Pitch Perfect: Five Tips for Designing Effective Business Pitch Competitions for International Entrepreneurs
Pitch competitions can be an invaluable component of entrepreneurship development programs. Preparing for a final pitch competition can keep participants motivated throughout the program as they work towards presenting their businesses to an engaged audience. While pitch competitions offer a clear benefit to winners — such as cash prizes, investments and consultancy services — benefits also accrue to those not selected for an award.
Entering a pitch competition encourages an aspiring entrepreneur to refine their business model, distill their business story to its essentials and craft a well-articulated business proposition. Practicing for and delivering the pitch at the competition allows the entrepreneur to build storytelling and communication skills, both essential for entrepreneurship. Pitching in a competition can lead to new ideas from judges and attendees, new publicity, new contacts and newfound confidence.
Pitch competitions have served as a capstone event for two recent entrepreneurship development programs at the William Davidson Institute’s (WDI) Entrepreneurship Development Center at the University of Michigan. (Note: WDI is the parent organization of NextBillion.) In our MENA-Michigan Initiative for Global Action Through Entrepreneurship (M²GATE) program, teams consisting of Michigan undergraduates and their North African peers pitched their social enterprise concepts at the U-M’s Ross School of Business. In the Livelihoods Innovation through Food Entrepreneurship (LIFE) Project, a business pitch competition concludes each four-month incubation program. The LIFE Project also provides workshops, access to a commercial kitchen and business support services aimed at supporting refugees, mainly Syrian, and the Turkish host community in launching and scaling businesses in the food sector. (See our NextBillion article on this project.)
From working on these pitch competitions, we have gleaned the following lessons, which can serve as guidance for others working in global entrepreneurship development:
Don’t Assume Familiarity with Pitching
Pitching has become part of American culture over the past decade, with the spread of entrepreneurship education and events. The television show “Shark Tank,” in which entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of three potential investors, has spread the concept of the pitch beyond the business world to popular culture, and has spawned similarly structured events across the USA and around the world. But in many countries, not everybody is familiar with pitching. If you are running an entrepreneurship development program, you should check how well participants grasp the concept. After discovering that members of the LIFE project lacked familiarity with the elevator pitch concept, the Center for International Private Enterprise’s Istanbul-based Project Director Osman Cakiroglu launched an ongoing series of workshops on crafting and delivering a 60-second elevator pitch. He starts by explaining the “elevator” part, encouraging participants to imagine they’re stepping into an elevator with the likes of Jack Ma, the co-founder of Alibaba Group. He shows a picture of an elevator to illustrate the point that the pitch should capture a business idea that anyone could understand by the time you ride a couple of floors in an elevator. He also shows participants sample videos of entrepreneurs giving elevator pitches.
Build on Similar Practices in Local Culture to Enhance Understanding
If the pitch concept is not known to your program’s participants, in addition to providing very clear, literal explanations (e.g., the elevator pitch above), draw connections to what is familiar to them. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, for example, storytelling is a huge part of the culture, according to Stephen Brand, professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a faculty affiliate with WDI’s Entrepreneurship Development Center. Brand points out that in MENA, small business owners are already pitching their business in some form every day; they just do not call it or understand it as “pitching” in the same way one would pitch their business in an organized competition. “At the souk [or market],” says Brand, “a vendor has 30 seconds to tell the story of why their shawl is better than the one three stalls down.” Storytelling and making a quick connection with your audience have always been key: Now it’s a matter of applying these skills in a new context — taking a calculated approach to creating and presenting your pitch as an entrepreneur.
Structure the Competition Around Participants’ Needs
Think about what you are trying to achieve through your pitch competition, and how you can best create an event that will support your objectives. In Shark Tank-style pitch competitions, the judges (“sharks”) are often potential investors, including venture capitalists. They ask tough questions. There are clear winners and losers in this type of competition, with the winners landing either prize money or an investment. By contrast, a gentler competition — a “dolphin tank” — features a broader range of judges more focused on providing overall strategic feedback and encouragement. In our M²GATE program, we went “dolphin.” It was a good fit given that we were dealing with undergraduates, and wanted to keep the focus on the learning experience rather than on funding or prize money. To encourage this positive spirit, we mentioned at the start and again at the end of the competition that these three teams were all winners — having made it to this final round from a pool of 77 teams. This freed students to practice a growth mindset rather than fixate on the results. Also, be sure to brief the pitch judges before the competition on its objectives and style. Along with the entrepreneurs, the panel of judges is the face of the event and will shape the tone of the competition, influencing entrepreneurs’ performance and confidence levels. You don’t want to end up with sharks in a dolphin tank!
Help Teams Develop Their Pitching Skills
Advise participants to keep their pitches simple and easy to understand. A great way to do that is to start by making a strong outline of the presentation. Managers of entrepreneurship development programs should provide participants with suggested outlines. They should advise groups that are pitching to an international audience to use more images than words on their presentation slides, and to avoid reading their slides. The programs should also carve out sufficient time for pitch practice and organize a couple of mock pitch days complete with judges who are willing to volunteer their time to prep entrepreneurs for the big day. Teams should also practice the transitions between speakers: In a dolphin-style competition you might want all team members to have the opportunity to pitch, while in a shark-style competition having one key speaker could be more effective. Finally, though preparation is important, it’s essential to avoid sounding robotic in a pitch. Teams should spend their time coming to a deep understanding of what they want to get across, rather than rehearsing and repeating the pitch verbatim.
Be Transparent when Selecting the Winners
Make the judging process transparent by designing a judge’s rubric and scoring system, and sharing it with participants before the event. Even if you emphasize positivity and learning over competition, participants will likely have strong emotions tied to winning, especially when prizes are offered. And while the event offers many benefits to entrepreneurs outside of the ultimate prizes for winners, it can be difficult for those not selected for an award to accept “losing.” In livelihoods programs in low- and middle-income countries, some participants might believe that the cash prize from the competition is one of their only opportunities to generate funding to launch or build their business, so not being selected can be devastating. Not only does having access to the judging rubric help participants prepare, but it also legitimizes how winners are selected, and can assuage concerns about favoritism and corruption. Perceptions of the competition being unfair can be detrimental to the reputation of the program, especially in environments in which gaining trust is difficult. Ideally, all pitch participants should receive copies of completed rubrics with judges’ comments and feedback, as well as their overall score and ranking.
While a pitch competition has clear benefits to participants, its success will be determined by a number of factors — including design, level of participant preparation, and execution. For those designing and delivering pitch competitions globally, it is crucial to adapt your approach to the local context and also continually improve throughout the process.
A pitch competition should seek to enrich an entrepreneur’s experience in the program by providing a practical opportunity to build their business — whether that takes the form of prize money, a handshake with their future mentor, or speaking in front of an audience for the first time. These tips can help you design pitch competitions that enrich all participants, providing a powerful boost to the lives and businesses of entrepreneurs in LMICs.
The Livelihood Innovations through Food Entrepreneurship (LIFE) project is made possible by the United States Government. The LIFE project is a collaborative effort of its consortium members, which include the Center for International Private Enterprise, IDEMA (International Development Management), Union Kitchen, The Stimson Center, and The William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan.
The M²GATE program was supported by the Stevens Initiative, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and administered by the Aspen Institute. The Stevens Initiative is also supported by the Bezos Family Foundation and the governments of Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.
Main photo: Graduates of the first cohort of LIFE members in Mersin, with their certificates for completing the entrepreneurship incubation program.
Amy Gillett is the vice president of Education at the William Davidson Institute. Kristin Babbie Kelterborn is a senior project manager at the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan. They lead the Entrepreneurship Development Center at WDI.