Lessons from Pitching Your Business

Photo courtesy of the University of Maine

Photo courtesy of the University of Maine

Kasey Smith is the founder of EterNav, a start-up based in Castine bringing new technology and support to families faced with the unexpected loss of a loved one. EterNav offers more affordable, convenient and personalized bereavement solutions. Kasey has spent the last several months refining her business pitch by participating in the Bangor Top Gun accelerator program and several other pitching events. This fall, you will be able to see her pitch on Season 2 of the televised pitch competition, Greenlight Maine, which begins airing on Saturday, September 10th. We asked her about what she has learned through those experiences.

What has been the value of pitching at various events?
It’s been invaluable. I wasn’t successful at getting the resources we need as a start-up before pitching practice and mentoring. The pitch keeps me at the ready for anything that comes at me, and before, this was very stressful. Being ready for anything means my confidence is up, and that’s felt by everyone I interact with.

 Networking events weren’t as useful before. Now, I pull from my different pitches depending on the audience. I always use the first line. Through practice, I was finally able to distill what EterNav is into one sentence, which is particularly challenging when you are doing something that no one has done before. My one sentence is like my calling card.

I wanted to learn to pitch to secure seed funding, but now I am using the pitching for every interaction the business has with the outside world – from quick conversations with potential customers to investor presentations.

Refining my pitch has even made writing grant proposals less of a struggle. It used to take me hours to create a cohesive message. Now it takes minutes.

How do you modify your pitch for different audiences?
Now I understand the pitch so well. It allows me to adapt it in the moment depending on who my audience is. If it is investors, I focus on ROI [return on investment in the business]. When the audience is potential users, I talk more about our early adopters and how they are benefiting from our service in our beta test. I tell personal stories. Potential customers are asking for more stories and information. When you aren’t talking to investors, personal stories mean a lot. Investors are less interested in stories, but they are still useful to make a connection.

How has your pitch changed over time?
Most people might think it evolves slowly over time, but my experience was that I threw out the entire pitch three times. Each time I did, it was considerably better. I tried to explain the business in a different way. It was risky, but it really paid off.   

I learned from practice and feedback what not to say. Sometimes feedback would tell me that my pitch was unclear or that it created questions that were distractions. I realized some of the elements I thought were important to incorporate were better left out so that I could have a clear message. 

I also spent a weekend watching TED talks. We [fellow entrepreneurs in the Top Gun class] always heard in our pitch practice that we had too many words on our slides. Then the audience is reading the slides instead of listening. In TED talks, the presenters have five slides – with only a few words. The pitch was the story. It didn’t matter what was on the slides. So I took another risk and stripped my pitch down to five slides, and it was absolutely the right thing to do.

You are going to be on Greenlight Maine – what are you doing to prepare?
I am now a semi-finalist, and if I prevail in the first round, the judges will really dig into the business model in the next round. My prep will involve really studying my business model in a way that I can answer any question they throw at me. I know they will ask questions I can’t anticipate – I just need to know the model really well, and then it won’t matter what questions they throw out; I’ll be prepared.

Anything else?
Entrepreneurs need to be able to talk about their business in a way that is consistent. Everyone can benefit from building a pitch and believing in it. Use your pitch to get help and feedback on your business idea.

We are very lucky to have so many opportunities to practice pitching in Maine and the Bangor area. A lot of places don’t.

It was with the goal of creating opportunities for entrepreneurs to refine their pitch and business model that organizers from the Town of Orono, City of Old Town, University of Maine and Husson University started the Big Gig networking and pitch competition in 2013. Big Gig is structured to encourage would-be innovators and entrepreneurs to pitch their new ideas in a safe and supportive environment.

A lot more dolphin tank than shark tank, Big Gig has three entrepreneurs pitch their business idea and make connections with enthusiastic people in the community. A panel of “Big Wigs” provides feedback on the pitch, and the audience selects a winner who goes on to pitch in the Big Gig finale in April. The three pitchers for each Big Gig are chosen the prior week at the Little Gig: a closed pitch where the organizers provide advice and connections to everyone who participates, with the three selected pitchers getting important tips to enhance their pitch before the networking event.

While the event is intended to provide serious help to the participants, the organizers keep it lighthearted and entertaining for everyone who attends and participates, as evidenced by all of the wordplay infused into the event features. The audience ranges from connected investors and entrepreneurs to students from Husson and UMaine, many of whom go on to try their pitch at a later Little Gig.

The next season of Big Gig will get underway September 20 at Tiller and Rye in Brewer, as Big Gig expands to four preliminary events leading up to the finale this year. You can sign up to pitch before September 11 or sign up to attend at biggig.org