June 20, 2018
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It’s all in the pitch: Competitors vie for prize, progress

By Matt Wickenheiser, BDN Staff

ORONO, Maine — Zeomatrix CEO Susan MacKay packed a lot into five minutes.

She launched her pitch with a global view of the need for clean water, touched on existing technologies to produce it and explained why her company’s “helix nanofiltration” system was a better solution.

In a carefully modulated tone, she moved on to her experience, the team behind her and the partnerships Zeomatrix already has in the corporate world.

The three people MacKay pitched to said they were impressed with how much information she packed into five minutes, but they wanted to know more: What’s the direct competition like, for example?

MacKay, whose business is housed at the Target Technology Incubator in Orono, was followed by Sean Sullivan of South Portland, who was looking for funding to start a gourmet mushroom business.

Luke Thomas of Orrington, a University of Maine sophomore, pitched a business idea that would connect college alumni with current students needing help with paying for school, a sort of focused social network. Larry Dearborn of Hermon had a heat-capture technology that he was looking to fund, and UMaine student Chris Gennaro of Saco pitched an idea for an online scheduler for college students.

They were all taking part in a business pitch competition at the Innovation to Venture conference at the Black Bear Inn in Orono, hoping to win either a $2,500 or $500 cash prize to help move their ideas along.

The pitch is an integral part of the startup culture. The idea is that an entrepreneur has a limited amount of time — often only a few minutes — to intrigue potential investors. The goal is to hook them on an idea and lead to further conversations — and funding.

Experts on the pitch say it’s not something that comes naturally to many businesspeople, but suggest that practice makes perfect. The pitch is important to entrepreneurs, said Christopher Speh, chairman of the Maine Angels investment group, but not that much different from everyday life when you get right down to it.

“It’s like anything else. Whether you’re talking about family or a business, life is a negotiation, it’s a sale,” Speh said. “You’re always selling something; you may be selling an idea to your kid, or your kid trying to sell you on the idea of buying something.”

Speh said he had some key components that anyone making a pitch should consider.

A successful pitcher shouldn’t have to refer to papers or computer presentations to sell a concept, he said.

“You have to know the company and your product and yourself cold so you’re able to engage, not be thinking about the presentation,” said Speh. “The whole time you’re talking, you’re reading the prospect, modifying [your pitch] on the fly.”

An entrepreneur should be listening to whomever they’re pitching, watching for body language that expresses interest or skepticism, and then addressing the reactions as the pitch progresses.

You’ve got to know how much time you’ve got and get to the point, while leaving time for interactive discussion at the end of the pitch, he said.

And you’ve got to know your follow-up plan. If there’s interest, what do you need to do next to get more information in front of that investor?

Venture capitalist Charles “Kip” Moore, owner of Little Diamond Island Enterprises in Portland, said when someone is pitching to him, much of what he decides is based on who is making that pitch.

“I’m looking to get something that’s close to a one-minute description of your resume,” Moore said, “and with that resume, why are you the right person to start this company, lead this company, make it successful?”

It’s important to impress with how good you can be at the business you’re talking about, what experience and skills you have, how good you are at hiring people, managing them and inspiring them, Moore said.

After that pitch, the investor decides whether to continue the discussion, Moore said.

“It’s a very binary kind of thing,” Moore said.

Humor can work, he said, as long as the whole presentation isn’t just a string of one-liners.

Kerem Durdag said he always tries to have fun with his pitches. He’s the CEO of Biovation, a high-tech fiber and coatings startup in Boothbay. Previously, he was CEO of BiODE Inc., a Westbrook-based sensor company. Durdag has made his fair share of pitches over the year.

One key point that he and all the experts made: Know your audience. You may be pitching to some entry-level angel investors, or to a bank loan officer or to an equity firm — or to a rich uncle. Each has different sets of priorities and goals, Durdag said. Each is willing to take on varying levels of risk and wants to know what the eventual payoff might be.

You’ve got to clearly communicate what pain in the marketplace your company will solve, he said. And you’ve got to connect the dots — why you’re asking for money, what you will solve and how you will grow the business with the investment, he said.

Above all, Durdag said, develop a thick skin. Be open to feedback and critical insight, he said.

“I have had my share of whips — but it was for a good reason,” Durdag said. “If someone’s going to cut you a massive check, they’re going to ask you some hard questions.”

Use that criticism to make your next pitch that much better or to take a hard look at your business plan and make necessary changes.

“The feedback that comes back to you, it’s tragic if you don’t use [it] in tactical and strategic business planning,” said Durdag.

So who won the pitch competition? MacKay took home the $2,500, and Thomas got $500.

The people catching the pitch — investors, bankers, etc. — want to hear a story, MacKay said. That can be difficult with a scientific company like Zeomatrix, she said.

MacKay said she’s more of a natural introvert, so pitching isn’t easy for her. She’s become better at it with practice in front of professionals and at home.

She said she uses her 14- and 11-year-old children as an audience. Her 14-year-old daughter has been particularly helpful in refining her presentation, MacKay said.

“She’s quite the good critic.”

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

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