Pitching for the Win

When pitching your company, always sell like you’re talking to your grandma.

That’s the advice Aaron Schaap, founder of Elevator Up in Zeeland, gives a support group of entrepreneurs in metro Grand Rapids who look to hone their presentation skills with each other before the big time -- potential investors and partners.

"You have to keep it to the lowest common denominator and clearly articulate your ideas," says Schaap. "You have to know your audience, but you can’t make assumptions."

That advice wasn't lost on the group of about 40 entrepreneurs who attended the inaugural Pitch Night, an evening event sponsored by Lakeshore Advantage that allowed people to share their ideas while gaining practical experience in the art of making presentations on their businesses.  The next Pitch Night is scheduled for the third week in October at The Garage, the home offices of Elevator Up at 201 W. Washington in Zeeland.
Schaap, 28, says fellow budding entrepreneurs often ask for his advice on startups, which sparked the idea for Pitch Night.

Participants say the beauty of the gathering is it allows them to get honest critiques on their business ideas and presentations from an empathetic crowd.  The dry run before giving real presentations in front of venture capitalists is critical, they say.  There may be even a few inconspicuous investors at Pitch Night itself.

At the first Pitch Night in July, leaders of seven up-and-coming West Michigan companies congregated at The Garage to convince the crowd that their organization was the most worthy of a hypothetical investment. Participants included Downstream, Public Collections, Revetto, Ascribe, The Factory ellohay! West Michigan  and The "Vari" Smooth.

"Pitch Night is a great avenue for people who have an idea to talk to others," says Camden Brieden, who pitched his company, Public Collections, at the event. "There are people who can help you get to the next level, take bigger steps and actually execute the idea." 

Each participant had 10 minutes for his or her pitch, which is a persuasive presentation typically geared toward potential investors that includes defining the problem and the solution, supporting market research, the company’s business model, financial projections and an ask for funds. The Pitch Night crowd then had 10 minutes to ask questions, and scored each company based on idea, design and delivery.
A convincing and well thought-out pitch can help carry an idea past the concept stage and into primetime. "I see a lot of stupid ideas on commercials and wonder how they got funded," says Brieden. "But they did because they communicated and marketed themselves well. There are too many great products that don’t make it because they aren’t marketed well."

Brieden’s Public Collections, a website that he co-founded with Schaap and Brian Ryckbost to help small businesses and independent contractors collect debts by outing companies that don’t pay invoices, was chosen as the evening’s winner (receiving the tongue-in-cheek prize of a baseball pitching trophy). Brieden partially attributes the victory to his confident delivery, though he admits that he was sweating bullets the entire time.

Pitching can be intimidating for a first-timer, and even for the more experienced in the group. Brieden has pitched Public Collections and other ventures, but still gets nervous every time. "But the more you do it, the less nervous you are," he says. "Once you get going and if you’re passionate and know it well, it just rolls off your tongue."

Marie-Claire Camp, founder of the non-profit ellohay! West Michigan, relied on her passion for her organization to pull her through after experiencing technical difficulties.  "My presentation didn’t work," she says. "But I think that actually helped me. This project is close to my heart, and I was able to look directly into people’s eyes instead of relying on a presentation."

Camp’s approach differed from the other companies because her organization is a volunteer-driven non-profit that provides basic technology and support to those who can’t afford to compete in the job market. "There are some things that are black and white in the business world, like the numbers to support an argument," she says. "We have more intangibles, like happiness, inclusion and sense of community."

Camp, 28, had never pitched ellohay! to such a large group, and admits that she is not as skilled at public speaking as she’d like to be. But she thinks Pitch Night offered a valuable opportunity for anyone who is trying to grow their company. "Being able to verbalize is really important," says Camp. "The earlier you start talking about it, the better you start to understand what you’re trying to do. Just try to be fearless and speak from your heart."

Jason Carpenter, 35, attended Pitch Night to share Ascribe, an online tool that allows all parties involved with building construction projects to share and cross-reference images, data and descriptions. Carpenter estimates that he has pitched Ascribe more than 50 times, and lives by the motto that practice makes perfect. "I’m continually pitching, even if there’s no immediate chance of pitching to an investor," says Carpenter. "Every time we do it, we walk away with different points of view."

"By about the twentieth time, you’ll actually be able to deliver in a concise manner," he says. "I’ve learned to take enormous, painstaking efforts to get it down to the core: here’s the problem and here’s the value we bring by solving it."
And with practice comes the confidence that is needed to deliver a powerful pitch. "You need to have bullet-proof confidence in front a group of people, whether it relates to your product or not," says Carpenter. "Investors want to know who’s running the company, talking to customers and negotiating business deals. If you can’t deliver yourself, it will make investors nervous."

For entrepreneurs who don’t have much pitching experience under their belt, Pitch Night offers a low-risk opportunity to speak about a venture. "The people in the audience want you to succeed," says Camp. "They want to know about what you’re talking about, the organization’s mission and what you truly believe in. They want you to do well."

Though the crowd was overwhelmingly positive and encouraging, constructive criticism was also offered to help the presenters really hone their pitches and their products. Brieden advises entrepreneurs to heed the advice of those looking in from the outside, but not to be discouraged if not everyone likes their product at first blush. "eBay had the hardest time getting people to invest," he says. "No one wanted to buy used stuff from strangers online. But years later, it’s one of the most profitable web ventures out there. Not everyone will agree with your idea."

The overwhelming advice for those who are intimidated by the thought of pitching in front of a group of people for the first time? Just do it.

"People are always going to be scared or nervous," says Brieden. "Just get up there and do it. You’ll learn so much more by pitching than by not pitching."

Carpenter agrees that there is nothing to lose by vetting an idea in this type of forum. He was able to experiment with his pitch, testing a different presentation software and model. "If it falls apart, regroup and try it again next time," he says. "You can’t beat this kind of experience."

For those who are brand new to the process, Schaap recommends brushing up on an online pitch guide and attending the next Pitch Night as a spectator to watch others first. "You’ll probably see that it’s not hard as you thought," he says.

Though most of the companies that participated in the initial event were technology-based, Pitch Night welcomes any type of organization. "There are just a lot of people with tech ideas, but it’s wide open to anyone," says Schaap. "We could have restaurants, movements, larger companies launching a new product – basically anyone who has an idea."

"There are a lot of people in this group that can help you take that next step," says Schaap. "Getting the community of entrepreneurs together is the most valuable piece."
Kelly Quintanilla is a freelance writer born, raised and living in West Michigan. She is also the marketing director at Ada-based CUSO Development Company.


Aaron Schaap, founder of Elevator Up Zeeland (2)

Marie-Claire Camp, founder of the non-profit Ellohay (2)

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved
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