Entrepreneur Richard Branson regularly shares his business experience and advice with readers. Ask him a question and your query might be the inspiration for a future column.
Q: I have a goal, a vision and a strategy plan. Where is the best place to find potential investors or funding? How do I pitch my idea? -- Sandra
When you're preparing to tell investors about your idea for a business, people are going to tell you to prepare an elevator pitch, the standard summary selling a business idea in a minute or less. But there are many more locations and situations in which you may encounter a potential investor -- anyone from a business leader in the industry to a family member -- and you'll need to be able to convince that person that your business will be game-changing. Why limit yourself or your imagination to elevators?
You need to think of it as your anywhere pitch. Over the past few months entrepreneurs have pitched their ideas to me in two far more interesting settings than elevators. One was while riding a bicycle in South Africa. Some of the Virgin team and I were in the country in March for the Cape Argus Pick n Pay Cycle Ride, which is 109 km long. I hadn't been on a bicycle since I was a boy, so we had decided to use my last-minute training ride to raise money for the Branson Centre for Entrepreneurship South Africa, a nonprofit that provides assistance and training to new entrepreneurs and the JAG Foundation. We agreed to listen to some quick pitches from the participants during that Ride With Richard. Sixty people signed up to ride and pitch their ideas to myself, Josh Bayliss, who is CEO of the Virgin Group, and Tracey Webster, who is the new CEO of the Branson Centre South Africa. The entrepreneurs had to think on their feet (literally, while pedaling) and make their ideas stand out from the rest of riders in our peloton. The novelty factor kept everyone laughing, the huffing and puffing helped people to keep their pitches succinct, and the exercise got everyone's brains into gear -- we heard some good initial ideas and built on them together. And we all completed the entire race the following day, so that practice was very helpful.
Then in May, I listened to some enthusiastic pitches during an AirAsia flight on which I was working as a stewardess. (I was making good on a friendly bet I'd lost two years before with AirAsia's chief executive, Tony Fernandes, over whose Grand Prix team would do better.) Some passengers passed proposals forward and I invited those who'd handed me the most attention-grabbing ones to tell me about their ideas. One woman had even worn a beard to ensure that she caught my eye. And as for me, I was dressed as a stewardess, complete with lipstick, tights and red shoes. It was a pretty surreal experience, but several people shared excellent pitches and I was able to point a few of them in the right direction.
Of course, not everyone will meet potential investors while riding a bike or sitting in a plane. These days I receive lots of striking, original ideas via social media. How do you make your pitch stand out? If your idea really is ground-breaking, try to make your pitch just as innovative. Lots of people have good ideas, and sometimes unique delivery can make all the difference.
One of the most unusual pitches I ever gave involved a magic trick. Back when we were working on starting up Virgin Atlantic, I met with Airbus, hoping to buy a plane. As a new business, we desperately needed a big discount, and I told them that if they sold their plane to us and our airline became successful, which it surely would, they'd receive much more business in the long term. However, Airbus would not agree to the price we could afford.
I knew that their executives had probably heard pitches like mine before, so I decided to make mine stand out. As we sat down for lunch, I asked the executives: "Do you think that there is any chance that your CEO could be hypnotized?" "Absolutely not," they replied. I said to the CEO, Jean Pierson: "If I can hypnotize you in five minutes, will you give us the $2 million dollar discount?" He and they all agreed and we shook hands.
About three minutes later I asked what time it was. Pierson glanced down at his wrist and discovered that his watch was gone. He looked worried. I then looked at my wrist, where there were now two watches. The executives believed that I had hypnotized Pierson and he had handed me his watch, rather than simply being nimble enough to pocket his watch when we shook hands!
Airbus gave us the discount as promised, which was critical in getting Virgin Atlantic off the ground. While my approach was unorthodox, it did the trick.
Whatever your idea is, follow these simple steps: Explain how your new business will make a difference, but do it in an entertaining fashion. Show off your expertise in a personable way, highlight your experience and your team's strengths, and ground your idea with simple, realistic messages. Do not use jargon. Most importantly, pitch quickly. You never know – the person you are pitching may have an elevator to catch.
Correction: An earlier version of this article did not mention that money raised during the charity Ride With Richard also went to the JAG Foundation and misspelled Tony Fernandes's name. It also misstated the discount resulting from Branson’s wager with the Airbus executives. The amount was $2 million.