future involvement with the company and gained valuable answers to questions that were asked during our practice and final pitch. Before picking up the phone, make sure to jot down a few notes and know exactly how you will introduce your idea and what important questions you would like to ask. Doing so will help you manage the call, and waste the least amount of time for everyone involved.
3. Know Your Market
Understanding the core of your product and the market you will be selling to is key to any business. Businesses large and small shut their doors everyday because they fail to understand who their market is and therefore do not understand how to sell their product, or worse try to market the wrong product to their customer. Blockbuster video is a prime example of a company going out of business because they didn’t completely understand their market. Blockbuster was built on the idea that new movie releases were their product and new releases were what the customer wanted. Netflix came into the entertainment market with an emerging technology -DVD’s- and the understanding that the customer did not necessarily want to see something new, they simply wanted to be entertained. As a result of this misunderstanding, Blockbuster Video filed for bankruptcy in 2010 and subsequently shut its doors. Knowing and understanding your market is important to every business, no matter the size. By the end of the weekend you should be able to answer the following questions:
- Who is your customer?
- Are they a person? A type of business? Both?
- How many customers are in your town? Province? State? Country?
- How much money do your customers spend on average in one year on your industry?
- How much will product cost?
- How many companies will you compete with?
- How many employees do they have?
- How many customers do they have?
- How is yours different?
- How much of their market share can you acquire?
- How will you do it?
- How much will it cost to acquire one customer?
- Why is your data reliable?
These questions are similar to what judges are going to ask you during your final pitch so be ready with prepared answers. To find the answers to these questions you will have to know where you can attain the data you are looking for. One of the best places to begin is by digging through economic reports, corporate financial records, census data, and trade publications or magazines. Though it may seem like a daunting task at first, I was able to find most of these answers for my team in about twenty minutes because I simply knew where to look and what exactly I was looking for.
4. Connect With Your Audience
The key to any pitch is making the information and research your team has gathered easy for your audience to relate to and understand. Your company should be providing a product or service that solves a problem and proves to be useful for a large part of the population. As a team you should be able to define what that problem is in 10 seconds or less. Being that the easiest way to engage an audience is to ask a question the majority can relate and respond to, this is a great opportunity to ask a very simple question that will get the listener’s attention. For example, if you are pitching an app in that picks a restaurant for you, one might ask the audience, “Who here hates having to decide what restaurant to eat at?” If you are pitching an app that has to do with automobiles, you might ask the audience, “How many of you own a car or have family and friends that do?” Many US audience members in both cases would raise their hands because these situations involve them or are easy to relate to. Now that you have defined the problem, and engaged your audience, explain in as few words as possible how you intend to solve it.
When presenting information to the audience, make it as easy for them to understand as possible. If you want to point out the number of automobiles in the United States, you could state that there are 254,212,610 registered passenger vehicles in the United States as of 2009 according to the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics – or you could simply say the US currently has roughly one registered vehicle for every man, woman, and child living in the country. One is more accurate, while the other is far more memorable for you and your audience, as well as much easier to relate to and understand.
5. Prepare For Your Demo
Up to now you have molded your identity, formed a team, researched your potential market, and likely met or spoke with prospective customers. All you have left is to present your idea and your product demo if you have one. This is the point where nothing can go wrong and nothing can be left to chance. Presenters should practice with the entire team individually to make sure your presentation is easy to understand and stays within the allotted time limit. Don’t allow yourself too much excess time, but leave yourself a few extra seconds as it is important to finish your presentation and not get cut off before you can finish. If you are going to demo a live product or mock-up, make sure it works and prepare for every bad scenario. What will you do if your laptop fails on stage? Or your demo is on Youtube, and you can’t connect to wifi? Be sure to have a backup plan in the event the unthinkable happens. It was unfortunate to see a handful of teams work so hard all weekend, only to be dropped out of the running because their demo failed and they were left unprepared to handle the situation.
I very much enjoyed Startup Weekend Tampa, and I’m sure I will get involved again some time in the future. Above all else, the greatest lesson I learned from the weekend was to be prepared for anything, and have fun with those around you.
Have you participated in a Startup Weekend, and what advice would you give prospective participants?