Opinion | Community

Tips For Pitching Your Edtech Startup

By Frank Catalano     Aug 25, 2013

Tips For Pitching Your Edtech Startup

“There have been a lot of ideas like this--a whole lot--so if you could give some idea of your differentiators?”

These are not welcome words to most education technology entrepreneurs who fervently believe their idea, their approach, their product is game-changing for administrators, teachers or students. But in the world of edtech startup competitions, this is tough love--and can be comparative softball to the hardballs hurled by questioning customers and investors.

Over the last few years, the edtech space has become lousy withstartup pitch fests. You can’t attend an education conference without wandering into one. An entirely new conference in the hallowed SXSW family--SXSW V2V--just debuted in Las Vegas this August, devoted completely to entrepreneurship and startups. One of its five pitch competition categories? Edtech, of course.

SXSW V2V takes its pitch fest very seriously. In addition toapplication screening by an Advisory Board (on which I served), there was pre-event phone coaching and a full day of closed rehearsals on-site for all the finalists. The drill: one-minute setup, two-minute pitch, five-minute Q&A (by coaches acting as faux judges), and one-minute break. Then rinse and repeat, up to 18 minutes total for each startup.

As someone with a long history in edtech (and a morbid fascinationwith cover-your-eyes impending doom of the Gilligan’s Island rerun variety), Isat in on both the rehearsals and the final pitches of the five educationtechnology finalists:CampusWall, LightSail, LightUp, ProSky and theHubEdu. (Spoiler alert: Here's who won.)

After those two days, I came away with seven tips for wannabe pitchfest winners courtesy of the lively interaction between the founders and thethree coaches.

1. Knowhow you’ll be scored.

When Tina Snyder of CampusWall,a startup that creates safe student-to-student marketplaces in higher ed (think“Craigslist for campuses”), took the stage, she didn’t say anything about herteam in her first two-minute pitch. Then one of the coaches mentioned that 25%of the score the real judges would be assigning is based on team. She quicklyrevised for her next attempt.

In SXSW V2V’s case, the rest of the score card was potential(including profitability), functionality, and creativity (originality), each forup to 25% of the score. Other competitions may have similar rubrics. If youwant to play ball, make sure you touch all the bases as you round the field.

2. Talkbusiness model and illustrate it.

The best-received pitches had a clearly understandable business modeland path to profitability. And, in some cases, more than one path. In the caseof theHubEdu, which creates “shelves”of content and resources for group projects and personal learning networks inhigher education, it was advertising by institutions, other advertising, and a free/premiumapproach. Just don’t make it too complicated, or too abstract: “A simple exampleof the revenue model would be great,” recommended one coach.

3. Highlight the team--and well-known partners.

Effective pitches featured a simple slide showing the startup’s teamwhile the speaker briefly noted memorable or significant expertise andexperience that would impress the coaches. But don’t forget that the “team” canbe more than individuals.

Coaches suggested CampusWall, for example, better highlight itspartnership with Today’s Campus, which markets to schools and parents. In thecase of LightUp, maker of snap-togetherelectronic circuit components with an augmented reality overlay for diagnosingcircuit problems, it was its successful Kickstarter campaign. And for LightSail, which has a Common Corereading and writing curriculum for tablets with embedded assessments, thecoaches said its funding by the Gates Foundation should be mentioned sooner in itspresentation.

“Something you want to do is grab attention as early as possible,”said one coach, “So they say, ‘Wow, I should listen to this person.’”

4. Focuson new, not known, numbers.

Several of the finalists included--in a brief two-minute pitch--slides that showed common industry stats, such as the number of middle schools,number of college students and the like. In an education-specific pitchcompetition, those slides don’t sell. They just tell education-savvy judgeswhat they already know or can easily look up. Worse yet, they burn importanttime.

Coaches almost always said number clutter should come out of theslides and the verbal pitch. Rather than use generic market data, focus on uniquestats or how you address a specific segment of that market. Save all that bringing-newbies-up-to-speed data for dumb money.

