Julie Donders

Perfect Pitching – observations from Rockstart Accelerator Selection Days

The Rockstart Accelerator Selection days 2013 were held last week on Thursday and Friday in Amsterdam. A very important day for us, but even more so for the startups competing for a spot in this year’s batch. It was their moment to shine. Pitching is an art, but also a necessity. What is it that you do and why should I care? If you can answer these questions, your pitch will land with the audience. I had the great opportunity to observe and experience this happening at Zuiderkerk in Amsterdam, an old church as the setting for great new things in the making. I  want to share some hopefully helpful insights with you.

With more than two dozen startups competing, you obviously need to stand out of the crowd. Don’t be too loud about it, but be confident about what your startup does. So what were some of the techniques the startups used in their pitches?

Tell a story

I observed that some startups (way too few however) used storytelling to pitch their startup concepts. Those who used storytelling techniques were far more convincing and I could remember them after having seen all the other startups on stage. If you use a story the listener can relate to you. Storytelling and thereby establishing a connection with the audience you are pitching to is all about the stickiness of your pitch. If I watch 20 commercials in the half time of a football match I can probably recall only 2 when the second half starts again. Think of pitches in the same way as commercials.

Craig Wortmann has a great framework for telling startup stories that work. He calls it IGNITE:

  • Intentional
  • Genuine
  • Natural
  • Improvisational
  • Total
  • Engaging

Those are the attributes a compelling story should contain.

Imagine that your audience is like a stranger on the subway. Your audience does not know your product, your company name has probably never been heard of before and very seldom do you have a proven track record. When you stand on stage the listener may have seen your logo and knows briefly what you do. They have many unanswered questions:

How did you meet your co-founders? How did your idea originate? How can your product help the listener solve a real life problem? Provide answers to these questions in your pitch, the listener is waiting for them anyways. Too few startups at the Selection Days managed to answer these questions…

Make it relevant

In how far is your start up addressing a problem in a new way? Novelty is the key here in order to convince our brain, especially the part called crocodile brain, that what you are doing is of some kind of importance to us. If it is not important or new or urgent, your idea will not resonate with our brain and will go directly in the “I maybe look at it later, if even” pile of things we need to worry about. Show that your startup solves an important problem in a novel way and why now the time has come for your idea. We need to understand how our brain works in order to successfully send a message to the receiver.

Fit the audience

One of the activities on Thursday was a kind of speed-dating where startups got to present themselves and their idea to experts from different walks of the startup ecosystem: from lawyers, to finance experts, developers and PR gurus, expertise in its most diverse form. In these rotation rounds, it is more important than ever to adjust your message a bit to the person sitting across the table. If you as a startup talk to a lawyer about one click cloud server migration and monitoring or your most sophisticated algorithms you have worked on for 2 years, chances that the lawyer will get what your service is all about tends to 0. It is like talking to a wall, most of your pitch will bounce back and not stick with the listener.

This exercise provided the perfect test ground in order to assess if your pitch could land with real experts and industry newbies at the same time.

During the speed dating I heard pitches where startups changed the structure of their business model three times in the same pitch. Do you sell via retailers, direct B2B or B2C? Present your argument in a structured way.

Create an image

90% of the information we absorb is through images. Try to use situations and persons. Some startups did this very well by appealing to the listener directly: “Imagine you have just come home from work after a long day and you are very exhausted”… Simply everybody can relate and picture at least one occasion when this has happened – we have all come home from work and were exhausted from a long day. This is an example I heard of creating a setting for a story in a pitch. Simple, but it simply works.

If you only give me numbers but no reference frame I cannot judge whether what you do is average, above average or not that great at all. This will not create a connection between you, me and your product or service.

A story is something I can remember, it creates curiosity and excitement. Let me know your numbers later.

Also on Rockstart