pitch competitions: tips for success from winning teams

pitch showcases

Pitch competitions offer early-stage startups the opportunity to share their innovations, network with potential mentors and funders, and possibly gain access to funding and expert support. But how can a team best prepare for their time in front of the judges?

In September, seven finalist teams from the Verizon and Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) Social Innovation Challenge took the (virtual) stage to present their innovations to an expert panel, which included Clinton Foundation Vice Chair Chelsea Clinton, Verizon Chief Product Development Officer Nicki Palmer, and VentureWell President Phil Weilerstein. The four winning teams secured spots in Stage 2 of the VentureWell E-Team program, which includes an invitation to our Propel workshop and a $20,000 grant sponsored by Verizon. We spoke with the four winning teams to learn more about their experience preparing for the final pitch showcase and the steps they took to ensure they were ready, and got insight from VentureWell’s Cara Barnes.

practice, practice, practice

It’s a bit of a no-brainer, but still a critical element to success: practice! You’ll likely have 3-10 minutes to share a comprehensive breakdown of your innovation and technology, your experience and expertise, your business model and, of course, your “ask”. Even if you’ve pitched your startup 100 times, you’ll still need to practice as much as possible in the weeks and days leading up to the competition.

“In order to convince others that your idea is a good one, you need to understand your own startup incredibly well,” say Longsha Liu, Julia Isakov, and Kristen Ong from Vita Innovations. “You need to be able to answer any question about your product and company. Before our pitch, we brainstormed potential questions that judges may have, and prepared answers or slides for them in advance.”

Practice is especially important when you consider that every pitch competition is different and has a unique focus. Even if you have a presentation memorized from an older pitch competition, you’ll need to make adjustments to best connect with the judges and audience of your upcoming competition.

“We started off by seeking to better understand who our audience and judges are. In this case, Chelsea, Phil, and Nicki represented three unique disciplines that we sought to address: social impact, business, and technology,” says the Vita Innovations team. “From there, our team conducted a full review of the key points that we ought to display in our pitch deck, especially in a limited time frame like the three minutes we were allotted.”

It can be tricky practicing and editing your pitch while also keeping the daily responsibilities of your startup on track. Look to the core lessons you’ve learned in your experience developing your startup and the feedback you’ve received to find balance. There’s no need to completely reinvent the wheel. You’ve been chosen for the pitch competition because your innovation has value — delicately chisel your pitch and slides until that value has been made clear.

bring your most authentic self and story

Authentic storytelling is a crucial part of pitching your startup. Whether you’re pitching to one person or to an audience of 200, telling your startup’s story helps convey the human element of any business. Passion can be infectious — while the who, what, where and when are important, don’t forget to share why you do the work you do. At the end of your pitch, the judges should understand not just the business fundamentals but the reasons why the problem you’re aiming to solve is important to the world — and to you.

“Authenticity goes beyond almost anything else when pitching at an innovation competition. Ensure the judges understand your passion when it comes to the issue you solve; let them know how much you care, and all the steps you’ve taken to make the world a better place,” says Cedric Clyburn from LiRA.

If you’re unsure how to incorporate your startup’s story into your pitch, think about what first sparked your interest in the problem your innovation addresses and what drives you to do the work you do now.

“People connect best with stories, not disjointed facts across several slides. Practice telling your startup’s story to different groups of people: your parents, your friends, peers in the entrepreneurship community,” says the Vita Innovations team.

lean on your mentors — and your peers

While prepping for a pitch competition, you may receive feedback (solicited and not) from a wide array of people — professors, friends, family, perhaps even from strangers! Advice doesn’t come with a quality rating, so you’ll need to figure out what feedback should be incorporated into your pitch and what feedback should be ignored. This is where connecting with trusted mentors who are engaged in the entrepreneurial ecosystem is crucial; they can act as a sounding board to help entrepreneurs sort through all of the advice they are hearing. Mentors who understand your product and business model can provide expert advice backed by experience that is specifically tailored to your innovation and team.

“Utilizing the time spent with the mentors to the fullest is the best way to gain the insight you need,” says The STEAM Connection team. “We took so many notes and had an outline of what we wanted to know before we spoke to each mentor. We weren’t afraid to tell them when we were stuck and needed help.”

Another essential pillar of support are your peers: other startup teams who are on the same journey as you. Others creating innovation in the same industry, utilizing similar technology or materials, or even around the same juncture in their development can offer fresh eyes on your pitch. Whether they pinpoint vulnerabilities they recognize from their own experience or introduce you to a new resource, your peers can help you elevate your pitch.

“We often met up with our peers outside of the workshop to discuss pitch ideas, grant applications, and so much more,” notes The STEAM Connection team. “A peer-to-peer network is an amazing way to branch out your connections and learn of new and exciting opportunities.”

be proactive and prepared for anything

Imagine this: You’ve been practicing, refining, and tweaking your pitch for weeks, then on the day of the pitch, a team member falls ill or your slides won’t upload correctly. What now? Taking the time to triple-check the technical elements of a pitch, anticipate possible mishaps, and proactively develop plans of action can save you a whole lot of stress down the line.

“We were nervous because during our first pitch, we had a ton of technical difficulties and our founder had to give our second pitch on a conference hall floor. It really showed us that even when things went awry, we were able to rely on our product and our practice to speak for us!” say Danielle Boyer and Dakshesh Daruri from The STEAM Connection.

Pitch competitions can be nerve-wracking. Things can fall through the cracks in those hours or moments before your time on stage. One solution is to create a day-before and day-of checklist with everything your team will need to present the pitch successfully. Be sure to include a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast on the list — if you’re feeling your best, you’ll present your best.

“In one of our competitions, we made the mistake of trying to incorporate feedback we had received from 20 different sources the night before until 2 a.m. The most important thing the day before your pitch is rest!” says Nga Nguyen from LiRA.

key takeaways

  • Practice your pitch — and be prepared to answer any question on your startup
  • Authentic storytelling is crucial to illustrate your team’s passion and drive
  • Reach out to mentors and peers for pitch (and startup) support
  • You never know what may go wrong last minute — triple-check your work and map out alternative plans

Pitch competitions celebrate the ingenuity and passion of the entrepreneurial ecosystem and can be thrilling opportunities for innovation teams. We at VentureWell were proud to work with Verizon and the Clinton Global Initiative University to support early-stage innovators making positive change in the world. Congratulations to the four winning teams of the 2021 Verizon & CGI U Social Innovation Challenge pitch showcase: LiRA, Sisyphus Global Systems, The STEAM Connection, and Vita Innovations!

What does it take to get from idea to impact? Our new case study offers a deep dive into one innovator’s entrepreneurship journey, highlighting the nuanced experience, lessons learned, and major development milestones.

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