Pitch Directory: Singing for Your Supper

This is the third installment of Pitch Directory; A four-part series presented in partnership with BDO VC Pitch Day. This series examines pitching from four different perspectives, exploring the definitive sources dedicated to understanding what it takes to successfully pitch a company or idea. Check out parts one and two, and four

“Sell yourself.”

That’s the question every entrepreneur in existence will one day encounter. It might be a shop keeper trying to convince customers to visit their store, or a restaurant owner explaining why their food is the best in the city. It also includes tech founders, who have to go through the “sell yourself” pitch dozens of times throughout their tenure for investments, mentors, and, of course, customers.

The most daunting of those may be the pitch to investors. Standing in front of seasoned venture vets who have most likely invested in wildly successful companies and trying to sway them into believing your company will be the next one to hit it big is at the very least intimidating, and at the most downright terrifying.

Sophie Forest is one of those venture veterans. As a managing partner at Brightspark Ventures, a successful VC firm with a portfolio including Hubba, Hopper, and Nudge Rewards, she has seen a lot of pitches over her two decades of work—both as a VC herself in addition to being a judge at pitch competitions, like she will be for BDO’s pitch events this spring. If that’s not enough, Forest also won NACO’s 2017 Canadian Angel of the Year Award.

sophie forest
Forest (left) accepting 2017 Canadian Angel of the Year award.

Forest knows what the process is, and how jolting it can be, even for those who have secured funding in the past. Every time, it’s new and it’s something to prepare for. But too often, she sees inexperienced founders enter her office and dive into rambling, 20-minute long pitches, almost all of which never result in a callback. They need to prepare and understand what it takes to deliver a concise version of “sell yourself.” To Forest, pitch competitions offer a great environment for rookie entrepreneurs to cut their teeth.

“A lot of these events are useful for a young first-time entrepreneur because it allows them to kind of refine the way they will pitch, make it crisper, and get to the essential points quickly, “ says Forest. “They kind of need guidance for that in the beginning.”

“Pitching is more of a skill set, and it’s more pre-work you need to do as a founder to pitch, change and adapt,” she says. “Sometimes they’re into their product day in and day out, so they can easily forget the person they’re pitching to doesn’t perfectly understand the product or market they’re in.”

Forest’s advice for pitching contests is to be honest and not focus on shallow traction. A judge should be excited about an idea within three minutes, without requiring a long anecdotal story or dragged-out examples.

“Most pitch contests focus on your traction and objective,” says Forest. “Founders will talk about how they just signed a customer or forged a new partnership. They show traction but it’s not real. They throw a lot of logos on the presentation so it looks good, but often it’s not a real representation. If you don’t have any traction, sometimes it’s better to be honest and say how you’re focusing on it and there’s some interest but not quite there yet. It’s better than having the investors dig a bit deeper to discover it’s just a face-level marketing agreement rather than real traction.”

From Forest’s perspective as a VC, the smartest thing a founder can do is build momentum. Well before they need to fundraise, companies will approach Brightspark to start a conversation, and then maintain that momentum by keeping them in the loop with updates.

“They say ‘here’s my company, here’s what I’m going to accomplish in the next six months, and after that I’m going to look for a new financial partner, would you be interested?’ That’s really smart, especially if you have the confidence you’re going to deliver,” says Forest. “You start the conversation before, so when you’re ready to fundraise, you already have a few meetings under your belt, so they’ve already done their research and are thinking about it.”

Another important aspect is following up after a pitch and staying in touch. Almost no pitch is perfect, and judges, VCs, and mentors will have questions to ask. Keep the momentum going by staying in touch and answering any lingering questions—if they ask about the size of the market, provide a study that shows just how many potential customers there are. According to Forest, founders often take weeks to follow up, killing all momentum involved in a potential partnership.

“For founders, be ready, because if you meet an investor who has interest, make sure you have all the information so you can go through that process in the most important way,” says Forest. “We’re not going to dig on deals we’re not interested in. We’re usually very transparent and companies will know if we’re not interested.”

One more thing:

“Don’t be overly annoying and send emails twice a day.”

Check out Pitch Directory: Part One, where a pitch competition world champion shares his thoughts on how to conquer the competition, Part Two, where a globally-recognized accelerator director tells you why it’s important to be aware of what you’re trying to achieve, and Part Four, where a corporate mentor shares the same advice he gave to the CEOs of Netflix, Yahoo, and Cisco.

Techvibes is the official Media Partner of the BDO VC Pitch Day 2019.