When is a startup pitch not a pitch? Retrospective thoughts on TechPitch 4.5

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This week I was lucky enough to be a judge at the most recent TechPitch 4.5 event in London. I say lucky for a number of reasons: it’s nice to be chosen, of course, but more than that, judging offers a rare opportunity to really think about what’s going on.

The range of candidates was diverse to say the least — from an enterprise-scale AI solution as a service to a widget that you can put on your web site, from a new way of making music to an asset management solution for estate agencies.

Largely because of this diversity, it was possible to see what made a good pitch and what doesn’t. And indeed, why it matters. I’m reminded of a recent conversation with a colleague who fielded a (relatively cold) sales call. “I wasn’t clear on what they were trying to sell me,” she said. “I doubt I’ll be using it.”

While this may appear to be short-term thinking, in these cluttered, time-strapped times we really don’t have the bandwidth to investigate every new possibility that comes along. Failure to realise this significantly undermines the addressable market, to the subset of “people who will spend the extra time trying to work out what I didn’t articulate.”

It shouldn’t be necessary to say this but clearly, it is. The presenters at TechPitch 4.5 had only 3 minutes to tell their stories: some, but not all succeeded. This isn’t the place to run through the qualities of the perfect pitch, but at the very least it should be clear on what, why and how it benefits, where it is and what is needed at this point.

Add to that we were a relatively gentle panel: our ethos was not to be antagonistic. In reality however, and as mentioned by fellow judge (and CCleaner co-founder) Lindsey Whelan, some investment panels, VCs and so on take great pleasure in demonstrating their alpha-prowess by belittling the organisations they profess to be helping.

Perhaps the biggest lesson was that all organisations are a work in progress, with all the complexity and unfinished business that entails. The trick, therefore, is to present something simple: while this may only be a subset of what you do, it may be enough to move you forward. The more complicated it is, the less of a pitch it becomes.

This was the approach followed by both winner and runner up. The “we help connect you with runners” model from RunTheWorld, and the “we can put a form on your site that is better than what is there” from FormPop might not have been the most technically profound or world changing. But they had the most resonance, reflected by panel and audience judging.

It would be a mistake to suggest that any of the presenters were unprepared: clearly a lot of effort had gone into each and every pitch. What was missing in some was whether it passed this basic litmus test. We can all have genius ideas — but if they leave the people you are speaking to scratching their heads, you probably still have some work to do.

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