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Making it in GR: Pitch competitions put entrepreneurs in the spotlight

Taking your business idea out into the world can be scary, but it's necessary for entrepreneurs who need funding. Pitch competitions have emerged as a fun, laid-back way for individuals to seek financial backing and get the community involved in the entrepreneurship ecosystem. 
Entrepreneurs often spend years hoping that their idea will be heard by the right person, generate the interest that will attract investors and land the funding that can move them forward into the next phase of their business. They know that their pitch is the platform on which their business will flourish, but they often don't know what their pitch is missing, who they can share it with, or who will even care to hear it. But, the popularity of the hit television show, “”Shark Tank,” has drawn attention to pitch competitions, an outlet where entrepreneurs can showcase their business in an environment a little more laid back than a potential investor's office.
From Lansing to Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo to Detroit, cities across the state (and the country) are embracing pitch competitions as a way to generate excitement and interest around new business ideas, and Grand Rapids is no exception. Start Garden, the Michigan Women's Foundation, local colleges, high schools, and more have all adapted the pitch competition as ways to seek out new talent and investment opportunities, and both entrepreneurs and the local community are experiencing the benefits.
So, what's so great about the chance to stand in front of a group of people and pitch your idea in a specified amount of time and then be judged based on the merit of that idea? By taking a closer look at two local events, we can see the effect these competitions have on the participants and why they generate so much excitement.
While a pitch competition was not the original vision for 5x5 Night, Start Garden's pitch competition, showcasing business ideas was.
Judges of the competition."After Art Prize in 2010, a bunch of us thought there were a lot of really creative projects happening in the area and a lot of energy around them,” says Paul Moore, Chief Marketing Officer of Start Garden. The problem was that no one had a way to find out about them. "So, we started a show-and-tell night where people could share their ideas,” Moore says. That platform generated interest and energy, and Start Garden co-founder Rick Devos decided there needed to be a grant around one of the ideas, so they needed a winner. From there, 5x5 Night was born.
The original idea has grown out of Start Garden and, after a brief hiatus, 5x5 Night now takes its five contestants, five judges and $5,000 in prize money on the road across the region. "When we brought it back, everyone went crazy; they lost their minds,” Moore says. “There's something about the drama...You can get on stage, and in five minutes something transformative has happened based on your idea."
The excitement generated by the high energy of the event is what makes pitch competitions great television material and makes people keep coming out to the local events held across the state and country. It's what prompts those who have participated to spread the word and encourage others to do the same.
"The experience," says Moore, "has more merit that money." And it's that merit, and the non-monetary rewards, that appeal to past and future contestants.
When the founders of Malamiah Juice Bar, a family-owned juice bar located in the Downtown Market, decided it was time to expand their business and add a juice truck to their business model, they turned to 5X5 Night to make their pitch.
"There's a lot of buzz around pitch competitions," says Malamiah Juice Bar co-founder Anissa Eddie, but the thing that caught their attention was a friend, Latesha Lipscomb, who had won just a few months before pitching her business, I Got Face. "We were excited for her and knew she now had support moving forward."
Neither Anissa or her husband, Jermale, had ever observed a pitch competition, and the duo had no idea what to expect when they attended the event and prepared for Jermale to take the stage. "We could explain our business, but the time limit really helped us hone our message and gave us adrenaline,” she explains.
While they were excited about how well the pitch went, with Anissa noting that Jermale is a natural public speaker, one of the coolest things that happened occurred while they were waiting to see who won.
"We spoke to so many people, got cards from everyone and made a Gordon Food Service connection, along with someone who does art for food trucks,” Anissa says. “Before we even knew what the judges would say, it was worth it."
And while Jermale and Anissa Eddie took home the grand prize of $5,000, these connections and the ability to network is what generates the energy that fuels these competitions. The money is just a portion of what they need to buy their juice truck, but Anissa says they were so happy to win and the excitement has helped encourage them to move forward. "The benefit comes from the people that gather around the idea, not just the ideas,” Moore emphasizes.
Spectators watch the business pitches.It was the idea of camaraderie and support that spurred the Michigan Women's Foundation (MWF), which has offices in Grand Rapids and Detroit, to harness the energy forming around pitch competitions and use it to help women-owned businesses flourish.
The MWF is a non-profit that has always been focused on transforming Michigan to achieve equality and empowerment for women and girls. While working to achieve this equality, they noticed something. According to CEO Carolyn Cassin, women receive around five to seven percent of the venture capital going to businesses. And, in observing various pitch competitions, they noticed that women almost never won. Because, she says, "women don't pitch the same way men do. Women tend to start at the beginning and end with where they are now." Men would do the opposite. She adds that for women, "It was too much about the journey." So, they decided to put their own spin on the "Shark Tank” inspired trend and level the playing field by starting a pitch competition for women. "You don't have to take a bite out of someone's business (when offering funding)," Cassin says. "We ask, 'How can we help? How can we offer resources and tell you the truth about your idea?'" They also started helping women construct their stories in a way that articulated what mattered to judges and investors, their experience and their "why." "And they started to win!"
