What the President Taught Me About Pitching (Yes, That President!)
Entrepreneur's New Year’s Guide
The day before the holiday weekend, July 3 started out like any other day. I arrived at 1776dc, a tech startup hub in Washington, D.C., expecting to meet members of my advisory board to present a new service we had delivered to our first client just one week prior.
But as I exited the elevator at the 1776 penthouse suite and saw Secret Service agents combing the area with bomb sniffing dogs, I realized the day wouldn’t be typical.
I was directed to a security holding area where I read an email message sent minutes earlier by 1776 co-founder Donna Harris with this subject line: "President Obama at 1776 this morning.”
After I and other entrepreneurs cleared security and were seated at tables, President Barack Obama entered the floor, called out, “hello, everybody” and then proceeded to walk around, shake hands and meet the leaders of other startups at the incubator. He approached my table, chatted with others, then asked me, “So, what do you do?”
This was it. Lights, camera, action! I was onstage and, yes, I was a bit nervous.
The simple question "What do you do?” is one of the most challenging questions for an entrepreneur to respond to at times. To answer it well, a businessperson should know his audience.
And this audience, I thought, is a man who jockeys with Russia's Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping for the title "world’s most powerful person." This was a very unique audience indeed.
But it was my job as entrepreneur working on Fanaticall's corporate launch to pitch innovative concepts, so I used my elevator line -- the line every entrepreneur should have ready if given but a few precious seconds to explain a business.
“We offer software as a service to enable any individual or organization to create a white label Expert Calling Network and monetize their social network,” I said.
There was a brief pause.
“O.K," the president responded with a bit of a laugh. “Can you tell me that in plain English?”
My first thought -- I blew that -- was quickly replaced by this: That's a fair question: Highly sophisticated software executives might ask the same.
So I shifted gears and responded with less jargon.
As might be expected of someone who must quickly grasp complex topics, the president skillfully shifted into role-playing mode to present a hypothetical: "I’m an expert on bees,” the president offered.
“On bees?” I asked.
“Honey bees," he responded.
Vital to agriculture, honey bees are in serious danger in the United States and at the time, I didn’t know the president had recently created a national task force to help them.
I explained that as a bee expert, he could invite other experts and they could each sell their expertise under an Expert Calling Network, powered by Fanaticall. (It's a service to provide business customers access to conversations with experts in a certain industry or subject area.)
The president continued with active listening and role-playing to better understand the value of this network.
In the spirit of role-playing, I then explained how one could find “Barack,” the hypothetical bee expert.
He stood stone-faced and replied, “Yeah, I know a lot about bees.”
Internally, I cringed and thought, Did I take role-playing too far? It wasn't my intent to disrespect the president.
I then proceeded to offer up my company's tagline: Our service makes knowledge “more available to a broader audience."
After a brief pause (that actually felt quite long), the president declared, “Interesting!” For me, as an entrepreneur in pitch mode, that amounted to a “drop the microphone and head off stage to the sound of applause” moment.
But the president wasn’t finished. He turned to an investor seated at my table and joked, “Am I doing your job here?” before asking, “So, where do you make money? What’s the business model?” to the laughter of everyone gathered.
I explained that Fanaticall collects a transaction fee and that remaining funds are paid out to experts. Like an experienced investor, he continued with insightful questions about alternatives in the marketplace, to which I carefully responded. Again, I heard him say, “it’s Interesting” before moving on to meet others.
Inspired by this exchange, I formally launched my company Fanaticall that afternoon.
Later I discovered that a colleague had captured much of the conversation using my smartphone and I feel fortunate to have it as an enduring part of our company’s history.
To other entrepreneurs, I suggest the following:
1. Always have ready your elevator line as well as variations tailored to different audiences. You just never know who might show up to hear it.
2. If you are talking to a potential investor, translate the details of the opportunity into the investor’s native tongue.
3. Use the experience to help you adjust your pitch in the future.
4. Be realistic and candid about where your company may be in a year, three years or five years down the road.
5. Remember that honesty will provide the greatest return.