Founder Showcase is geared for seed-stage companies to pitch to a panel of venture capitalists and an onlooking audience. No prize money at stake, just networking and exposure, something way more valuable than gaining a bunch of angel investors who each put in $5K. Even better, the top two are selected by the audience and then the VC panel picks between them. This was my first Founder Showcase and while the ideas pitched may have been interesting, even investable, each one broke some of my basic laws of solid pitching.

If you were pitching to a couple of hundred people and a panel of VCs, wouldn’t you want your pitch dialed?

First up was AMPL Labs, a company creating “smart bags” with batteries and usb ports everywhere, and an app that allows you to manage charging and keep tabs on its location. The product looked great, they showed a bunch of traction with a successful crowdfunding campaign and presales, and appeared to have a pretty solid team. Where did they go wrong?

AMPL brought a fully-loaded prototype bag on stage, which sent the presentation sideways because all the VCs could talk about after picking it up was how heavy it was.

Lesson: Talk about the ultimate version, but bring your bread and butter. If you nail communicating how your typical customer will benefit using your product (especially in a demo), investors will respond. Showing too much just creates questions and potential objections.

AMPL’s major red flag was that they raised $250k from crowdfunding and showed successful presales through their website, but in their “Use of Funds” slide, the top bullet was, “manufacture 1st product”. Wait. Where did all the money go from people who thought they were pre-ordering a product, not a prototype?

Next to present was Theo, an app for real estate agents to connect MLS data and their customers without having to open up a dozen apps. Theo looked pretty and I think he articulated the problem well enough, the biggest problem was getting anyone to care.

Lesson: Pitching is storytelling. In the case of Theo there wasn’t enough “there” for most people. The pitch needed to find a way to connect the audience with how Theo would change the business of buying a house with an agent.

The next issue for Theo was being able to articulate effectively how they would scale—MLS data is localized and expensive making efforts in each new market people heavy. The VC panel picked up on this piece and couldn’t get past it.

Lesson: You’re selling the future. You’ll never hear a pitch focused too much on how they are going to scale the business, but that is where investment money lives—spent today, but secured on the promise of tomorrow.

Sun To Water was the day’s winner, proving that sometimes just getting on stage and talking about something important is enough. Standing on stage in California talking about pulling water from the air for your own home is nearly impossible to beat (unless the presenter has no credibility). I lost two angel competitions to a guy who ended his pitch with, “Together, we can eliminate breast cancer.” When you hear that, you just pack it up.

Sun To Water established credibility in naming their technology partner, but that was about it. The pitch was a mess, focused almost entirely on an obvious global problem, with little explanation about the technology and confusing slides about scale and go-to-market strategy. One slide described the “real opportunity” in corporate sales, talking about how Coca-Cola would love to be able to produce soda in countries with less than ideal water and then a later slide talked about how the “real opportunity” was in bringing good water to third-world countries.

Lesson: It’s all about fundamentals. When you are talking about big ideas, stay focused on how you will execute to your core values, not how you’ll chase dollars around.

The Uber-for-handyman app, Keepe, was up next, coming across a bit early stage, even for this venue. Keepe’s slide deck talked about a successful beta in Seattle, but with just a couple of questions, it came out that they had only done fifteen jobs to that point. On top of that, there was no clear plan for growth outside of their single market, or any demonstrated understanding of the business model.

Lesson: Know your audience. I’m not sure I would have even recommended Keepe to present to this crowd—no service in the market where they were pitching, no real traction, no clear plan for scaling to new markets, or how they would market to potential customers. Knowing when not to pitch is a valuable skill.

Trato, the legal agreement app for freelancers in Latin America, was my favorite pitch of the day (though I voted for Sun To Water. Duh.) Huge market (1 in 2 professionals are freelance in Mexico), well thought out and properly priced business model and what appeared to be a smartly designed app. The graphics of Trato’s deck were stylish, but when it came to the product there was animation showing screen mockups that moved quickly, distracting the audience and making the product look undeveloped.

Lesson: Looking good is important, but not at the expense of the presentation. People can not listen to you talk and take in too much information from the screen at the same time. If you are going to do demos, video or complex animations, set it up and stop talking.

Trato did a great job explaining the problem, talking about the market size and how they planned to monetize and grow, what they missed was showing the product and fundraising needs, or what they needed money for.

Lesson: Communicate your stage effectively. I thought the product was in development because of the mockup style graphics and had no clue if they needed funding and for what, making it feel too early stage.

After the event, I spoke to the founder, Ignacio, and asked him about both of these things. I found out that they just launched in a few countries in Latin America and that he left the financing slide out because he was looking for a small amount of funding as a convertible note, to launch and then get a valuation based on sales to go after a larger round of funding. A savvy move and one that could have been easily addressed, as well as appreciated by the VC panel.

The last company to pitch was Rankt which is aiming to crowdsource the recruiting process for athletes, providing a site where recruiters can get profile information, stats and photos and videos uploaded by family or coaches. I think the biggest problem for Rankt, is the same as with Theo, the intended customer is fairly niche and the path to scale or business model isn’t clear.

Lesson: Make it compelling. I think that Rankt missed an opportunity by focusing on the recruiter’s story, which no one but a recruiter cares about. Had the pitch been about the journey of an great athlete, who is not in an elite program, trying to get discovered, he would have connected more. Like Theo before them, Rankt needed to focus more on the business model and how the company scales and uses those funds.

I am sure that being at Founder Showcase was a boon for every business that showed in the table room and presented on stage, but if the future of your business is on the line, and you have a shot at a room full of potential investors, aren’t you looking for, “That was awesome! We’d love to talk with you after.”?

It‘s easy to sit back and armchair quarterback, but what am I going to do about it?

After my experience at Founder Showcase, I decided to do an online pitch clinic—not the usual tips on making a good deck, but also talking about tailoring your presentation to different audiences, getting clearer on what you are doing and what you need, and a one-on-one pitch online with feedback on the whole package. I have raised millions for projects and put together over a hundred pitch decks—if you are pitching, or know an entrepreneur out there putting together a pitch, you need this. Check it out => Master Pitch Clinic

photo credit: image by Yusuke Kawasaki  ©2012 CC license

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