How To Win a Pitch Competition

Even if you're not a founder yourself, it's incredible to see people perform under the pressure of a pitch competition with a restrictive time limit.

For anyone who hasn't experienced a pitch competition, I highly encourage you to check one out. They're almost like a professional sporting event - the Super Bowl of startups. They're exciting, and they're intense. Even if you're not a founder yourself, it's incredible to see people perform under that amount of pressure with a restrictive time limit.  

Presenters pour their hearts into a one-minute business pitch that needs to be both approachable and structured. For entrepreneurs and startup founders, this is an effective way to identify what resonates with investors and prospects. After attending quite a few pitch competitions (they are everywhere nowadays), we've determined that the trick to winning a pitch competition is to be clear about what the company does, speak confidently, and avoid generalities.  

Here are some pointers for your future pitch:  

What to Say

  • Company name  
  • Origin story  
  • Next milestone  
  • Company name again  

Promote. Promote. Promote. Start by clearly stating the name of your company. If possible, wear a T-shirt or cap with the company name and logo as well. Some pitch competitions will have a screen behind the presenter with their company's name and contact information, but this is not guaranteed. You might have a great pitch, but if no one can remember your company name or contact you afterward, then it's not a success.  After one pitch competition, I wanted to follow up with a founder and I remembered her because she wore bright red pants... I didn’t connect her with the company name, but at least I was able to navigate to her in the crowd after the competition in the crowd.  

Unless you are speaking directly to investors, avoid too many statistics. One eye-opening stat that proves why people need your solution is all you need in this context. Stories resonate much better with audiences than numbers. Explain the genesis of your idea - talk about when and where you encountered the problem, the need your business fulfills, why you became determined to find a solution, and how your company is making a positive impact. Financials are important, but they're not as compelling in this context.  

Once the audience knows who you are and why your company matters, offer them an opportunity to help. At a high level, explain what you need to get to the next milestone, what that milestone is, and how it will benefit everyone involved. Don't worry too much about a financial forecast. (While this is important for an investor conversation – it's not needed for a 1 min competition pitch.) Focus instead on the company's next big step for of growth or the next challenge to overcome. Talk about actionable goals like adding new features to differentiate your business, growing the sales team to hit sales targets, or hiring more developers to automate test routines.  

Close by restating the company name, and be sure to mingle and network with other attendees afterward. You may not win the competition, but you can certainly leave with some new contacts and some potential investor interest.  

How to Say It

  • Confidently  
  • Rehearsed  

The best speakers portray confidence. And it's obvious they've practiced.  

The goal is to sound confident, even if you're a bit nervous. Pitching your company can be a bit like a job interview. The interviewer knows it can be a stressful experience and will factor in the nervousness. But too many nerves can come across as ill-prepared. If you jumble a few words, just keep going. Smile, speak clearly, and just be human. There's a line between used-car salesman energy and authentic enthusiasm for the company. As long as you believe in what you're doing, and why you're doing it, that authenticity will show.  

Secondly: practice, practice, practice. It's painfully obvious when someone doesn't know what they should be saying. And when somebody keeps tripping over themselves, that's a huge red flag. The product would need to be mind-blowingly great to make up for the unprepared presentation.  

Who Should Say It

  • Founders/cofounders  
  • A confident, enthusiastic speaker  

Ideally, the company founder or cofounder is the one speaking since investors are ultimately betting on the founders behind the idea and not necessarily on the idea itself. There are many people chasing similar ideas, new technologies are constantly emerging, and economies shift so rapidly that the landscape changes fast. This means quick pivots in any business are par for the course, and it's solid leadership and a strong vision that ultimately keep a company afloat.  

If the speaker is not the founder, they should be able to portray just as much enthusiasm and convey just as compelling a story. In startups comprised of less than 10 people, everyone should know what the standard pitch is. Whether they be a wallflower developer or an office manager, everyone needs to know. So, if the usual company presenter is unavailable, it's easy to get a stand-in. But more importantly, it ensures that everyone in the company is on the same page.  

What Not to Do

  • Use generalizations  
  • Describe your company alongside another company  

Phrases like "We're the Airbnb of X industry" or "We're the Uber of the Y landscape" are overly generalized. If you are relying on descriptions like these, then you might want to rethink your pitch strategy.    

It's OK to relate what you do to known categories, just don't be dependent on those categories. Instead of "We're the Tesla of X," say "We're like Tesla in that we do A, B, and C. But we address this problem a little differently..." Explain how your company is similar to an existing category of business, but focus on the factors that make your business stand out.

I hope this helps you prepare for your next pitch. Go get ‘em!

Malinda Gagnon

Malinda is CEO at Uprise and has more than 20 years of experience in business strategy and technology at companies including Google and WPP, and has advised clients such as Procter & Gamble, General Electric, VW, BlackRock, and Walmart.

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