Pitching our startup in Colorado

In Fall ‘14, I stayed four months in Colorado to try and develop the market for Snipcart. In a previous post, I’ve outlined the story and lessons regarding getting into a new startup scene. In this post, I’ll focus on the pitches aspect of the whole experience.

Note: This post was originally published on the official Snipcart Blog and shared on our monthly newsletter.

“You’re on. Ready?”

I nodded silently, gulping. The sympathetic bald guy handed me the mic and got off the stage after introducing me. When I first got up there, my hands were sweaty, and my breathing was short. Strong projector lights were illuminating the stage, almost blinding me. I could still discern the audience though: hundreds of developers, entrepreneurs, founders and investors who had all gathered up for this startup week’s New Tech Denver Pitch Night.

I thought to myself: “Maybe you could’ve picked something a little smaller for your first pitch.’’

For the first few minutes of my speech, it felt like I could run out of air at any given time. It didn’t end up being a grandiose pitch: I stumbled a little on a word here and there, forgot to mention a feature, and spoke too fast. But I pulled through. All in all, I gave a decent presentation about our product, got a few relevant questions and spoke with interested parties afterward. And the next time I pitched, I got better. Same thing happened the time after that.

Since I was only in Colorado for a short amount of time, I thought I’d try to go all in with the pitches. After getting familiar with the popular events in the area, I emailed all of the organizers and submitted my application for pitches and presentations. Needless to say, I was pretty excited (and nervous) when I got selected to pitch at New Tech Denver’s main event during Denver’s Startup Week. Why nervous? Well, I had never pitched in front of a 200 person audience composed of developers, entrepreneurs and investors (truth be told, I had never pitched Snipcart at all). Oh, and English is my second language. And I’m not a developer myself. But I grew some balls, prepared well and got up on stage and gave a neat presentation, as illustrated in the previous short story. Then one New Tech Colorado Springs and two 1 Million Cups pitches followed. Those presentations enhanced our local visibility greatly and provided our team with immediate, qualified feedback and a few interesting leads. Along the way, I’ve learned a few lessons when it comes to pitches. So here are some useful tips for pitching your startup, wherever you are:

Practice, again and again

Breaking news: practice makes perfect. Now matter how well you know your startup, its vision, its core features/benefits and its audience, you’ll still need to practice. To master your pitch, to make sure your ideas and words flow seamlessly and your message comes across effectively. So go ahead, do it: use a mirror, a friend, your team, your mom or your dog. The idea isn’t to convince them to buy your product or anything; it’s just to actually speak before you speak. To get you comfortable and confident, you know?

Problem-solving and benefits: get it right

You know you’re solving a problem (if you aren’t, well, you’ve got a problem). Hell, you might even be solving a few problems with your product. And that’s awesome, really. Now when you pitch, you’ve got to make sure to clearly identify the pain points you’re releasing for your customers. Formulate them in the simplest way possible, using words your audience is most likely to relate to. Below is a slide deck I used to pitch Snipcart; slides 2 and 3 illustrate in a simple way what we do, and what problem we solve for our clients. Now I’m not saying the whole slide deck is flawless, but still, it might give you a good idea where to start when you develop your visual aid.

Now here’s where we could have improved. In a slide, we list some technical features of our product. For a developer, these are awesome, easily understandable features. But still, they’re quite technical, and most of them aren’t illustrating what the concrete benefits are for the user. And while our core audience is mostly developers, my pitches’ audiences weren’t always composed of a majority of them. If I had focused more on the benefits, I would’ve avoided confusing my audience and answering more basic questions during my Q&As.

So, instead of:

  1. It’s API-centric
  2. It’s fully customizable using HTML/JS and CSS
  3. It can be plugged into almost any gateway or shipping provider
  4. It’s technology/CMS-independent

I could’ve used something like:

  1. You can integrate Snipcart’s data to display sales, orders and customers information anywhere you want in your dashboards or CMS.
  2. You can easily customize the look and feel of your cart in order to create a fluid, optimized buying experience throughout your whole site.
  3. You can choose which payment gateway and shipping provider is the most advantageous for your business and hook Snipcart to it.
  4. You can pick your favorite content editor and programming language to build your website and hook Snipcart straight to it.

