By Kevin Volz
As a professor of entrepreneurship and director of the Enterprise Development Center at Notre Dame College of Ohio, Bill Leamon has a passion for helping entrepreneurs take their innovative ideas and turn them into successful companies. He encourages his students to participate in pitch competitions – presenting their business ideas with the hope of winning money to help fund their company.
“To me, a pitch competition is just like any job interview,” said Leamon. “They take practice, and you may not always win, but they are an excellent way to get feedback so you can work on your pitch and make it more compelling.”
Leamon was recently a judge in a pitch competition that was part of JumpStart’s Startup Scaleup 2015. JumpStart, a regional partner of Ohio Third Frontier in northeast Ohio, hosted the competition as a way for entrepreneurs with new ideas and concepts for companies to win $5,000. Leamon said this competition confirmed what he has learned from judging similar events in the past – all the best presentations have three elements in common:
Pitching is about understanding what the judges are most interested in, and developing a conversation that connects on an emotional level. Tell a story that’s relatable, inspirational and addresses the marketplace problem you’re solving. Let them see every ounce of the passion that drives you. Your passion will differentiate you in their minds because it’s an admirable character trait that shows promise. It makes a statement that you’re going to make your dreams happen and start your company with or without their help, and that will make them want to be a part of your success story.
Telling a compelling story won’t get you very far if your idea is still floating in the clouds. It needs to be firmly planted in the ground where it can grow. You have to prove very quickly that you know your stuff, or the judges will stop listening. Judges want to know why your product solves a problem or is a “must have.” Be ready to answer all sorts of questions: How large is your market? Who are your competitors? Why is your product better than the others? What is your customer acquisition strategy? Is there a big enough market and customer base for the idea? People are often rejected due to over selling their idea or a lack of a competitive advantage, so be careful in those areas.
Judges are evaluating whether you and your management team have the capability and capacity to do the heavy lifting that is required to take an idea from start to scale. They know a weak partnership can ruin a business. Your partners and the team dynamic should help inspire confidence, not raise questions. If judges sense any friction, they’ll fear your failure. If you have an experienced, seamless team, it’s easier to win over judges.
“I know that pitching your idea to a panel of judges is daunting,” said Leamon. “But when you have a great idea, a smart business plan and amazing people backing you up, you can wow the crowd and get the financial backing you need.”