About Pitching at StartupRiot

Startup Riot 2010
Image by Sanjay Parekh via Flickr

It’s that time of year again.  There’s a chill in the air, sleigh bells are ringing…

It’s time to apply to pitch at StartupRiot!

First, I’ll tell you a little about myself so that you understand why you should listen to me on this important topic.

I started a business in 2009 and launched it in 2010 two weeks before StartupRiot.  I pitched in front of about 450 people and finished 4th in the voting behind 3 rock star entrepreneurs (Allan Branch, Chris Turner and Jen Bonnett).  Not too shabby, if I do say so myself.

While I prepared to pitch I got some great advice from some very smart people including Jeff McConnell, Keith McGreggor, Paul Freet and many others that helped me tremendously so I’m passing on some wisdom to try and do the same for you.

UPDATE: Paul says there will be a Startup Gauntlet January 11th so do whatever it takes to get there.

MORE UPDATED: This actually never happened due to the ice storm.  But there is one on February 8th.

Warning: A lot of the advice you get from experienced entrepreneurs is delivered bluntly because it takes a long time to tiptoe around people’s feelings and time is one thing that experienced entrepreneurs don’t have a lot of.  This post will probably be written in the same manner.  Don’t take it personally.

Note: This was going to be a whole series of posts but I’ve decided to condense it into one. After all, the whole point of StartupRiot is to get your point across quickly and effectively.

Why you should pitch at StartupRiot

This is an event that has few equals in the startup world.  Each year it draws a bigger, more diverse crowd.  There’s well known attendees from out of town like Robert Scoble as well as media coverage from networks like CNN and National Public Radio.

In the room will be more than 600 of the most well-connected people in the the Southeastern US startup community and more than a few from some place called “The Bay Area”.  The people you’ll be pitching to have been there and done that.  They know how to get what you don’t know how to get and if you play your cards right they might help you.

In short, it’s in your best interest to pitch.  It’s a little scary but if you can’t get up the nerve to pitch then you either don’t believe in your business or you have no business running a company in the first place.

Here’s the thing about starting a company: It’s not going to be easy. Get used to learning new skills and kissing your comfort zone goodbye.  Some people can’t do that.  Some people change their mind after applying to pitch.  Some people change their mind the day before.  You will not be one of these brain-dead idiots. (Seriously, that takes a special flavor of stupidity).

How you should pitch

Now that you’ve wisely decide that you should pitch, you need to come up with 4 slides and some speaking notes.  (Don’t get too caught up in the speaking notes.  I wrestled with mine too much and then when it was my turn to go up on stage my mind went completely blank anyway.)  The slides are key.

You only get 4 slides and the first one has to have your name on it so really you get 3.  I would put a maximum of 4 words on each and they should be enormous.  You’ll be very uncomfortable with the size at first.  That’s ok.  The room you’ll be pitching in is HUGE.  Anything more than a few ridiculously large words won’t be readable to most of the people there.

You can see my slides here.  Keep in mind, the speaking notes don’t resemble what I actually said.  I rewrote them many times in the 12 hours before I pitched and then my mind went blank as I walked up on stage.  I partially blame Ben Dyer for not advancing the projector to my first slide like Sanjay instructed us but I digress…

Avoid the following AT ALL COSTS:

  1. Screen Shots*
  2. Photographs
  3. A background color other than white
  4. A text color other than black
  5. Quotes from Spaceballs

Ok, I’ve never seen anybody use a quote from that movie in a pitch but I’m pretty sure it’s a bad idea, even though it was the funniest movie ever made.

* I broke this rule and I have regretted it ever since.

What you put in your pitch depends a lot on why you’re pitching.  I think there are a few common reasons why businesses pitch at StartupRiot and they all boil down to “I need something”.  For some people that something is investment money.  Sometimes it’s customers, a technical co-founder, a mentor or just to gain visibility and experience.

Regardless of why you’re pitching, it’s my belief that these should be your four slides at a high level:

  1. Names
    1. The Company
    2. Founders
    3. URL
    4. Twitter Handle
  2. State the Problem You Solve
  3. State the way you make money by solving it
  4. State what you need the audience to do

#1 is simple enough but people find a way to screw it up. Don’t be one of them.  The URL is important but it’s placement on the 1st slide is controversial.  Lots of people will have laptops or iPads there so they might jump on your site and stop listening to you.  It’s ok to defer this item to the last slide if you’re paranoid about that.  The twitter handle is good though because a certain percentage of people will instantly tweet “Next up at StartupRiot is @andrewwatson pitching @othernum!” or similar.  You do have a twitter handle, right?