I encourage you to read this post by Shawn Segundo on the HubSpot blog; it gives a quick but detailed account of the whole features versus benefits thing.

Keep it short and simple

With the multiplication of virtual stimulus happening nowadays, the steady decrease in human attention span is not a surprise (8 seconds in 2013). Consequently, getting your audience to focus on you and your content for a sustained period is harder and harder. If you’re fond of using overly technical vocabulary when you explain your product to developers, that’s fine. But when you get in front of a varied audience, filled with people from different trades (investors, founders, non-technical people, etc.), you need to speak the most accessible lingo possible. For me, this was a double challenge. We are a developer-oriented e-commerce solution: our value is best expressed in technical terms, there’s no doubt. It’s when they see the simplicity of integrating Snipcart in, say, our documentation that developers fall in love with our product. But here’s the thing: I am no developer myself, and showing code and documentation during a presentation is a sure-fire way to kill the vibe and lose most of the audience’s attention. I found that two things could help in that scenario: putting the accent on benefits instead of features (like I mentioned in the previous paragraph) and using analogies, similes, and metaphors. For instance, here’s one question that popped up quite frequently:

“What’s the difference between you and Magento or WooCommerce?”

Instead of diving into the technological nature of the compared products, I simply used this basic analogy:

“Say you want to open up shop on a street corner in your hometown. If you choose Magento, or WooCommerce, you’ll have to use their types of building, their building materials and their inventory and payment systems. If you choose Snipcart, on the other hand, you’re fully in charge of the construction. You build the shop you want, how you want it. Once you’re ready and satisfied, you just plug in Snipcart to start selling all the awesome products you’ve stacked up in there.”

Most of the times, the metaphor was enough for people to get the core difference.

Tell a story

So, like we said, you’re solving a problem, and that in itself is awesome. Still, people want to know who you are, where you’re coming from. Sticking a compelling narrative to your startup’s product will act as an attention magnet. The 1 Million Cups organization, for instance, puts a strong emphasis on storytelling in their mandatory preparation material. They encourage speakers to weave a story in their presentation, knowing that stories are more easily remembered, and more susceptible of being repeated.

Alex Turnbull, founder of Groove HQ, really hits the nail on the power of storytelling in this guest post. Basically, storytelling allows you to capture feelings, not just attention. And there’s science behind that too. Like you can find out in this Buffer blog post, we’re biologically wired to relate to stories: when someone tells us a story, every part of our brain fires up and we literally feel what’s going on in the story. For instance, when I told the story of how I snapped one of my back vertebrae, and got to the part where it actually snapped, people would wince, picturing the pain and the incident for themselves. Of course, that’s not the story I used during my presentation. Instead, I explained how and when Snipcart was brought to life, as well as the important milestones we achieved during the last year and a half. Sharing your successes and your failures as a team will make you a way more human and relatable presenter.

Conclusion: the pitch’s worth

With Snipcart, we’ve been bootstrapping from the start. Spektrum Media, our mother dev shop, supports us as we grow towards our financial autonomy. We like it that way, because we don’t owe investors a thing: the only people we respond to are our customers. So when I pitched, I wasn’t looking for some investment opportunities. At first, I was trying to make some noise and some sales, that’s it. As time passed, I realized pitching wasn’t the best strategy to achieve the latter. However, I also realized that it was hell of a good strategy to stimulate feedback, which is pretty much the vital source of any early stage startup. So here’s one of the most important conclusions I’ve drawn about this part of the experience: pitches don’t have to convert into direct sales to be worth it. The visibility, feedback, suggestions, connections and leads you’ll earn thanks to your pitches will be well worth all your time on stage.

Oh, and on a personal level, pitching in Colorado brought me a whole lot: more confidence, more credibility, more connections, and even more knowledge about our own startup. Overall, I’m super glad I did it, and I encourage all of you to jump on the occasion whenever you can.

If you’ve got pitching stories and tips of your own, feel free to share them in the comments with us. To get more posts like these in your inbox, subscribe to our newsletter.

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