“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 with startup 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 to application 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 fascination
with cover-your-eyes impending doom of the Gilligan’s Island rerun variety), I
sat in on both the rehearsals and the final pitches of the five education
CampusWall, LightSail, LightUp, ProSky and theHubEdu. (Spoiler alert: Here's who won.)
After those two days, I came away with seven tips for wannabe pitch fest winners courtesy of the lively interaction between the founders and the three coaches.
1. Know how 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 her team 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 quickly revised for her next attempt.
In SXSW V2V’s case, the rest of the score card was potential (including profitability), functionality, and creativity (originality), each for up to 25% of the score. Other competitions may have similar rubrics. If you want to play ball, make sure you touch all the bases as you round the field.
2. Talk business model and illustrate it.
The best-received pitches had a clearly understandable business model and path to profitability. And, in some cases, more than one path. In the case of theHubEdu, which creates “shelves” of content and resources for group projects and personal learning networks in higher education, it was advertising by institutions, other advertising, and a free/premium approach. Just don’t make it too complicated, or too abstract: “A simple example of 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 team while the speaker briefly noted memorable or significant expertise and experience that would impress the coaches. But don’t forget that the “team” can be more than individuals.
Coaches suggested CampusWall, for example, better highlight its partnership with Today’s Campus, which markets to schools and parents. In the case of LightUp, maker of snap-together electronic circuit components with an augmented reality overlay for diagnosing circuit problems, it was its successful Kickstarter campaign. And for LightSail, which has a Common Core reading and writing curriculum for tablets with embedded assessments, the coaches said its funding by the Gates Foundation should be mentioned sooner in its presentation.
“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. Focus on 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 pitch competition, those slides don’t sell. They just tell education-savvy judges what they already know or can easily look up. Worse yet, they burn important time.
Coaches almost always said number clutter should come out of the slides and the verbal pitch. Rather than use generic market data, focus on unique stats or how you address a specific segment of that market. Save all that bringing-newbies-up-to-speed data for dumb money.
5. Have an “ask” and make it.
The most common flaw in the rehearsal pitches, one coach observed, is that “I didn’t hear enough 'asks' today.” Too often the startups ended their two minutes with a clever slogan (my personal favorite was, “We’re LightUp and we’re bringing electronic literacy to the world”) and never get around to saying what they need. In a room full of potential investors, that’s the verbal equivalent of leaving money on the table.
What should be in a good ask? It varies. It can obviously be for money, or for sales and distribution partnerships. For LightSail, a coach suggested the simple: “So we’re hiring; ask me about it.” (The pitcher added it.) For theHubEdu, the rehearsal request was to get some coverage, “in EdSurge and 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, instead preferring to field questions from the coaches--even if the pitch had serious problems. This is deadly. In two minutes, you have to know your pitch cold so you can smoothly recover from the inevitable gaffe , technical snafu or audience disruption, and still display that critical entrepreneurial quality of confidence.
The edtech cohort, perhaps because it was deep into the learning thing, rehearsed each pitch twice--and if time permitted, more--making adjustments 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 simple shouted “Do it!” from the rehearsal audience. She did. And improved more, to applause at the end.
7. Listen to the coaches.
The three coaches--Gabriella Draney of Tech Wildcatters, Ashantha Kaluarachchi of Socratic Labs, and Claire England of RISE Global--were fonts of solid information. But occasionally, startup presenters took a defensive or argumentative tone in response (admittedly, I saw this more frequently with the non-edtech companies).
Here's one example: a coach commented that green text on a white background would be unreadable to any investor in the audience who was color 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 your baby being called ugly.
Overall, the startups seemed to appreciate the detailed rehearsal
feedback. 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, founder
and CEO of ProSky, which matches
potential interns with companies for virtual, project-based internships. “I
implemented 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 so
I felt prepared for them!”
And take it, even if the criticism may appear personal, said Jessica Reid Sliwerski of LightSail. “For my over-achiever-perfectionist self the most salient take away was this: There is a fine line between being well prepared and overly rehearsed. I was the latter. So I reworked my pitch, incorporating more aspects of myself and my playful personality and then I drank a vodka Red Bull for breakfast.” (This was Vegas. LightSail, incidentally, won the competition.)
Don’t let time pressure make you leave out must-haves, like team and business model, hoping they might come up in the Q&A. “In order to have a comprehensive pitch, those elements are necessary even in such a short time frame,” recommended theHubEdu’s Tiffany Reiss.
And Josh Chan, founder and CEO of LightUp, thought the coaches did a great job reminding him to clearly highlight a key feature, his venture’s augmented reality overlay that helps students diagnose circuit problems. “I think after working on a product for a while you can forget just how novel or exciting a particular feature can be to others who have never seen your product before.”
Bottom line: Believe in what you’re doing, but be willing to take input while maintaining confidence. As one coach remarked to CampusWall’s Snyder, “Your speaking style is very stable and calm.” “Is it?” Snyder replied. “I’m nervous as heck.”
Frank Catalano is an industry strategist, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies. He's a regular columnist for the tech news site GeekWire and tweets @FrankCatalano. The pitches reminded him of advice he once gave while in broadcasting: “When in doubt, sound authoritative.”