Effective pitching or telling a compelling startup story can take many hours of practice to perfect, is honed and shaped by feedback coming from diverse perspectives, and can require a different kind of courage than in actually building your startup. One of the most important things inevitably, is to start. Pitching early and often lets you get comfortable with telling your story in a natural, conversational way; receive feedback like a pro; and find ways to process and integrate comments without losing sight of your company’s vision and your personal momentum and drive.
These are the sentiments I had in mind when I submitted an application to pitch Innov8social, an engagement platform that connects people that want to create social impact with actionable tools and resources on ways to create impact, to a panel of 5 VC judges at Pitch2Sharks in San Francisco. The pitch event was a valuable and insightful experience. And though I have heard many startup pitches (and serve as a judge at times), I learned a great deal from being in the hot seat both about pitching, and about pitching a social enterprise startup.
As social entrepreneurs explore how and where to pitch their startup ideas, I thought it might be useful to share what I learned from my experience of pitching a social enterprise startup here.
1. Define success, then decide if it’s the right time to pitch
It can be helpful to define what success looks like to you before pitching. It’s a way to set expectations and also to be able to process critical feedback in a constructive way.
Since it was the first time pitching Innov8social to investors, and that too at a public event, I decided early on that showing up, not freezing or melting mid-sentence, and articulating my key points with clarity and confidence would be success. Those things fortunately happened, though I did read much of my pitch which the judges mentioned, and I left feeling satisfied and glad for the experience.
Had I set the goal of receiving funding and/or doubling my social media followership, I could have left feeling pretty lousy about the situation, and may have missed the incredible value of getting feedback from a group of people who listen to numerous startup pitches regularly, and that too fund a few too. A comment or insight from them could potentially inform my pitch in meaningful, impactful way, that could save me time and effort effort ahead.
2. Pitch events can be a great way to start…
Depending on the stage of your social enterprise startup and your goals, a pitch event could be a great way to start pitching. If you select the opportunity wisely, you can pitch at an event that aligns well with your social enterprise startup’s mission, or is for startups at the same stage you are in, or features a VC or judge you particularly want to engage.
A pitch event can also be a bit more of a ‘safe space’ to test out your pitch and receive some initial feedback. Before you hear more fierce, unapologetic criticisms that VC’s can be famous for at pitch meetings, a pitch event can provide you a platform to share your startup story and get feedback, all in an abbreviated timeframe.
For my experience in pitching Innov8social, it was a great place to start pitching and I learned as much by what the VC’s didn’t ask as by what they did. It gave me some quick investor feedback of what was conveyed in my pitch and what may have been unclear or ambiguous.
3. …but DON’T expect an investment
From my experience in attending dozens of pitch events over the past half-decade, one thing I have noticed (and have even asked startup founders about) is whether they expect investments from pitch events. The consensus seems to be a pretty consistent no. Some pitch events, by default, however, do offer a prize to the winning pitch. Winning a pitch event comes with the bragging rights, that can be shared not only over social media and the company website, but at future pitches to potential investors as well.
But even without an investment or a win, a pitch can be the start of potential connections. Whether it is building relationship with one of the VC panelists, with someone in the audience, or the event organizer—those relationships may actually be incredibly valuable as you progress and grow your social enterprise.
4. DO plan to educate your audience/judges about the concept of social entrepreneurship
Perhaps one of my biggest takeaways was that as social enterprise startups, we are wise to explain and contextualize social enterprise in a simple, easy to follow way within our pitches. Since social entrepreneurship is a growing space, VC’s or audience members may not have heard of related buzzwords in the field, and frankly, may come away thinking you are pitching as a nonprofit. If you are, that’s not a problem, but if you are trying to show a for-profit business model, potential of growth, scale, and revenue potential and/or relay the double or triple bottom line—this may be problematic. Especially since you might not even realize the confusion until the pitch is all but over.
Better, is to be proactive and avoid assuming your audience’s familiarity with the social entrepreneurship space. As a still-emerging and evolving space, social entrepreneurs are also ambassadors of social entrepreneurship. We have to find easy and accessible ways to explain how impact and business models can co-exist and even thrive.
5. DO use your pitch experience to THINK BIGGER about your social enterprise startup
One of the undeniable advantages of pitching to VC’s—who have likely heard hundreds of pitches, is that in just a few words or with a question or two—they can help you think bigger about your company, goals, and process.
I was asked about Innov8social’s traction and value proposition. Though I had mapped it out, in the context of hearing the other pitches and understanding the viewpoint of the judges, their questions actually helped me to think bigger about the scope and potential of our work.
So, as ever, it’s a good rule of thumb to pitch your social enterprise startup early and often. If you can take the good, the bad, and the ugly in stride you will be able to effectively iterate and improve your pitch and may even gain new clarity about your startup’s path to success.
A few photos from the event
Here are a few photos from Pitch2Sharks, hosted by The Expat Woman. Photography is courtesy of Yeluguri Entertainment (see all of the photos on Facebook here). Good luck with your social enterprises…and remember, always be pitching!