I love business. I love coming up with a new idea for a business; the process of building a business; marketing a business; and running a business. It’s a total thrill. When I go on sales calls and earn new business, I feel like a winner. I get the same feeling when I come up with a new idea to try out in my business that makes money. Business is like a drug to me, and it’s a good drug: like caffeine, it’s good for me. It makes me more successful, and it stimulates me to keep going.
A big part of starting and running a business is being able to convince other people that your idea for a business is something worth considering. In the past, I’ve given business presentations to the public before, but I’d never actually had the chance to “pitch” my idea for a business to a crowd for their consideration. However, last year I became a member of Peak Venture Group, and one of the functions they put on is “Pitch Night” once a month at Epicentral Coworking space in downtown Colorado Springs.
At Pitch Night, local entrepreneurs (or “wantrepreneurs”) get five minutes to pitch their ideas for a business, and anyone who wants to come hear it can. The bar is quite low (which is a good thing): you don’t even need to have a legitimate business—you just need to have a potential business model and try your hardest to convince people that it’s worth pursuing. While the concept is not unique to Colorado Springs by any means, it’s the only place in town I’ve found that offers this kind of “bleeding edge” opportunity to give a pitch to the community.
It’s not intended for getting investors since it’s not an accredited investors organization so you can’t ask for a specific dollar amount, but you can tell people about your idea and what you’re looking for in general terms (i.e. employees, investors, lawyers, partners, etc). The beauty of having an opportunity to give a “preliminary” sort of opportunity to share your ideas in this informal environment is that unlike a real pitch to investors, you don’t get just one shot: you have nothing to lose even if you do a bad job. You can get some rotten tomatoes (figuratively) from the audience, and it’s going to be a growing experience either way. I love this.
I’ve been going to Pitch Night in Colorado Springs off and on since it started. The first time I went, I found out that it was only their third meeting. That was about two years ago, and I’ve seen all kinds of pitches since then. Some were great (great ideas, well delivered), some were absolutely horrible (people avoiding eye contact while reading slides in an monotone voice and blathering one past their time limit about something I simply couldn’t understand) , and some were downright bizarre (one woman pitched an idea for a “feminine product” that left the audience aghast).
Last summer, I had the opportunity to give a pitch for one of the ideas I’ve been stewing on quietly for several years: the Colorado Springs Birth Center project. I decided it was time to take my ideas public and get some feedback, whether good or bad. So I emailed the group admins and sent in my slide deck and very nervously applied to talk about something I’ve never talked about in public before: creating a birth center for expectant mothers who want an alternative to a hospital birth.
I was quite aware of the odds against me, real or perceived, which included:
- I’m a man
- I’ve never given birth myself
- I’m not a medical professional
- I have no experience in the healthcare industry
While I do feel that I a have some unique reasons for why I’m suited to the task of starting and running a birth center (for reasons that I outline in the birth center website) I still wondered if I should cancel and forget the whole thing. I was so nervous, not because of presenting in public—which is something I have done often and am quite comfortable with—but because I’d never told anybody about my idea before and was afraid of the backlash it might cause.
What if people hated my idea? What if they told me I was an idiot? Or wasting my time? At least when I started my own business and bootstrapped it, I never had to explain myself to anyone… I just did it. There was no discussion. I just woke up in the morning and started working. However, to pull off a business like this, I would need a lot of help from people in the community. This couldn’t be a one-man shop. I would need people with strengths that I didn’t have; strengths that complement my weaknesses. I was so nervous I was sweating beforehand, in a way I normally don’t do when giving a speech or presentation.
I eventually got over my fears and decided it would be worth it. I drank some wine right before my pitch which helped calm my nerves (great tip for next time!) and I rehearsed my slides over and over. I fidgeted with my Keynote presentation over and over until my name was called, and I went up to go public with my secret idea.
(A very blurry photo of me giving my pitch)
In all, I think I did a decent job, and I think it went as well as I could have expected. (The good news is this: the week before my pitch, I gave a practice presentation in my Toastmasters club and got some initial feedback from that which allowed me to improve my presentation).
However, no matter how much practice you have, in “real life,” things are always different, and this pitch proved to be no exception. I learned a few valuable lessons about giving a pitch to an audience. Here are just a few points:
- If you can, practice in front of a friendly audience first. Fortunately, I was able to do this before I even got to Pitch Night (in Toastmasters). I am SO glad I did. This gave me the confidence I needed.
