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Speak to the head and the heart: Creating connections through your pitch

Katarina Samardzija pitches her company Locker Lifestyle LLC at a business pitch competition.

Small business owners may feel like pitches and pitch competitions are high-pressure, fast-paced events, only focused on new business ideas. Local entrepreneurs prove that pitch competitions actually provide individuals with funding, networking opportunities, and free exposure.
Merriam-Webster defines pitch as: “advertising, especially in a high-pressure way or attempting to persuade, especially with a sales pitch.” According to Chic CEO, a site providing complimentary resources to women entrepreneurs, pitch competitions are defined as “seminars created for entrepreneurs with new business ideas who are in need of seed money. The entrepreneur and his or her team present, usually quickly, their idea for a new company, as well as their need for investment and future goals."

These ‘pitches’ are presented to a panel of CEOs and investors with subsequent assessment of the company’s investment potential.” Though these definitions do hit on some of the key elements that make a pitch and what the corresponding competitions are, one can argue they have grown well beyond these definitions.

These days, pitches can range from seconds to minutes in length, providing contestants with both the opportunity to showcase their idea as well as the challenge of doing so in a succinct, direct manner. The rise in popularity of pitch competitions has now catapulted them into a high-intensity realm where many competitors thrive on the excitement and energy generated. Gone are the days of competitors only being able to pitch new ideas or new businesses. Pitch competitions now range from focusing on true start-up businesses to established growing companies, looking to scale.

Jessica Malkin pitches her business The Market Bridal Boutique at the Business Plan and Pitch Competition.

Throughout Michigan alone, one can easily find pitch competitions targeting students, women entrepreneurs, tech-related businesses, and more. The MWest Challenge is a competition for students that promotes engagement and interaction between students at varying universities throughout West Michigan. The Hatching focuses on new business ideas that are unregistered and will be located within the Lansing area. GreenLight Michigan is open to any Michigan-based business, that has been established for less than two years. Serving as one of the largest competitions in the country, Accelerate Michigan provides both a student competition and a public competition for companies with high-growth potential, generally in the tech space.

Rhoda Klomega participated in her first pitch competition when she was about six months into her business. Her company, Delasie, “specializes in clothing for men, women and children [and] merges meaningful fabrics and Western designs,” Klomega shares. The word, delasie, means “the saviour has heard me,” she elaborates.

As a participant in SpringGR’s business development program, competing in the SpringGR competition was part of the culmination of the program for Klomega. “It was required at the end of our program…for a chance to win money and I thought, ‘why not,’” she share. To date, Klomega has now competed in three pitch competitions and secured $17,000 for her business, including $10,000 secured through her first place finish in the lifestyle category at the recent Michigan Women’s Foundation’s Dolphin Tank competition.

Luciano Hernandez

Grand Valley State University student Luciano Hernandez has competed in approximately seven competitions to date. His company, Ignight Light, which is a lighting technology company is currently in the prototyping phase with plans to launch in mid-February 2018. Ignight Light has undergone multiple changes since initial development. In its current iteration, the company is developing a solar-powered light for use at night on items such as kayaks. Additionally, they are in plans to develop a peel-and-stick light for nighttime use on trucks. Much of this innovation has been spurred by his participation in pitch competitions.

Hernandez’s business started as Tiger Tech and has changed names several times, officially becoming Ignight Light in November 2017. At the time of his first competition, Hernandez was highlighting prototype version two. He is now on to version seven. “As a result of doing pitch competitions and as a result of [the] feedback, people get a lot more excited about the idea of an outdoor light,” says Hernandez. The technology can easily be adapted to function in a variety of applications such as on backpacks, strollers, and skis, he says. In addition to changes to the product’s functionality t, changes have also been made to the overall look. Based on responses received, the product has become smaller and rounder—which has helped with marketability.

Pitch competitors wait for their turn to present in front of the judges at the Business Plan and Pitch Competition.

The $10,000 in funding to date has helped Hernandez with his registration and prototyping, among other items. Had it not been for this capital infusion, he says his business growth would have occurred “very slowly.”

Funding is not the only item of value to pitch contestants. Luxeire was founded by Gina Kuyers out of a personal need. As a self-described lover of fashion and vintage clothing, Kuyers struggled to find comfortable and functional pieces that could easily be laundered. “I was looking for a product out on the marketplace for well over a decade and couldn’t find it,” Kuyers shares. She finally decided to take action and has been in business for a little over two years now.

Through the Michigan Women’s Foundation, Kuyers pitched for Shark Tank as well as Dolphin Tank. Despite her connections and working knowledge of her industry, the business side of things was “a foreign land.” For her, the mentorship component of the Dolphin Tank was the most appealing aspect of involvement.

Slowing scaling has also been a useful method for Kuyers. Without the additional capital infusion from the competition, she has scaled her business slowly. Despite a slower pace, sales and self-funding have allowed continued growth of her company. Luxeire is now carried in various locations throughout the country, including in Lake Forest, IL and Jackson, MS, with plans to continue expanding.

Jill Wolfe pitches GO Scavenger Hunts.

Though the financial impact to a business can be huge, there are other benefits to participating in pitch competitions. “The networking has been more important than the funding itself. By far, the biggest reward for me, has been the ability to reach more people, just through competing. It is free marketing for my business,” says Klomega.

By putting yourself out there and “just doing the pitch competition," Hernandez was able to walk away with new contacts as well. It helped him get "connected to mentors or people…willing to help,” he shares. Despite not winning his first 5x5 Night, Hernandez walked away with a valuable connection, a leader in the industry, who now serves as a mentor to him. Pitching has also allowed Hernandez to help his audience transition from saying ‘I think I understand’ the concept to ‘can I buy this right now?’ which has been an exciting segue.

Kuyers viewed the experience as a valuable learning opportunity. “I learned a lot and that was good,” she says. “I’ve spent lots of years and a ton of money on education and am now pursuing a career in an area where I had no education. I look at this as being part of my tuition.”

For those considering entering a pitch competition, here is some advice from individuals who have already been there:
“Knowing your business is very important. Knowing your customer is even more important because that’s where your money comes from,” says Klomega.

“Bring a prototype, which is by far the most important thing you can do,” Hernandez shares. Additionally, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Find the most senior executive or entrepreneur you can and ask for their help, he recommends. “Find someone that walks the walk,” he encourages.

“Look at it as a learning opportunity, not necessarily [just] a way to gather more funds,” says Kuyers.

Klomega concludes, “be passionate about talking about your business and let people understand your passion and thought-process. Speak to both the head and the heart."

“Making It In Grand Rapids” is a series about local entrepreneurs and the issues that matter in building a sustainable startup-friendly community. Read more in the series here. Support for this series is provided by Start Garden. You can reach the editor of this series, Leandra Nisbet, at leandra@stingrayadvisorygroup.com, for story tips and feedback.

Leandra Nisbet, Owner of Stingray Advisory Group LLC and Co-Owner of Gold Leaf Designs LLC, has over 12 years of experience in leadership, sales & marketing and graphic design. Through these organizations, she assists businesses with creating strategies for growth and sustainability through: strategic planning, marketing concept development/implementation, risk management solutions and financial organization. She is actively involved in the community, sitting on several boards and committees.

Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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