5. Havean “ask” and make it.

The most common flaw in the rehearsal pitches, one coach observed, isthat “I didn’t hear enough 'asks' today.” Too often the startups ended their twominutes with a clever slogan (my personal favorite was, “We’re LightUp andwe’re bringing electronic literacy to the world”) and never get around tosaying what they need. In a room fullof potential investors, that’s the verbal equivalent of leaving money on thetable.

What should be in a good ask? It varies. It can obviously be formoney, or for sales and distribution partnerships. For LightSail, a coachsuggested the simple: “So we’re hiring; ask me about it.” (The pitcher addedit.) For theHubEdu, the rehearsal request was to get some coverage, “in EdSurgeand the edtech press.” (Mission accomplished.)

6. Rehearse. Again. (And again.) 

In some of the non-edtech pitch rehearsals I sat through at SXSW V2V,many startups didn’t want to rehearse their pitch more than once, insteadpreferring to field questions from the coaches--even if the pitch had seriousproblems. This is deadly. In two minutes, you have to knowyour pitch cold so you can smoothly recover from the inevitable gaffe , technicalsnafu or audience disruption, and still display that critical entrepreneurialquality of confidence.

The edtech cohort, perhaps because it was deep into the learningthing, rehearsed each pitch twice--and if time permitted, more--makingadjustments based on the coaches’ suggestions each time. When CampusWall’s Snyder asked the coaches if she should run through her spiel a third time, she received  a simpleshouted “Do it!” from the rehearsal audience. She did. And improved more, toapplause at the end.

7. Listen to the coaches.

The three coaches--Gabriella Draney of Tech Wildcatters, AshanthaKaluarachchi of Socratic Labs, and Claire England of RISE Global--were fontsof solid information. But occasionally, startup presenters took a defensive orargumentative tone in response (admittedly, I saw this more frequently with thenon-edtech companies).

Here's one example: a coach commented that green text on awhite background would be unreadable to any investor in the audience who wascolor blind. The entrepreneur countered that it couldn't be changed because of“branding.” Better to take the input and process it later, even if it’s yourbaby being called ugly.

Overall, the startups seemed to appreciate the detailed rehearsalfeedback. And when I asked, entrepreneurs offered up a few broad pointers they got from the coaches that they would pass along to other startups:

“Take any criticism and advice to heart,” said Crystal Huang, founderand CEO of ProSky, which matchespotential interns with companies for virtual, project-based internships. “Iimplemented what they had suggested for my pitch and it made it much smoother.The questions asked were similar to the questions asked by the actual judges soI felt prepared for them!”

And take it, even if the criticism may appear personal, said JessicaReid Sliwerski of LightSail. “For my over-achiever-perfectionist self the mostsalient take away was this: There is a fine line between being well preparedand overly rehearsed. I was the latter. So I reworked my pitch, incorporatingmore aspects of myself and my playful personality and then I drank a vodka RedBull for breakfast.” (This was Vegas.LightSail, incidentally, won thecompetition.)

Don’t let time pressure make you leave out must-haves, like team andbusiness model, hoping they might come up in the Q&A. “In order to have acomprehensive pitch, those elements are necessary even in such a short timeframe,” recommended theHubEdu’s Tiffany Reiss.

And Josh Chan, founder and CEO of LightUp, thought the coaches did agreat job reminding him to clearly highlight a key feature, his venture’saugmented reality overlay that helps students diagnose circuit problems. “I think after workingon a product for a while you can forget just how novel or exciting a particularfeature can be to others who have never seen your product before.”

Bottom line: Believe in what you’re doing, but be willing to takeinput while maintaining confidence. As one coach remarked to CampusWall’sSnyder, “Your speaking style is very stable and calm.” “Is it?” Snyder replied.“I’m nervous as heck.”

FrankCatalano isan industry strategist, author andveteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies. He's a regular columnistfor the tech news site GeekWireand tweets @FrankCatalano. The pitches reminded himof advice he once gave while in broadcasting: “When in doubt, soundauthoritative.”

