Make your pitch perfect

16:00, Dec 09 2012

The art of the pitch goes back to when prehistoric man painted pictures on cave walls, telling a story, or recruiting for the woolly mammoth hunt round a Neanderthal campfire.

In the world of startup businesses and SMEs, the campfire is the business frontline and the pitch is as important to survival as the winter stockpile of mammoth meat was to our ancestors.

We all pitch every day, from the cocktail circuit where your martini conversation often swings on the soundbite response to "so, what do you do?", to where you're pitching to a copper who clocked you 6km over the limit on a downhill stretch on the Canterbury plains. Businesses pitch daily for sales, for employees, for overdraft extensions, to name but a few.

Why then, does it seem so common for the prospect of pitching to put a medieval-sort of fear in the hearts of Kiwi entrepreneurs and startup founders? 

For a young startup team with negligible resource beyond their own enthusiasm, the power of the pitch is often all they have in the arsenal, and too often it is seen as a last resort.

"Look at the product, press this button, check these stats ... why don't I show you feature matrix?" they say, throwing everything else they can think of at the customer.   

Sitting in Creative HQ's final 2012 investor pitch session two weeks ago with a panel of seasoned tech-startup founders, local angel investors and US super angel Bill Payne illustrated how important it was to pitch well, wisely and succinctly.

The feedback was varied and eminently insightful; improve this, focus less on that, include more on this ... but one of the more startling pitches of the day was a 30-second standup by an entrepreneur whose business was little more than an idea. Why so good? Because it had to be tight, and because there was very little to say.  

Having the benefit of no product, next to no customers, and a modicum of momentum means you can pitch your perfect world. You pitch the vision. You pitch where you're going and why it matters.

A few deft questions would have knocked a leg or two off the proposition, but the point is that too many businesses focus on pitching the detail, telling a tale of bells and whistles, outlining all the beautiful hard work they have done creating their magnificent marvellous machines.

Startup businesses run the risk of not pitching their passion, their story and their big picture, because they are so focused on what product they can deliver. After all that's what the all-nighters have been all about, right?

But very few people care. That's the problem.

A musician with perfect pitch is the envy of another practiced and informed ear. But to an audience, the brilliance is manifest in the music, the experience of listening, hearing and appreciating.

The right pitch is harder to define for a business person than a musician, and making it pitch perfect is the result of hard work, lots of practice and focussing on what the audience loves.

If you want to consider yourself a pitching virtuoso, practice your scales, tune your instruments and refine your notes, but really deliver the magnum opus. And keep it to 30 seconds if you can.

- Nick Churchouse is the venture manager at Creative HQ, Wellington's startup incubator and entrepreneurship hub. He hears 20 startup pitches a month and still can't tune his guitar by ear.