6 things I learned while judging a startup pitch-off

Three weeks ago, I was in the audience for TechPitch 4.5, writing about the night purely as a journalist. The format of each TechPitch 4.5 is the same: eight three-minute pitches; interrogation from the panel of judges, who eventually pick out a winner; and then networking fuelled by pizza and beer.

6 things I learned while judging a startup pitch-off

It’s perhaps a testament to how potent the beer, pizza and networking combo is that three weeks later, I found myself being micced up on stage to judge another TechPitch 4.5 event. There’s probably a lesson here to watch the alcohol if you’d rather stay an observer, rather than a participant.

Fortunately, though, the experience of being a judge taught me a number of other lessons along the way. Here are a few of them.

Three minutes is a ridiculously short amount of time6_things_i_learned_while_judging_a_startup_pitch-off_-_3

There’s quite a lot you can do in three minutes. You can boil an egg. You can listen to Waterloo by Abba. You can, it turns out, give an overview of your business model – but it’s really difficult.

In those three minutes, you have to cover a lot of things. Who you are. What you do. Why you’re doing it. What your long-term plans are. How much money you’re making. How much money can be made. Each one of these topics could last three minutes on its own.

At past events, I’ve seen people run over. To their credit here, everyone managed to finish on time – with almost all of them giving a clear view of their business. It’s the kind of succinctness that makes me, as a professional writer, somewhat envious.

A good pitch can only take you so far

That sounds daunting to first-timers, and the format definitely works best for people who are confident in front of the audience. Performers in other words.

But all is not lost if you’re not a natural showman. An impressive pitching style can only take you so far. If the substance isn’t there, then the sheen begins to wear off pretty quickly, especially under the scrutiny of judges’ questions. In other words, having an excellent speaker is no substitute for a solid idea.

…but a good pitch can also see you through people’s doubts

That said, it can make a real difference. The eventual winners of the evening – Kompas – on paper didn’t wow me too much. It’s an app for iOS and Android which uses artificial intelligence and a human-curated recommendation engine to find you things that you might not normally see in your city. “Okay,” I thought, “but why would I download this when I already have Google Maps on my phone?”

The pitch was brilliant, managing to knock down each one of my doubts one by one with brutal efficiency. A good pitcher knows what might be perceived as weaknesses, and works hard to neutralise them, emphasising both the experience of the team and the successes already achieved.

Internet giants have changed how we view startups6_things_i_learned_while_judging_a_startup_pitch-off_-_4

But there’s something else in there too: the fact that I jumped automatically to Google Maps highlights a big issue that startups inevitably face – how can they compete with the internet giants? And moreover, how can they possibly compete with the “free” that internet users have come to expect?

The answer seems to be specific niches – and judging by the number of potential investors in attendance, there are plenty of people prepared to look beyond the Facebooks, Amazons and Googles of this world. But it’s still a difficult expectation for startups to navigate, with or without investor confidence.

AI is everywhere, but it doesn’t have to be

Artificial intelligence is everywhere, as we’ve said before. It’s tricky though: if you know much about AI, you’ll know it’s nothing without training data, which startups tend to be lacking. That said, it’s enough of a buzzword that its absence from a pitch can be a red flag to those not in the know.

But it’s not 100% necessary, as proved by my joint-favourite pitch of the night. REMX Music Maker – an app that allows anyone to make music on their phone, without worrying about timing and pitch – didn’t mention artificial intelligence once. Instead, the speakers focused on their own invaluable experience working on hugely profitable apps at King, and the impressive start the tool had made without any promotion.

Pitch-offs aren’t everything6_things_i_learned_while_judging_a_startup_pitch-off_-_1

One of my fellow panellists was BookingBug founder Glenn Shoosmith – whose software is now used by the likes of John Lewis, Debenhams, M&S and the UK government. His business now employs 120 people, and he never won any TechPitch 4.5 style pitch-offs, he tells me afterwards.

In other words, if the idea is good enough, have faith. Pitch-offs aren’t everything – although judging by the number of people swarming around Kompas’ and REMX’s representatives in the lobby afterwards, wowing the judges certainly doesn’t hurt.

TechPitch 4.5 events happen almost every month. To find out about upcoming events, visit 4pt5.co.uk.

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