Entrepreneur

How to pitch your startup at conferences

I attended the Launch conference in San Francisco yesterday and saw quite a few pitches. Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs are still making the same mistakes they’ve been making for years.

Here are a few tips for pitching. Because many of the presenters were first timers and early stage companies, I’m not going to name names of companies that I thought did poorly. My goal is to help companies improve.

Booth

  • Have a sign! You’re competing with dozens of other startups for attention. People aren’t going to stop and talk to everyone. You’ve already invested money for the booth space and the people to be on site. Spend the money to get a decent sign that talks about what your company does in a few bullet points. See the example at right for a good sign. That’s the right amount of text.
  • Do your elevator pitch and then ask the person you’re talking to what his or her role is. You want to be able to meet their needs. It helps if you know that they’re press, investors, general user or competitor. Then adjust the rest of the pitch from there.
  • Make sure everyone working your booth is familiar with the basics of your company. Things like expected launch, funding, investors. If the answer is that you’re not disclosing something, that’s what you should say. I talked with one company I was interested in and the guy just responded to my questions with, “I don’t know. I’m just an engineer.”
  • Direct people to the right person. If there are others on the team who know the answer, make the connections. The same engineer just motioned at other people who were gabbing among themselves and said they might know the answer, without making any effort to introduce us.
  • Don’t lie. I asked one company if they had an Android app. They said they did. I pulled out my phone to download it. All of a sudden, they didn’t have an Android app. “It’s in development.”
  • Be prepared to answer questions about where you fit relative to the competition. The people most interested in talking to you likely know your competitors. (Saying you have “none” is a bad move.) One of the most frequent questions I ask is “How are you different from…”
  • Pay attention to badges. Many conferences have different types of badges for attendees. If there are a lot of green badges and only a few purple badges, you might want to pay special attention to people with purple badges.
  • Know who the players are in your space. If there are specific press, analysts, or investors your company is targeting, the people at your booth should know about them.
  • Don’t waste money on pens, T-shirts, and other giveaways. Investors and press don’t care about these things. Put your money into product. (Though you may want to get shirts for your own team to make it easier for people to find you.)

Presentations

  • Grab attention from the get go. Many people are multitasking during these things and if you don’t grab them immediately, you might never grab them. Even if you have a 5 minute slot, that doesn’t mean people are paying attention the whole time. I was sitting next to a VC yesterday. We both would pay attention to the start of each pitch and if it didn’t resonate, start working on email, Twitter or other things. (We were also refreshing our screens to see if the Apple Store was back up; both of us bought the new iPad before the show was over.) Every once in a while we’d tune in or ask each other if the pitch was worth paying attention to.
  • Show your product. We don’t want to see a video of how great your theoretical product might be. Show us what is today, warts and all. Smart people will be able to fill in the blanks and see your vision. Dumb people — well, you don’t want them as investors.
  • Tell us why you are the right person or team to do this. What makes you better than most? What in your background inspired this idea or concept?
  • Be prepared to back up claims you make about traction. If your engagement is through the roof, show us with graphs. Everyone has heard the “we’re in discussions with major retailers” line. No one believes it. If you don’t have traction, don’t claim you do.
  • Have a back up plan if you run into technical difficulties.

Follow up

  • Pay attention to who is tweeting about you during and after the event. I tweeted that a company was interesting last night and because they followed up right away, I was able to meet with them this morning before the founder returned to New York. If you have a larger team, you may want to have someone who isn’t attending the conference monitoring Twitter and filtering leads.

Rocky Agrawal is an analyst focused on the intersection of local, social, and mobile. He is a principal analyst at reDesign mobile. Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He blogs at http://blog.agrawals.org and tweets at @rakeshlobster.

[Top image: Launch Festival judges table]


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