Opinion | Community

Tips For Pitching Your Edtech Startup

By Frank Catalano     Aug 25, 2013

Tips For Pitching Your Edtech Startup

“There have been a lot of ideas like this--a whole lot--so if you could give some idea of your differentiators?”

These are not welcome words to most education technology entrepreneurs who fervently believe their idea, their approach, their product is game-changing for administrators, teachers or students. But in the world of edtech startup competitions, this is tough love--and can be comparative softball to the hardballs hurled by questioning customers and investors.

Over the last few years, the edtech space has become lousy withstartup pitch fests. You can’t attend an education conference without wandering into one. An entirely new conference in the hallowed SXSW family--SXSW V2V--just debuted in Las Vegas this August, devoted completely to entrepreneurship and startups. One of its five pitch competition categories? Edtech, of course.

SXSW V2V takes its pitch fest very seriously. In addition toapplication screening by an Advisory Board (on which I served), there was pre-event phone coaching and a full day of closed rehearsals on-site for all the finalists. The drill: one-minute setup, two-minute pitch, five-minute Q&A (by coaches acting as faux judges), and one-minute break. Then rinse and repeat, up to 18 minutes total for each startup.

As someone with a long history in edtech (and a morbid fascinationwith cover-your-eyes impending doom of the Gilligan’s Island rerun variety), Isat in on both the rehearsals and the final pitches of the five educationtechnology finalists:CampusWall, LightSail, LightUp, ProSky and theHubEdu. (Spoiler alert: Here's who won.)

After those two days, I came away with seven tips for wannabe pitchfest winners courtesy of the lively interaction between the founders and thethree coaches.

1. Knowhow you’ll be scored.

When Tina Snyder of CampusWall,a startup that creates safe student-to-student marketplaces in higher ed (think“Craigslist for campuses”), took the stage, she didn’t say anything about herteam in her first two-minute pitch. Then one of the coaches mentioned that 25%of the score the real judges would be assigning is based on team. She quicklyrevised for her next attempt.

In SXSW V2V’s case, the rest of the score card was potential(including profitability), functionality, and creativity (originality), each forup to 25% of the score. Other competitions may have similar rubrics. If youwant to play ball, make sure you touch all the bases as you round the field.

2. Talkbusiness model and illustrate it.

The best-received pitches had a clearly understandable business modeland path to profitability. And, in some cases, more than one path. In the caseof theHubEdu, which creates “shelves”of content and resources for group projects and personal learning networks inhigher education, it was advertising by institutions, other advertising, and a free/premiumapproach. Just don’t make it too complicated, or too abstract: “A simple exampleof the revenue model would be great,” recommended one coach.

3. Highlight the team--and well-known partners.

Effective pitches featured a simple slide showing the startup’s teamwhile the speaker briefly noted memorable or significant expertise andexperience that would impress the coaches. But don’t forget that the “team” canbe more than individuals.

Coaches suggested CampusWall, for example, better highlight itspartnership with Today’s Campus, which markets to schools and parents. In thecase of LightUp, maker of snap-togetherelectronic circuit components with an augmented reality overlay for diagnosingcircuit problems, it was its successful Kickstarter campaign. And for LightSail, which has a Common Corereading and writing curriculum for tablets with embedded assessments, thecoaches said its funding by the Gates Foundation should be mentioned sooner in itspresentation.

“Something you want to do is grab attention as early as possible,”said one coach, “So they say, ‘Wow, I should listen to this person.’”

4. Focuson new, not known, numbers.

Several of the finalists included--in a brief two-minute pitch--slides that showed common industry stats, such as the number of middle schools,number of college students and the like. In an education-specific pitchcompetition, those slides don’t sell. They just tell education-savvy judgeswhat they already know or can easily look up. Worse yet, they burn importanttime.

Coaches almost always said number clutter should come out of theslides and the verbal pitch. Rather than use generic market data, focus on uniquestats or how you address a specific segment of that market. Save all that bringing-newbies-up-to-speed data for dumb money.

