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Perfecting the startup pitch

October 31, 2016
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Imagine if you had five minutes to explain the intricacies of your business to someone, using only five slides — and there was also $5,000 on the line. 

Each month five individuals do just that at West Michigan’s 5x5 Night, a pitch competition designed for entrepreneurs to share their ideas with the world and (hopefully) win some cash while they’re at it. Entrepreneurs have long been instructed to perfect their “pitch” – a verbal explanation of their business plan and competitive advantage – for potential investors. Whether it takes place in a formal meeting, a competition, or even in the proverbial elevator, taking the time to develop your business pitch is an important way to hone your messaging and communicate your core value proposition.

For early stage businesses, pitch competitions offer a fun, high-energy way to compete for funding while receiving valuable feedback and validation for your business. While the popular TV show "Shark Tank" may be the first pitch competition to come to your mind, there are thousands of competitions happening regularly all around the world. Though the competitions vary in style, length, and judging format, the pitch is still the most crucial moment for any entrepreneur. 

How can you perfect your pitch for a competition?  Here are some tips from the Michigan Small Business Development Center’s team of business consultants:

Know your audience: Who will be judging your pitch? What’s their background? What’s their interest in the competition? Research your audience as best you can and then tailor your message appropriately so that you are speaking directly to your audience.

Focus on the business opportunity: Build excitement about the business opportunity rather than focusing solely on the product or service. Look at the presentation from an investor’s perspective, because at the end of the day the investor wants to support a business that will yield a great return.

Communicate your value proposition clearly: Don’t save the best information about your business for last. Explain your value proposition to the audience early and often.

Demonstrate your credibility: Chemistry between the presenter and the investor is key. Therefore show passion, enthusiasm and in-depth knowledge of your business space when presenting.

Be realistic: Do not make statements that are not achievable. The audience will quickly see through promises and projections that cannot be met.

Showmanship is important: Spend time on your pitch deck and presentation. Show the judges that the competition is important to you by putting together a well thought out presentation. 

Be prepared, don’t wing it: Some people feel they know their business well enough to just wing it, and have failed miserably. Spend the time doing research and attain factual information on your industry and business. The more prepared you are, the more natural and confident you will be when they hit the stage.  

Practice, practice, practice: This is so important it bears repeating. Understand how much time you have for your pitch and structure your presentation to include the most important information first. Practice delivering the pitch in front of a mock audience of at least two people that know a thing or two about pitch competitions several days before the actual competition. The feedback will be helpful so you can implement the changes in time for your actual competition.

If you’re thinking of entering a pitch competition or simply want to have a pitch prepared, Guy Kawasaki’s book "The Art of the Start" is highly recommended. If time is short and you’re not sure where to start, consider following Kawasaki’s “10/20/30” rule – create 10 slides, delivered in a 20-minute presentation with 30-point font. This framework is a great place to start if you have no idea how to structure your pitch or slide deck. From here, you can tailor your pitch to fit within the unique parameters of the competition.

While they may seem intimidating, pitch competitions offer startups an amazing way to share their ideas with a panel of experienced entrepreneurs. Win or lose, the feedback you receive from the judges can make a world of difference to your business and you will get the chance to network with a variety of potential investors. Sound interesting? Consider entering one of the many business pitch competitions in Michigan like 5x5 Night, Dolphin Tank, MWest Challenge, GreenLight Michigan Business Model Competition or the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition

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