After Completely Freezing During a Pitch Competition, These Co-Founders Stayed Up All Night Preparing for a Second Chance
Sunny Bonnell and Ashleigh Hansberger told stories for clients of their branding and digital agency, Motto. But they came up short when it was time to tell their own.
Editor’s note: In the Women Entrepreneur series My Worst Moment, female founders provide a firsthand account of the most difficult, gut-wrenching, almost-made-them-give-up experience they’ve had while building their business -- and how they recovered.
When you have an opportunity for a second chance, you should take it -- no matter how poorly things went on the first try. Sunny Bonnell and Ashleigh Hansberger, co-founders of branding and digital agency Motto, learned this nearly 12 years ago when, during a pitch competition for women founders, they froze when trying to sell investors on their budding branding and digital agency.
While their business was all about storytelling for clients with large audiences, they couldn’t manage to share the basics about their own company in front of 100 people. They completely blanked, despite having prepared thoroughly. The judges were brutal with their feedback before dismissing them from the stage. Thousands of women had applied to get facetime with the investors, and the Motto co-founders had squandered it -- all because their nerves got the best of them.
They knew they had the opportunity for a second try the following day, but they were so discouraged that they headed straight for the bar. After a few drinks, their fighting instincts kicked in, and they pulled an all-nighter and rewrote their pitch on bar napkins. Bleary eyed, they carried those napkins onstage with them the next morning, nailed it, received a standing ovation.
Today, Motto works with brands such as 21st Century Fox, the NFL and USA Today. Below, Bonnell and Hansberger tell the story of that fateful pitch competition that still defines their ethos.
What follows is a joint first-person account of these women’s experience. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In early 2007, when Motto was trying to kick off its training wheels, we drove from South Carolina to Atlanta to take our shot in a high-profile women's business event. Thousands of entries from around the country had been narrowed to nine top female entrepreneurs who would each pitch their business model to a panel of superstar judges.
The day before the live event, we swaggered up to the podium for our practice pitch, and in front of some of the smartest, most accomplished women in the country, we went blank. We forgot our names, what we did and what we had accomplished.
After a few agonizing seconds, a judge infamous for her withering critiques tore us apart with a few words: “You shouldn’t be here if you don’t even know what you do or why your business matters." We fled the stage, humiliated.
The prize package was no joke: a generous line of credit from American Express, along with marketing, mentoring and technology resources. Coming from a 200-square-foot one-room office, we were barely making ends meet with used computers. We had no money, so winning would be a huge deal -- our entrepreneurial dream come true.
It wasn’t that we had needed to prep more. We had already been prepping for it for weeks. It was just the pressure of it all, and that we were young and inexperienced. It might’ve been that we were overwhelmed by the gravity of the moment.
We didn't want to be defeated or walk away humiliated. We wanted to prove the judges wrong -- that their criticism of us was unfounded. We might have been gutsy on the outside, but at the first sign of adversity, we’d folded like lawn chairs.
Drowning our sorrows at the hotel bar, we planned our trip home between tears, cursing, drunk-texting and choosing the saddest songs possible on the jukebox. There we were, the youngest women in the competition, getting our shot at the heavyweight title, and we’d been knocked out in the first round by the Floyd Mayweathers of female entrepreneurship.
Then, as we packed our bags, we looked at each other and had the same thought: No, we will not slink away with our tails between our legs. We would at least go down fighting.
We stayed up all night and rewrote our pitch on bar napkins. The next morning, we went in, crushed our pitch and won the competition. Ashleigh, who was 22 at the time, was the youngest to ever win.
We truly learned our worth from this experience. As entrepreneurs, you will be faced with daily pressures. Every day, you have a new opportunity to work harder than the day before.
Although we wouldn't wish blanking onstage to anyone, this experience really helped us define our agency's ethos. We're tenacious, passionate and obsessed with our work. Those qualities make rare breed leaders, and those are the types of leaders that Motto is proud to work with.
Never let anyone tell you that you don't have what it takes or that you don't deserve to win. That's entirely up to you. We have to create our own success.