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With Sherrie Totoki

Winning over the crowd at a pitch competition

Participating in a pitch competition brings many benefits for climate founders beyond the prize itself. Winning will do wonders for your marketing and brand awareness, as well as giving you exposure to commercial partners and investors. Even if you don’t win, the event can still be incredibly rewarding, as long as you make the most of the opportunities it offers.

Sherrie Totoki is Senior Director of Startup Programs at GreenBiz, which frequently hosts pitch competitions at its events. She’s watched plenty of startups pitch to audiences, so we sat down with her to find out the factors that all winning pitches share, and how founders can use their participation in the event to boost their chances of securing funding and partnerships.

Preparing for a pitch competition

1. Know your audience

In a pitch competition, you’ll have a very restricted timeframe in which to pitch to a diverse audience. You won’t be able to do a deep dive into their backgrounds, like you would with an individual investor, but you’ll still need to adapt your pitch, and your ask, to align with the people that are in front of you.

When you’re initially deciding whether to apply for a pitch competition, look on the organization’s website for information on sponsors, partners, and previous attendees. This will give you a basic idea of whether the audience will be relevant to your company and what you’re asking for. Once you’ve applied and been accepted, you can ask the conference organizer more specific questions such as who will be in attendance and who previous winners are to help you hone your pitch.

2. Consider whether you can commit

The likelihood that you’ll even be accepted to a pitch competition is often very slim, so do your research beforehand to make sure it’s worth applying in the first place. Narrow your options down to one or two that are most relevant, and only move forward if you have the capacity to really commit - if you can’t put the effort in, you’ll only be wasting your time.

How to knock your pitch out of the park

Your time on the stage is incredibly limited - typically 3 to 7 minutes - which calls for a simplified, straightforward pitch that quickly hits all the marks. But telling your story in a clear way to a broad audience in this brief window can be difficult, especially if your technology is particularly complex. To connect with the crowd, distill the most effective components of your pitch, namely:

1. A real world example

Lead with a story that illustrates how your service or product is impacting your customers. A relatable, tangible example will help clarify your offering to your audience.

2. A one-sentence value prop

Simplify your value proposition into one clear and concise statement. It should be tied to commercial outcomes, highlighting that the customer is willing to pay for your product to solve a real problem that they face.  

3. Your competitive advantage

Succinctly outline to the audience what makes you better than your competitors. Do you have a novel view of the market, team expertise, or a new business model that differentiates you from others? There are always competitors, so be sure to highlight what makes you uniquely situated to succeed.

4. A personal connection

If there’s a personal story behind your company’s mission, that’s a great cherry on top of your pitch, and will make you more memorable to the audience. Otherwise, you can touch on your team’s expertise, and why it means you’re uniquely placed to build this product.

How to make sure your participation pays off

At the event

If you simply do your pitch, you’re only getting a fraction of the potential value that can come from taking part in a pitch competition. You could go the extra mile - if you have the capacity - and ask the conference organizers if there are any other panels or exhibits you can participate in. But there’ll also be plenty of opportunities for good old fashioned networking.

Other competition entrants will likely be at similar stages and facing the same problems as you, so can provide useful feedback, and fruitful partnerships can come from your efforts to build a community with them. The wider conference will also be full of potentially valuable connections. Many events have an app which will list all the attendees - make a note of anyone you want to meet and reach out beforehand to schedule time with them, but be flexible and open to meeting people organically too.

After the event

Be sure to follow up with any warm leads from the conference soon afterwards. You should also capitalize on the relationship you’ve initiated with the competition organizers - for example, GreenBiz’s editorial arm is more open to spotlighting businesses that have participated in its events, and offers unique benefits to competition winners beyond the prize, such as invite-only events and discounts. By participating in the event, you’re more than just an attendee, so leverage your position to ask for favors that’ll move you closer to your goals.

Sherrie Totoki leads startup programming at GreenBiz, which includes searching for, and selecting, startups to participate in pitch competitions. She also works on building out and fostering the innovation ecosystem through GreenBiz events and online platforms.

Prior to joining GreenBiz, Sherrie led accelerator operations at Elemental Excelerator and worked on various consulting projects in the sustainability industry. She also has a background in high-tech recruiting and operations. She received an MBA in sustainable management from Presidio Graduate School and a bachelor's degree in psychology from Santa Clara University.


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