The Great Elevator Pitch Competition: You Have 60 Seconds to Convince Me to Give You a Million Dollars (or $10 Million)
It was a good crowd, probably close to 130 people, that piled into Kirsch Auditorium at MIT’s Stata Center on Monday night. Four brave students were there to stand in front of them, each with only 60 seconds to pitch their business idea. Talk about pressure. And to add to their angst, the students had just listened to one of their teachers wax on about how eloquent and passionate and convincing they needed to be. Yours truly was to be one of the judges of how well they pulled that off.
Such was the scene at the first stage of a new business competition, the MIT 100K Elevator Pitch Contest that is being launched this year to add a new dimension to the famous MIT 100K Entrepreneurship Competition held each spring. Don’t be misled by the “100K” part of the name. The Elevator Pitch Contest, although it complements the 100K competition, carries a top prize of just $2,500. (There are also eight separate $1000 awards, including one for the most popular pitch, as judged by audience response.) For the spring event, teams need a real business plan. For the elevator contest, which is open to anyone with a business idea that hasn’t yet been fully commercialized, they just need a pitch.
The EPC, as insiders fondly call it, will take place on Saturday, October 13. (I suggested that we place the contestants in a box resembling an elevator, but that pitch, anyway, appears to have fallen on deaf ears.) Monday night’s event was a training session to go over some of the best “elevator” practices and offer an opportunity for a few daring souls to actually get some practice and demonstrate what to do—or, to be honest, what not to do. You could call me, then, a training judge or a warm-up act judge: no doubt through an oversight of the committee, I have not yet received my invitation to judge the real contest.
Still, it was a great night. After a brief introduction by Burt LaFountain, a first-year MBA student at the MIT Sloan School of Management and a member of the 100K planning team, Bill Aulet took center stage. Entrepreneur in residence at the MIT Entrepreneurship Center and a senior lecturer at the Sloan School of Management (and an Xconomist), Bill has ridden in many elevators. He’s also helped raise over $100 million for companies he’s worked with and even won the 100K as an MBA student himself (although as he noted, “I’m so old, I was a winner when it was the 10K.”). In any case, Bill, ever-dynamic and enthusiastic, was a perfect choice to lay out some basic EP principles for the audience. From a show of hands, the crowd was almost all students, most of them Sloanies.
Aulet noted that an elevator pitch can be tailored for different goals, from selling customers to attracting partners to raising money. But whatever the aim, he said, remember this: “It’s a pitch, it’s not a presentation. It’s the bare essentials.” The point is to generate enthusiasm and follow-on interest for an idea, so elevator pitchers need to deliver a picture that compellingly captures these ingredients, Aulet said: What is the pain today, who is feeling it, what aspirin you are offering—and why you, why now? “Sounds simple, but sometimes it’s forgotten,” he added.
To define the challenge more clearly, Aulet then pushed a button on his laptop so the students could hear first-hand the words of that famous business philosopher, Eminem. The inspirationalboardroom message of “Lose Yourself” echoed through the auditorium. “You better lose yourself in the music, the moment, you own it. You better never let it go. You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow, this opportunity comes once in a lifetime yo.” (In Eminem’s biz-rap parlance “to blow” is shorthand for “to blow up” which is shorthand for “to become famous, successful, and respected within a small amount of time.” Clearly.)
The crowd loved the philosophy, but some were dubious of the practicality of the mission. “Can you really do all this in 55 seconds?” someone asked.
“Yes, absolutely,” was Aulet’s reply. “And it doesn’t mean speaking really, really fast.”
And so with the backgrounder completed, it was time for some real-life pitches. We judges came up. There were four of us: Aulet, Bill Schnoor, of the Goodwin Procter law firm, Andrew Rhodes, artistic director of the Makeshift Theatre Company, and me. We were kind of like American Idol judges. We didn’t really have a Simon. We didn’t actually have a Randy or Paula either. But other than that, it was the same. The presenters made their pitches, and then each of us gave our critique.
We heard some very intriguing, I would say compelling, ideas. Almost everybody dropped the ball at some point, stumbling over his words or forgetting an important aspect—like a clear picture of the business model. Ryan Buckley, who was pitching an online collaboration-distribution-networking-licensing service for would-be Hollywood writers and directors called scripts.com, lost his spot entirely and kind of threw up his arms in defeat. But he did it with a big smile on his face and got a rousing ovation for his efforts.
Rhodes, who was there to give feedback on delivery and posture and that kind of thing, was definitely the star of the judges’ panel. He couldn’t sit still in his chair, and each time a presentation finished he joined the pitcher front and center to provide pointers. Sometimes he trotted over, once he shuffled up shaking his head. He delivered, in a nice way, one of the best lines of the night to Buckley: “If you’re going to pitch scripts, you’re going to have to finish one.”
All the presenters scored big points in my book just by getting up. Here are some of the other highlights:
Ash Dyer’s idea was built around technology to cut by two-thirds the weight of the batteries soldiers pack on overnight missions from 24 pounds to just 8 (my math).
Breck Yunits had an idea for a business filming people as they scratched lottery tickets he would give them. His goal was to capture someone winning a million bucks. He’s already scratched 15,000 tickets and captured the joy of people winning $10,000 (or vice versa, 10K tickets and 15K in winnings—hey, we were in an elevator and I didn’t quite get that). To build drama, Yunits came over to the judge’s table and gave Rhodes a fresh ticket to scratch (he got zilch). It was fun, but as judges, we didn’t quite get the business model.
We ran out of time after just three of the four scheduled pitches. But the audience cheered for more. Which brought us to Alex Wissner-Gross, who pitched a system for enabling people to share their home WiFi networks with stores and other businesses aiming to deliver location-based advertisements—and to gain a piece of the revenue. “AWG,” as I call him, got kudos from all the judges for having the best overall pitch, but even he forgot “the ask.” That is, we all loved his pitch, but we didn’t know what he wanted—money, for us to sign up for the service, or what.
In the end, the evening’s lesson was a simple one about practice and adaptation, learning from your mistakes and getting ever-better. Good luck next Saturday. I’ll probably see you there: just waiting on my invitation to judge.
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