C-Suite Coach Competes for Cash: The Value of Pitching
C-Suite Coach was selected to be a finalist in Village Capital's 2016 New York Education Forum. Over 100 startups applied and just 11 were selected to compete live for $10,000! Village Capital partnered with Citi Community Development and Learning EDGE and all finalists had technology-driven solutions that were focused on improving the student or professional experience and many focused on making the "future of work" more accessible to diverse audiences.
The April New York City Forum began with an investor dinner, where founders were able to network with potential investors and thought leaders in the education space. A formal question list at each table established a comfortable environment for discussion. My table discussed what worries and excites us about innovations in education, like financial accessibility, liberal arts education, coding schools and coaching. While in most tech circles, I am one of the "only" like me (be that as a woman or a person of color), what was exciting about this event was that most of the businesses included female founders, due to Village Capital's emphasis on supporting women and minority entrepreneurs.
The next day was activities and also included a full day of preparation and workshops. We worked on articulating the value propositions for our business in the Village Capital style and practiced our pitches in front of investors and competing teams and received audience feedback to improve for the evening. We also did two mock board meetings, again with an audience of investors and education thought leaders.
The value in these exercises for me was in getting expert feedback from leaders who are immersed in this space but not immersed in the day to day of our business objectives. Having an outside voice allowed for feedback on potential blind spots. It is also great practice at sharing the "elevator pitch" with various audiences.
After a long day of workshops, pitch practice and constructive feedback, we geared up to pitch to an audience of almost 200! There were two constituencies we needed to impress: 1) the fellow businesses, who in a peer vote would determine one winner of $10,000; and 2) an audience of strangers who would see a one-pager on our businesses and a 3 minute pitch and determine the winner of an additional $10,000.
This was nerve-wracking and also exciting. A pitch competition structured this way is an ultimate test in how well a business can concisely articulate the value of the problem they are seeking to solve. As I've debriefed and gathered feedback from friends in attendance, I'd like to share my takeaways for a successful pitch.
1) Be confident. As a founder, there are few situations that make you more vulnerable than when sharing the value of your business.You are the subject matter expert here. Even if speaking in front of a large audience is a cause for concern, take comfort in knowing that no one knows the intimate details of your business, except you, so there will be no wrong answers! I've spoken publicly more times than I can count, but I still battle nerves. I've learned to take deep breaths in advance. I also imagine one person in the audience is my biggest supporter or dearest friend (generally at least one listener has a warm smile on their face) and speak to them. If you are able, invite a close friend to give you the comforting smile you need.
2) Be concise. 3 minutes is not a long time to pitch. We had an opportunity to share 14 slides total so I was tasked with sharing a limited amount of content. When you are running your business, every detail is important to you, but too much information can overwhelm an audience. Focus on a few key points that you want to express and as tempting as it is, don't go beyond that.
3) Listen. If there is an opportunity for Q&A, take that deep breath again and really listen to the question you are being asked. In last week's pitch, I was asked a question that could have been a lay-up and I was too focused on the content I had just shared to slam dunk it! Missed opportunity that could have easily been addressed had I focused more on what the person was asking, instead of focusing on "did I just do a good job pitching?"
4) Get feedback from the more experienced! This seems like a given, but I'd like to highlight it because it's so important. It was my first business pitch and others competing had raised up to $1.2M! While a pitch competition is a competition, that doesn't mean you can't help each other. In fact, in this particular competition, helping each other was greatly encouraged. Instead of being intimidated by the more experienced, I chose to leverage their expertise and learn from their techniques, which proved to be a great networking opportunity and helped me in the end.
5) Make every experience a win. I did not win either of the $10,000 prizes, but that is completely fine. Each of the final 11 had such compelling businesses, I expected winning to be difficult. When you are running a new venture, every moment of your time is quite meaningful. I spent several days preparing for and focusing on this competition, so I walked in knowing I needed to see a return on my time, whether I walked away with cash or not. And I did. I had the opportunity for media and public exposure for C-Suite Coach, networking with other businesses in the same space (some of which are VERY experienced at raising cash), and networking with potential investors. Win!