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The 5 Judges You'll Meet At Every Startup Pitch Competition

Posted by Jillian Firnhaber on March 3, 2016

Money men, scale-balancers, and tech freaks - oh my!

bigidea-2015.jpgNew Orleans Entrepreneur Week is nearly upon us. In just over a week, New Orleans will be chock-full of founders, investors, and startup nuts of every description. And no event draws those attendees together quite like a pitch competition. NOEW, being a big fan of bringing people together, has 13 of them scheduled.

If you're one of the startups getting set to rock one of those 13 stages, you've likely put some time into getting pitch-ready before the big day. That could mean getting your deck in fighting form (we've got some excellent templates if you're still working on it) or just getting some public speaking jitters worked out; either way, you're there for that sweet glow of accomplishment that comes from winning.

money.gif...and some other fringe benefits

But let's talk about something you may not have put quite as much time into: learning your judges. Nailing your pitch is - obviously - important, but if you want to win, you'd better impress the people in charge of picking the winners. Judges look for different things in a pitch, but at the very least, you'll want to keep an eye out for:

The Money Guy

Every pitch competition has one. They're often known investors who have been brought in to give the event a bit of star power. A 5-minute audience with this fellow can change the trajectory of your business. They know the startup landscape and likely have a resume that includes either founding or investing early in businesses you recognize. Under their name, their place of employment probably ends in the word “Ventures” or “Capital.” This is the guy you really want to wow because he’s the guy who gives out money for a living.

Keep in mind, the Money Guy may not really want to be here. He hears pitches for a living. The average investor sees over 300 pitch decks a year. So he’s likely to be a little more cynical, a little less easily convinced by your “conservative” estimates for cash flow.

“Just once I would like to hear an entrepreneur say ‘Our projections are wildly optimistic’.” – Richard Harroch, Vantage Point Capital Partners

money-guy-blog.pngSo how can you wow this judge? Have a solid plan for monetization. Dedicate a whole slide to how you plan to get rich (and make him rich in the process). For as many YouTubes, Instagrams, and SnapChats as there are in the world, there are thousands more startups that rapidly acquired users and then were unable to convert them into dollars. If you’re not yet raking in the dough, that’s okay. But show that you have a solid plan to quickly become revenue-positive.

You’ll also want to show the Money Guy how you’ve been operating to date. Money Guys loves bootstrapped companies. If you’ve got skin in the game, you’re less likely to throw in the towel when things inevitably get rough. If you’ve gotten outside investment, make note of that too. It shows that someone other than you believes in your idea, which is always a positive.

Make sure you have a strong justification for why you need money. Fundraising is not for every business or startup (see Basecamp, Zoho), but it seems to be the default for every growing business. Make sure you can articulate exactly what you’ll do with the prize money and how it will help you get to the next business stage.

The Paula

paula-abdul-judge.pngJust like Paula on American Idol, every pitch competition has a nice, friendly judge who thinks your idea is great (at least to your face). They’re probably an executive at a regional, consumer facing company, and they probably built their business without raising money. They haven’t been tainted by the cynicism that comes with fundraising, and their day job doesn’t involve sifting through thousands of poorly thought-through pitch decks. They take your “conservative” estimates and lofty goals at face value because…why wouldn’t they?

Paulas tend to be wowed by really tight pitches and beautifully designed decks. They may not be as concerned by your detailed financials, but will applaud a great logo or snappy closing sentence. To delight Paula, all you need is confidence and a smile.

Mia Market

Mia always has a slight bias toward tech products, because they can scale fairly easily, without a lot of logisitic rigamarole. That’s because Mia likes products that can get big…real big. 

This gal will be paying special attention to your “Market” slide. However she wants to see a lot more than just “20.2 million American college students.” She needs an angle. What else unites your key demographic? How are you going to address their needs in a way no one else has? Focus is good, but while you’ve been pitching Mia has already thought of ten other use cases for your product, new markets you can leverage, ways you can expand and grow. Keep one or two up your own sleeve in case she asks. 

Market size is important for scalability, but just as important is your ability to execute. Mia will be looking at your team with a magnifying lens. While you may have had success on a local level, Mia wants to see a team with global vision and unending dedication. She wants to see a team that’s well connected, so be sure to name drop relationships you already have in place. After all, rolling out your product with a national brand name attached will be much easier than trying to push through individual markets. Customer acquisition is a long, tough slog and Mia understands it better than any other judge. To excite Mia, you'll want to show that you have a solid, creative plan for growing your user base and that you're positioning yourself to spread quickly through adjacent demographics.  

The Tech Whiz

In today’s startup landscape, tech is king. Most pitch competitions will bring in a seasoned computer nerd to vet your company from a technical perspective. This is the guy who when you say you’re going to revolutionize food delivery with drone technology will call you out on the fact that you’ve way under-budgeted for the battery re-charge costs considering the average cargo weight for a 3 pound drone is only 1.5 pounds. Even if your business isn’t strictly technical in nature, the Tech Whiz will be analyzing your business and determining how efficient and effective your plans are. 

muskblog.pngThe first thing you have to do to impress the Tech Whiz is…have some tech. If your startup is an app, this won’t be difficult. If you’re a beverage company, keep in mind that someone with a passion for tech may start tuning out. You can loop him back in by mentioning the proprietary software you’ve built to manage logistics, or the special machine you created in your backyard to bottle your first batch. The Tech Whiz wants to see that you’re using technology to give your company an unfair advantage.

If your product is an app or piece of software, you’ve definitely got the Tech Whiz’s attention. However, be aware that they are putting your implementation under a microscope. Chances are, they may have worked with or even built products that work similarly. They’ll be foreseeing eventual tech challenges and grilling you on them. I’ve been to pitch competitions where a judge straight-up told a pitcher that they’d “already built this product, and it won’t work because of X.” So make sure you come prepared, knowing the potential technical pitfalls of your plan.

Mr. Literal

Investors in Uber probably take limos and town cars from the airport. Investors in AirBnB probably still stay at five-star hotels. Of course great investors don’t necessarily need a product to fix a burning pain point in their own life for them to write a check. However, in pitch competitions, there always seems to be some guy who can’t put his own circumstance aside. He views every product from the lens of his own life. He can’t help it. He’s Mr. Literal.

This fellow isn’t glitzy, and he may not even be tech savvy. This judge probably showed up to the pitch competition in a pair of jeans, his phone strapped in a holster around his waist. He's pragmatic. He made his money by making smart decisions and filling clever needs and he thinks you should do the same. Start talking about the angsty teenage market, or the huge opportunity in lab-grown meats and Mr. Literal’s eyes glaze over. This guy needs to feel like he’s a part of your narrative.

“I would use this.” The four most beautiful words you can hear from the other side of the judging table. You’ve struck a nerve with Mr. Literal. He sees value in your product. Suddenly all the judges are paying more attention. After all, someone with money and social clout said that they would use your product.

Doing Your Diligence

Ultimately, the best time to recognize any and all of these judges is well before the competition even begins. Be sure to check the description of any competition you're pitching at, and don't be shy about digging into LinkedIn profiles to read up on professional backgrounds.

Good luck at your next pitch-off?

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Jillian Firnhaber

Written by Jillian Firnhaber