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Viewpoint: What I wish someone had told me about pitching investors

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Early in my career, I was working with a young, talented faculty member at the University of Michigan on the commercialization of one of his innovations.

We thought we had everything figured out. The technical path for developing his technology, the capital required to get it there, the expertise required to translate the technology, and the strategic partner who would be desperate for our idea. We set an agreed upon date to present to the company, put our deck together, and pitched them an idea on which they couldn’t possibly pass.

We failed spectacularly.

Many years, and a few hundred pitches, later, I look back on that first attempt and recognize the mistakes and presumptions that I see many founding entrepreneurs make even today. Pitching your company is a skill, and it requires training, coaching, and practice. As I look back on that first pitch, here are few things that my more-experienced self would tell that researcher if I could do it all over again.

Know yourself and your idea

The deeper your understanding of the idea, the ways it can be commercialized, the impact it will have, and why your targeted customer set will care about what you are doing, the better you will be at explaining it to others. Too many founders focus upon their strengths, usually either technical- or business-focused, and only can explain part of the business concept.

Understanding how the idea works, what it will take to validate that it works, how it is differentiated from competing solutions, how you will get the market to adopt to the idea, and what the value of that impact upon the market will be are all critical aspects of your plan that learned businesspeople will want to know. Understand what you do know, study what you don’t, and find people to help you where your knowledge and skills are lacking.

Keep it simple

Your new business idea may be complex, require a lot of technical know-how, and has a unique business model that takes time to explain. But keep in mind, at the beginning, no one really wants to understand each element of your plan. Most early-stage investors are probably looking at dozens of such plans a week. So, keep it simple. Put it in terms to which they can quickly and easily relate. Define the problem you’re going to solve and how it will make the world better.

Go through the description of the business model in simple terms, and let the listener guide you on where they want to have a deeper understanding. Whether you are developing your one-minute elevator pitch or 30-minute investor pitch, keep refining it, practice on others, and ask yourself, “Is this really needed for the first discussion?”

Know your audience

Most top entrepreneurs probably have between two to five different pitches for their business ideas. When you are pitching an idea to an audience, one size does not fit all. Research your audience, understand their backgrounds and their areas of interest. Know what to avoid and what to emphasize. Have a strategy before even walking into the room. Tailoring your message to your audience and being prepared for the type of questions that they will be asking will make a huge difference in refining your pitching skill set.

Listen to your audience

A key concept for all high-level founders is “I pitch to learn.” In the early days of your business, find the top people in your professional field and pitch to them. Prepare yourself to pitch to leading venture capitalists, scientific leaders and business leaders. Plan for it, and do it often.
Not only will the style of your pitch get better, but it will become innate as your knowledge deepens. The most important part of the pitch is the discussion after the pitch. Make the next pitch better with the knowledge you have gained from the last one. Map out a strategy for who to pitch to and in what order. Make the most important pitches the last ones.

Enjoy the ride

Finally, try to enjoy the experience. I know from experience that raising capital can be a difficult process, complete with a great deal of rejection. However, if you approach the rejection as a chance to learn and you attack the process with purpose, enthusiasm, and energy, you will find it to have been an exhilarating experience by the time it’s over. Especially when you get to that first “yes.”  

Matt Bell is director of SC Launch and executive director of SC Launch Inc. Bell also provides mentorship to early stage companies and facilitates grant funding for eligible companies. SC Launch Inc. is a nonprofit corporate affiliage of the S.C. Research Authority, which is a public, nonprofit corporation established by the General Assembly to fuel South Carolina’s knowledge economy.

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