Another pitch competition….is this a worthwhile distraction?

Focus, focus, focus. The mantra by mentor always gave me - never take your eye off sales. And yet there are so many distractions in the startup bubble of London.

Way back when

My first attempt at breaking into startup land was back in 1998, I interviewed for a production assistant post at the online auction house (curious? - this is what happened to them) at the time they were the new superstars of UK internet pre Ebay in the UK. I remember heading to West London to a small office and then being asked if I could operate a digital camera. They were not mainstream at that point and cost a fortune - way beyond by student overdraft. I had not learnt the art of “faking it until you make it” which is a necessity and alas did not get the job.

Next attempt - In 1999 I got shortlisted from 1000 to the final 2 for a content producer role at AOL (not quite a startup I know…) didn’t get that due to lack of “experience” that old chestnut rejection hell of a new graduate.

To cut a long story short I built and developed online and print products (and CD-ROMs - oh joy) for others. Dreamweaver, Fireworks, Flash, Director, Quark Xpress  with a good dose of senior management and multi million pound budget experience. 10 years later I was ready to enter the world of startups again. Issue was I had spent the vast majority of my time in an office and behind a computer.

At one senior management away day we read John Kotter’s The Iceberg is Melting about Change Management and I was voted the character of “Professor” by my colleagues...always has her head in a book. In 2010 had a fair bit of change management to do on myself it seemed.

Chh chh chhanges

In 2016 I became Elle Magazines UK Social Entrepreneur of the year prior, the same year I got into Pearson and Unreasonable Institute’s global Project Literacy Lab accelerator programme - with 15 other entrepreneurs from around the world.

I had mastered pitching my ideas to others.

Between 2011 and 2015 I had pitched by way through 5 support programmes/accelerators, become a finalist or winner of over 10 different national awards, raised seed, angel and VC investment and most importantly got my message across to sell my product MyChoicePad so it got into the hands of over 100,000 children, families and professionals across the UK. To have had an impact on the language and communication skills of those people, even if tiny is why I put myself through the pressure of pitching.

Yes I said pressure. When there’s a big audience I still get the jitters. Wonder if I’m worthy of being up there when it’s actually the teachers, parents and health professionals who do the amazing job. In the end I tell myself I’m here to represent them and make them proud - get their voices heard and be an instigator for change. If I have to hold a mic then to stop shaky hand I pinch myself with my other hand...getting the adrenalin out of me. I also breathe out before I take a sip of water as learnt now that if I don’t do that the water will not make my throat. Water bottles are the safest.

Learning to pitch

At the beginning I watched video after video of seedcamp pitches from 2010 and US based accelerator videos. Wrote down my 30 secs, 1 minute, 3 minute and 5 minute pitch learnt them  word for word and practiced in the mirror with a hairbrush.

Design rules

I became pretty good as using visuals for slide decks. I learnt everything I could about storytelling and letting images do the talking from Presentation Zen and Resonate.

Emerging from my desk

My first “outing” was not a pitch competition but one of the first TechHub demo days in summer 2011. Mike Butcher interrupted me in my first minute (yes the crucial first minute of flow) to say I needed to hold the mic like a rock star as no-one could hear me. Thankfully I got through it and was pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of the crowd afterwards. So a non competition like this is the best place to start off in my view. Really helped my confidence.

You can see my second ever pitch here. I came joint first in my first competition. My second competition I didn’t win - think I was second or third in audience votes but sat in the audience was a fellow from UnLtd. He contacted me the next day to enter their Big Venture Challenge Competition. Went through all the rounds of that culminating in a very tough final “Dragons Den” pitch where I got torn apart from a Pret a Manger Founder. Thought I’d failed miserably only to hear the following month I had won. My little business was only 7 weeks in revenue generation when I applied. I won a grant and support for 3 years. Two months later I was runner up in Clearly So’s Social Business of the Year 2011 - through a live pitch competition at their annual event. And so the pitching winning run continued.

This is the last video I have of me pitching - it’s 2013 at the Wayra accelerator demo day - but it doesn’t make me cringe too much which is a good sign.

To pitch or not to pitch

Yes it is a big distraction as it’s nerve wracking and it feels as if everything you’ve worked for could be destroyed in 3 minutes if you get it wrong. It won’t be, just learn to pace your speech, create visual or mental cues for yourself so no matter what distractions there are during your pitch you hold the line. And try and make people smile and feel something strong.

If you’ve spent a long time behind a desk or it’s your first startup and you live not so far from the events then get used to spending at least an evening a week pitching in some shape or form...telling your story. The more you do it the more confident you will feel in front of your customers and investors. Being able to articulate yourself clearly is crucial if you are to lead your business.

Since I’ve done it before for my next business I will be more selective of where and how often I pitch. There are so many more outlets now then back in 2011. Some will be friendly feedback, others investor led, some where I can recruit potential advisors and ideally put me in front of potential customers and partners. What’s key is a I know what my objective is for each before I leave the house. Forget the beer and pizza (lifeline when I started out and skint) I will be there with a shopping list of intentions :)

Happy pitching folks!

Zoe Peden