For Ash Kumra, winning a pitch competition yielded much more than the $30,000 in cash and professional services he received. "Contests offer instant validation," Kumra says. "That tells an investor or a sponsor that this business isn't going to disappear."
In 2010 Kumra won the Irvine Entrepreneur Forum, a pitch contest held by the Chamber of Commerce in Irvine, Calif. The win helped him launch DesiYou, a digital video distributor of Indian entertainment. Since then, he has been recognized by the White House as a young entrepreneur to watch and co-founded DreamItAlive.com, an online personal growth community with more than 50,000 members and sponsors such as Microsoft and HR provider TriNet.
Pitch slams aren't just about cash and credibility, says Kumra, who now chairs the Southern California nonprofit Tech Coast Venture Network, which runs an annual $25,000 pitch contest. Win or lose, entering a contest is a clever way to meet investors and industry bigwigs with whom you couldn't rub elbows otherwise.
To ensure that your pitch soars, you'll need to research the judges ahead of time, practice incessantly and incorporate feedback from colleagues. But there are some other tips, too. 'Treps who've won or run pitch competitions offer a few suggestions.
Hook them early. "You really need to be able to convey what you do in the first 30 to 60 seconds," says Sanjay Parekh, founder of Startup Riot, a competition in Atlanta that gives contestants three minutes to pitch and in 2013 awarded $10,000 in cash and 13 hours of investor meetings.
Get your founding story out of the way quickly. Then share impressive sales figures, household-name customers and industry leaders you've secured as angels or advisors, Kumra suggests. Also, he adds, mention how your business will use the winnings--whether it's to rent an office, increase inventory or hire an engineer.
Keep it simple. Focus your pitch on two things: identifying the problem your company solves, and how you solve it, says Los Angeles 'trep Vanessa Ting, who won $1,000 in a competition sponsored by Sam's Club last year. Make sure to quantify your market for judges who may not be familiar with your industry, she adds--for example, by saying, "160 million people in the U.S. use smartphones." Ditch the flashy props and snoozy slides, Kumra says, but by all means, demo your product.
Inspire confidence. Explain why you and your product are qualified to fulfill this market need. "Is it proprietary technology? Your unique background?" asks Ting, founder of Buyerly, a website that connects product manufacturers with retail buyers. Her secret sauce? Her MBA and her experience as a buyer for Target.
To hammer home the point, she offers judges an anecdote about a client who was having trouble breaking into Wal-Mart and Target but succeeded after using her services.
None of this is license to lie. Judges have finely tuned BS meters, Kumra notes. If you don't know the answer, say so and offer to follow up later.
Turn up the charm. While judges love to see confidence, they bristle at arrogance. Contestants who become combative when challenged by the judging panel aren't doing themselves any favors and give the impression that they aren't "going to listen to my advice anyway," Parekh says.
Kunal Sarda, who last year was offered a $250,000 investment offer on TV's Shark Tank, agrees. "It's all about the team," says the New York based co-founder of Verbalize-It, an on-demand translation platform for travelers and businesses. If the judges flat out don't like you and your partners, your pitch is sunk.