- Don’t rely on notes. This one almost killed me—I had practiced my pitch for weeks by looking at the notes in my slide deck for weeks, but all of sudden, when it was go time, I had to go commando and forgo all my notes because I realized there was no lectern so I had to stand about eight feet away from where my laptop was standing and I couldn’t read any of the notes I had on my screen. Don’t make this mistake! Ad-libbing a business pitch is a bad idea!
- Practice for timing’s sake. This is something that Toastmasters is great for: you’ll always be amazed at how fast the time flies by. Fortunately, I said just about everything I wanted to say in the time I had, but I was still amazed at how little five minutes really is.
- Prepare yourself for bizarre questions you’ll have to answer on your feet. I suppose there’s no way to prepare for this, so it’s tough no matter what. After my pitch, I had five minutes to answer questions and a journalist from the Colorado Springs Business Journal threw me a question that was a total curve-ball. Not necessarily in the question itself, but in the bizarre way he phrased it, and so it took me probably 20-30 seconds to recover before I could even answer the question because it’s easy to get disoriented when people ask questions you’re not expecting.
- Prepare ON STAGE if possible. I had been to pitch night several times before, even in the same venue, but (as I’ve already mentioned) I was thrown off by the lack of a lectern to set my laptop with notes on, and one thing I never thought of before was the fact that when I stood where I wanted to stand (and had planned to), I was standing in the light of the projector, blocking the screen. So I spent half my presentation awkwardly staring directly into the project lamp, and the other half trying to dodge the bright lights and awkwardly crane my neck backwards to see what was being projected on the wall since I couldn’t see my screen (and my notes!). I also forgot to bring a remote control, so I had to keep walking up to the table to press the ‘next” button to advance through the slides. That was all my fault, and made me feel very awkward.
- You may get “advice” instead of questions during the Q&A time. Ok, so I wasn’t prepared for this one. During the time for questions and answers, instead of asking questions, some people gave me “advice” about how I could do a better job, or how to approach it from a different angle. I don’t begrudge them for doing so, since the whole point of Pitch Night is to improve your pitch and business model, but while some people had excellent insight, some people took up valuable time for asking questions by giving me their opinions about the subject matter that felt more like they were lecturing me rather than helping me. I wasn’t prepared for that, so I tried to graciously accept it and smile and nod but on the inside, it was a little frustrating. I would have welcomed this kind of feedback after the event when there would have been plenty of time for a quiet discussion instead.
Overall, it was a great experience, and, like public speaking and starting your own business, is something I think everyone should try at least once. Maybe someday I’ll go back and give another pitch with some improvements and a little bit more preparation but I’m glad I did it.
The end goal was also a little bit surprising: I got very little actual interest in my cause. I very clearly told people that I was not looking for funding of any kind, but rather wanted to form an exploratory committee to do a feasibility study to see if the need truly exists and if we can create a sustainable organization—this, I thought, was a reasonable request. I got zero takers. One man came up to me afterwards and said he would be willing to give me some free advice since he had lots of medical experience, but that’s about it. Aside from that, MANY women came up to me afterwards and told me they supported what I was doing and said “let me know if you ever get it up and running.“
I suppose they meant that as a sort of encouraging fist-bump or sorts, and while it certainly encouraged me to find out that most of the women who have had children in the past—who are the target market for a birth center—were very interested in what I was doing, I was frustrated to learn that nobody actually cared enough to join the exploratory committee that I had mentioned. I felt like the little red hen, where all the other barnyard animals wanted to benefit from the fruit of her labor (no pun intended) but none of them actually wanted to put in any of the work to get there. (“Not I!” said the cat. “Not I!” said the pig… you know the story).
I suppose I just have to get used to that—that’s the life of an entrepreneur. Certainly, when I started my web design company five years ago, nobody was there to help me with the work, so I guess I’m used to it. That’s just the way it is. Maybe someday I’ll get that committee together after all. But for now, the Colorado Springs Birth Center is still just an idea stewing quietly in my mind.
If you get a chance, please do give Pitch Night a try! Come visit as a guest, or if you have an idea… come pitch it! And let me know—I will come support you with smiles and an applause.