5. Havean “ask” and make it.

The most common flaw in the rehearsal pitches, one coach observed, isthat “I didn’t hear enough 'asks' today.” Too often the startups ended their twominutes with a clever slogan (my personal favorite was, “We’re LightUp andwe’re bringing electronic literacy to the world”) and never get around tosaying what they need. In a room fullof potential investors, that’s the verbal equivalent of leaving money on thetable.

What should be in a good ask? It varies. It can obviously be formoney, or for sales and distribution partnerships. For LightSail, a coachsuggested the simple: “So we’re hiring; ask me about it.” (The pitcher addedit.) For theHubEdu, the rehearsal request was to get some coverage, “in EdSurgeand the edtech press.” (Mission accomplished.)

6. Rehearse. Again. (And again.) 

In some of the non-edtech pitch rehearsals I sat through at SXSW V2V,many startups didn’t want to rehearse their pitch more than once, insteadpreferring to field questions from the coaches--even if the pitch had seriousproblems. This is deadly. In two minutes, you have to knowyour pitch cold so you can smoothly recover from the inevitable gaffe , technicalsnafu or audience disruption, and still display that critical entrepreneurialquality of confidence.

The edtech cohort, perhaps because it was deep into the learningthing, rehearsed each pitch twice--and if time permitted, more--makingadjustments based on the coaches’ suggestions each time. When CampusWall’s Snyder asked the coaches if she should run through her spiel a third time, she received  a simpleshouted “Do it!” from the rehearsal audience. She did. And improved more, toapplause at the end.

7. Listen to the coaches.

The three coaches--Gabriella Draney of Tech Wildcatters, AshanthaKaluarachchi of Socratic Labs, and Claire England of RISE Global--were fontsof solid information. But occasionally, startup presenters took a defensive orargumentative tone in response (admittedly, I saw this more frequently with thenon-edtech companies).

Here's one example: a coach commented that green text on awhite background would be unreadable to any investor in the audience who wascolor blind. The entrepreneur countered that it couldn't be changed because of“branding.” Better to take the input and process it later, even if it’s yourbaby being called ugly.

Overall, the startups seemed to appreciate the detailed rehearsalfeedback. And when I asked, entrepreneurs offered up a few broad pointers they got from the coaches that they would pass along to other startups:

“Take any criticism and advice to heart,” said Crystal Huang, founderand CEO of ProSky, which matchespotential interns with companies for virtual, project-based internships. “Iimplemented what they had suggested for my pitch and it made it much smoother.The questions asked were similar to the questions asked by the actual judges soI felt prepared for them!”

And take it, even if the criticism may appear personal, said JessicaReid Sliwerski of LightSail. “For my over-achiever-perfectionist self the mostsalient take away was this: There is a fine line between being well preparedand overly rehearsed. I was the latter. So I reworked my pitch, incorporatingmore aspects of myself and my playful personality and then I drank a vodka RedBull for breakfast.” (This was Vegas.LightSail, incidentally, won thecompetition.)

Don’t let time pressure make you leave out must-haves, like team andbusiness model, hoping they might come up in the Q&A. “In order to have acomprehensive pitch, those elements are necessary even in such a short timeframe,” recommended theHubEdu’s Tiffany Reiss.

And Josh Chan, founder and CEO of LightUp, thought the coaches did agreat job reminding him to clearly highlight a key feature, his venture’saugmented reality overlay that helps students diagnose circuit problems. “I think after workingon a product for a while you can forget just how novel or exciting a particularfeature can be to others who have never seen your product before.”

Bottom line: Believe in what you’re doing, but be willing to takeinput while maintaining confidence. As one coach remarked to CampusWall’sSnyder, “Your speaking style is very stable and calm.” “Is it?” Snyder replied.“I’m nervous as heck.”

FrankCatalano isan industry strategist, author andveteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies. He's a regular columnistfor the tech news site GeekWireand tweets @FrankCatalano. The pitches reminded himof advice he once gave while in broadcasting: “When in doubt, soundauthoritative.”

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