#2 If you can’t clearly describe the problem you solve then you’re not going to get very far with anyone.  I can’t emphasize that enough.  Figure out how to describe it verbally in a sentence and visually in about 4 words.

#3 This is where you demonstrate that you have a way to profit from the act of solving the problem described in slide 2.  If you can’t make this case clearly then you are running a charity or a tax evasion scheme but not a business.

#4 Tell people what you want from them (don’t make them guess).  If you want investment dollars, tell them.  If you’re going to name an amount and/or a valuation then for crying out loud do the math right.  Most of the people in the room will do the math in their head and know within seconds that you should have said pre-money instead of post-money or that you’re valuing your business at $100 million instead of the $1o million it says on your slide.

If you want customers instead of investment (kudos) then make them an offer.  Give them an incentive to sign up quickly before a shiny object distracts them.  Get that crowbar into their wallets quickly.  It sounds crass but it’s the truth.  Offer them a bonus for signing up today.   They’re more likely to do it and more likely to tweet about it.

If you are looking for a technical co-founder then be sure to say so and to be specific about the skills you think you need.  Be sincere and convincing or nobody will want to play on your team.

General rules

Do not, under any circumstances, turn and look at your slides on the screen.  If you do, it will screw your brain up.  Turning around and looking at the slide will cause you to read the slide to the audience.  At this point, some people will wish you bodily harm. You have been warned.

Very few entrepreneurs can successfully pull of the obscenity bit.  Last year Allan Branch was the first to say “fuck” in his pitch and it brought the house down. I debated it but since I was going up 3rd I hadn’t had a chance to drink any alcohol before my pitch so I chickened out.  In any case, he pulled it off because he’s a very funny guy.  You probably should not attempt this maneuver.

Be memorable but DO NOT FALL DOWN ON STAGE.  I know, you’re thinking, “That’s a weird rule.  Who in their right mind would do something like that?”  It happened.  Twice.  I thought that guy was DEAD, especially the second time.  I almost charged the stage to give him CPR.

Pay no attention to backnoise until after you’ve pitched.  If you look at what people are saying about the people that pitch before you, well, you’ll probably shit your pants and curl up in the fetal position on stage.  It ain’t pretty.  Actually, it’s better now but in 2009 it was completely anonymous… and it was a lot funnier. I won’t even link to it because then you’ll be tempted to check it out.

You can’t change your slides once you submit them.  At least, not without making significant trouble for Sanjay and he’s really busy so you don’t want to make trouble for him.  That’s another reason to keep the slides as simple as possible.

A note about VC Money

There’s a lot of confusion about this topic so it gets its own section.

There’s at least anecdotal evidence that startups have raised money soon after pitching at StartupRiot.  That being said, the odds are pretty small because no investor worth talking to is going to decide to invest in you during your 3 minute pitch.  Anybody who would do that is probably going to be a complete nightmare to work with later on.  What you’re more likely to get is an introduction to a VC and/or angel investor and the chance to give them more reasons to invest in you.

In fact, this year that’s part of the 1st place prizes!

So don’t think somebody will have their checkbook out when you get off the stage but be prepared to network with people and make the most of the impression you can make on stage and it just might work out for you.  If it does, don’t forget about me and how much this blog post helped you… (hint hint)

What you should do AFTER you pitch

So you think the hard part is done now, right? You fought through the flop sweats and the panic attacks and gave your pitch so it’s all easy now right?


Now the hustle begins.  You’re going to meet a lot of people.  Get their business cards, find out what they do.  Pitch them your business.  Put the moves on them.  Turn them into customers (paying customers if possible).

Bring a laptop to your expo table.  Have your co-founder man the table while you walk around shaking hands.  Open the registration form for your app on the laptop and encourage people to sign up on the spot in exchange for a discount.

When you get home, enter all the business cards into a spreadsheet.  Send emails to EVERYONE you met and remind them how awesome you are.

Only then do you have my permission to relax with your favorite beverage for a minute to bask in the glory of what you’ve accomplished.  Now stop basking and get back to work!

Enjoy the Ride

Pitching at StartupRiot is a blast.  It’s a great experience for an entrepreneur and it’s a fairly unique event.  If you have any questions about it I’d be glad to talk to you about it.  If you want some feedback on your slides, I’d be glad to look at them and help you out to the best of my ability.  Also be on the lookout for a special edition of StartupGauntlet at ATDC shortly before the main event.

Have fun and Good Luck!

Published in: on December 19, 2010 at 14:02  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Fantastic post. Thank you for putting this together for those of us who have yet to pitch!

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