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154 Pitches, 1 Day, 5 Lessons

by Neil Follett - August 3, 2016

154 is a big number, mind-numbing really when the pitches come in 90 second increments with almost no time in between, but 154 it was at the recent Startupfest (Opens in a new window) in Montreal. I was there as a panel of 14 judges and investors who were awarding the $200,000 grand prize, our $200,000 investment to be more accurate. I was the only new judge this year, and given the quality of the other folks on the panel, the organizers obviously lowered their standards a little to let me in, but however it happened the experience was absolutely amazing.

Thousands of entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, press and dignitaries (well, the Mayor on Montreal was there, he’s a dignitary, right?), gathered for two days of talks, seminars, networking and good times… with a key draw being the investment we were giving away. Through rain, and sun and high winds, teams and individuals lined up for hours to get their 90 seconds in the spotlight. Some were amazing, some less so. Others were entertaining, and still others were a little embarrassing. It was 5 hours of passion, pleas and pitches, and it taught me these 5 lessons, which can be applied to everything from pitches, to meetings to interviews:

1. Get to the point

No, seriously get to the point. I know you need to set up the problem sometimes before we can understand the solution, but look to hook us from the start. Try something like “imagine if you could do x”, or “in 5 seconds we are going to solve a problem that’s been around for 50 years”. Much better than 65 seconds of preamble that both loses the attention of your audience while eating up precious seconds. I can tell you that I experienced some of the longest minutes of my life that afternoon waiting to hear what the actual business idea was!

2. Listen to feedback

There were countless times the judges tried to direct, re-direct, focus or fine tune through those 154 pitches, usually to no avail. Maybe it was nerves, maybe people were trying to stay on script, or maybe they just weren’t listening. Don’t be so in the moment that you can’t take a beat, read your audience, and manage your approach accordingly. And if you do get the opportunity where some very smart investors (again, not me!) say things like, “get to the part about your business”, please listen to them!

3. Bring some personality

Investors are looking for the idea, but they are also looking at the person behind the idea. That’s pretty universal actually. Don’t be polished to the point of sterile. Slick without substance won’t win. You are likely passionate about your idea, your art, or yourself for a reason and make sure that reason shines through. Be passionate, be different, be yourself and don’t be afraid to talk about yourself.

4. Engage your audience

Would it kill you to say hi? The number of people who just sat down and launched into it was staggering. Again, maybe nerves, maybe a huge sensitivity to the precious seconds ticking away, but frankly you lost me without a hello. I am guessing the time to say “Hi, my name is Neil. It’s really nice to meet you. Are you all set or do you need a moment?”, might be the most important seconds you have in your 90.

5. Think about why you’ll fail

This one is obviously a little more about the ideas and a little less about the presentations, but I do believe that all ideas are made better if viewed through the harsh lens of reality. The great thing about entrepreneurs is their often unbridled belief in the validity of their idea… however, consider for a moment that maybe not everyone else shares your passion or your clarity that this is the next best thing. Spend time on why you are going to fail, because your investors and the rest of world will.

Have answers to the tough questions, say hello, be yourself, listen to the audience, and be clear about the point and you’ll be in good shape the next time you get 90 seconds.


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