This is the second 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. Find part one here, part three here, and part four here.
Pitching is to the technology world as tryouts are to the sports world. A great founder is ready to lay down their company’s vision to anyone who may be listening because they know the right person could be listening at any given moment. A great athlete is willing to put their ego and emotions on the line to try out for pro teams, knowing they will learn valuable skills regardless if they make the final cut or not.
In both cases, there is no real endgame. An athlete can always keep practicing and performing better, trying to earn more money, play for a stronger team, or simply just perform better than they ever have. A founder will continually work on their pitch to make the most out of every opportunity they happen upon, whether it’s a chance encounter in an elevator with a titan of industry or a pre-scheduled investor meeting.
Pitch Directory brings perspective to one of the most nuanced art forms in the business world. Through four distinct examples, learn what to prepare and focus on and what really matters most when it comes to delivering a pitch. At the very least, learning to pitch in a concise manner is a great way to determine the core pillars a company stands on—and at the other end of a spectrum, a great pitch might win a widely-publicized contest, convince a new exec to join the team, or secure millions in funding.
Learn From the Best
Incubators are often amazing experiences for companies. They introduce founders to new mentors and investors while providing dedicated space and resources to vet the true perseverance and vision of a company and its founding team.
Sunil Sharma knows all about this. As the managing director of Techstars Toronto, the head of the Canadian chapter of the Founder Institute (FI), and a former managing partner at Extreme Ventures, he is surrounded by new companies pitching their ideas as they search for room to grow. Through the FI, he has graduated over 140 founders, and the Toronto Techstars chapter has 18 successful alumni over the last two years.
Over the 13 week pre-accelerator FI program, Sharma coaches early-stage founders to pitch dozens of times in one, three and five-minute increments. It’s the “kind of program that is perfect to be used as a way to vet and see if an entrepreneur is serious and has something that is remotely possible to become a real company,” according to Sharma, and that is all done through the pitching process.
Despite having been in the business incubator and venture world for years, one core aspect remains a constant for Sharma when it comes to measuring the worth of a company during their pitches.
“When I look back to some of the companies in my early day, I always think about the founder,” he says. “It’s that competence and style that the founding team has. Their vision, adaptability and team complement. If it’s just one or two people founding, they need to have incredible domain expertise or really strong technical skills, and then they can build and launch a product.”
On the flip side, the worst thing a pitch can be is confusing, at least according to Sharma. If a founder is all over the place, does not stick to time limits, and does not understand the market, they won’t score well. The industry judges he brings in—whether it is Wattpad founder and CEO Allen Lau, or Clearbanc founder Michele Romanow, or a wealth of other tech veterans—can quickly pick up on this kind of behaviour.
“Sometimes mentors will give founders the tough love, because they know the business or domain so well,” says Sharma. “They will tell them they’ll burn through millions of dollars trying to get around regulations, or that they can’t compete with the huge names in the industry.”
“I’m a fan of the experience and the rigor of pitching,” he continues. “The pitch is important because I believe communicating and getting buy-in from the broader business community and tech ecosystem is critical. For one thing, the vision of the founder is going to lead to hiring and finding people who want to join that vision. The vision of the founding team and how they articulate their pitch is so important.”
“The soft skills are just as important as the technical skills. Pitching is part of the soft skills that are needed.”
But that doesn’t mean every single person in the world should start a company and get out there to pitch competitions. This environment is not for everyone, and Sharma has seen that first-hand. Only the companies with the strongest ideas and buy-in from the community should stick it out.
“Here’s why having every single pitching competition being full to the brim can be a bad thing,” explains Sharma. “If as a society or ecosystem we are blindly encouraging and giving false positives to people just to keep going with whatever their startup idea is, that’s not good.”
“Reality will ultimately determine the viability of a company, but if it takes years before it becomes an absolute realization on the founder that their startup is not viable, we might look back and think ‘Had only we been a bit more direct and serious about the founder, we might have averted all this wasted time and given him or her that perspective they weren’t getting.’ There is a human toll there.”
There is a famous stat out there depicting how 90 per cent of startups fail—Sharma thinks that has to be even higher now given how many folks are starting companies and trying to launch ideas.
“As a percentage chance of becoming successful, it’s probably lower today right now than it has ever been,” he says.
“As a percentage chance of [a startup] becoming successful, it’s probably lower today right now than it has ever been.”
At the FI, pitches are rated on scorecards, and these rubrics give those outside the institute a glimpse into what successful founders are capable of—after all, the FI graduated founders of successful companies such as Udemy.
During the first pitching period pitch, founders are rated on the viability of the core idea, skill of the presentation, and the thoroughness of research. As they progress, they are rated on the progress of the product offering, the overall presentation skill, and the completeness of a business model. All of these points are useful for someone heading to an accelerator or incubator to pitch.
To Sharma, a pitch is a way of validating whether a business has the ability to make it through the gauntlet of an accelerator. To make it into Techstars, there is a lot of work that is done beyond the pitch, such as due diligence for product fit and testing whether the product actually works. But it all has to start somewhere, and a pitch is almost always where it begins.
Check out Pitch Directory: Part One, where a pitch competition world champion shares his thoughts on how to conquer the competition, 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.