The investors at MWF’s Dolphin Tank competition, also known as the Dolphins, offer honest, straightforward feedback, specific to the idea presented in front of them. Most recently, the Dolphin Tank competition was held Nov. 10 at Grand Valley State University’s downtown Grand Rapids campus. "If you're asking why pitch competitions," says Cassin, "that's the stuff that makes the difference. They are about helping the entrepreneur succeed."
And the Dolphins of Dolphin Tank know that it takes more than money to help businesses succeed, which is why, after each pitch, each Dolphin, all of whom are founders, entrepreneurs, and leaders in the community, offer advice, ask questions and make sure each presenter knows what their pitch is missing. The most important question they ask? "What keeps you up at night?" The presenters are encouraged to make one final ask of the audience, investors or judges and are often matched with someone in the crowd that can help them move forward with a specific need within their business.
This is the real value of these competitions. Lauren Flanagan, Managing Member of the General Partner, Managing Director of BELLE Capital USA, LP, CEO, board member of Springboard (Varnum’s statewide initiative designed to remove some of the barriers associated with starting a business by providing free legal services to Michigan startups) and Dolphin, says, "There's nothing like instant feedback. Someone coming up to you and saying they want to help or work with you. It's great for the entrepreneur, great for the ecosystem, and it's fun."
Second place winner and first time competitor Kristin Thompson, of Postbox Designs, a West Michigan-based interior design service, says the experience was much more than a pitch competition. She had no idea what to expect going in, and she “wanted to throw up for about six hours until it was my turn, but it was professional and fun."
While she took home $5,000 that she will use to hire more designers and grow her custom e-design business that sends interior design straight to your mailbox, Thompson also walked away with a potentially business-changing contact. "One of the panelists said they might have a contact at Target for me. I met her after, got tips and got a contact I never could have gotten on my own."
And, while it's nice to receive that giant check after pitching your idea, the beauty of these competitions is that you don't have to win to be a winner. Nicole Infante presented at a 5x5 Night in 2011, and while her idea, Grandwhich, didn't win, there were people in the audience from the tourism industry who reached out to her after the event. "The business took off, and she never won a dime," says Moore. "She just got her idea out there."
By inviting the community to participate, it's not only the contestants who are energized by the ideas. "There are hundreds of people coming to these just to hear an idea from people they've never met before,” Cassin says of the MWF’s competitions. “There's a new great idea out there, and everyone wants to see it first, say they were there when they announced the next Google."
Gathering the community around the ideas that could potentially fuel their economy is the point of events like these; the conversation, drinks and success stories are perks. "When past winners get up and cry about how much they money has helped them, that's something,” Moore says.
To date, the MWF has held two competitions each year for the past five years, and at each competition they give out around $70,000 in prizes. At least half of that goes into businesses working to grow in West Michigan. Start Garden has hosted 24 5x5 Nights, which amounts to $120,000 in grant money that has gone into the community. And, if you take a closer look, the companies that took that money and grew their business, companies like Mull-it-Over, are multiplying that revenue into millions of dollars.
Both Dolphin Tank and 5x5 look to the community for the support to keep these competitions going, and they get it from places like Consumers Energy, a sponsor of Dolphin Tank because, according to Lisa Gustafson, Executive Director of Business Customer Care at Consumers, "It's great to hear how far past winners have come since getting that leg up. That's what life is all about, helping others out."
From the sponsors to the community, the support around these competitions shows just how much people appreciate the chance to back local entrepreneurs, expand local business and participate in the region’s growth. The creators of these competitions are always looking for ways to expand their reach and break into new communities. For example, 5x5 Night is doing something a little different and introducing 5x5 Night in Spanish. Moore says this decision stemmed from the desire to help all entrepreneurs in the community. "Since an enormous part of our community is made up of Spanish speaking members, we want 5x5 Night to be as accessible as possible."
"They are like the American dream," says Cassin of their appeal. "Everyone has a dream, and pitch competitions let you talk about your dream and share something you believe will make a difference. It's just so much fun, energizing and inspiring to hear people articulate what they are dreaming about."  
“Making It In Grand Rapids” is a series about local entrepreneurs and the issues that matter in building a sustainable, startup-friendly community. Support for this series is provided by Start Garden. You can reach the author of this story on Twitter or e-mail her at alspooner@gmail.com for story tips and feedback.
Photography by Steph Harding
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