10 Things I Learned Listening to College Students Pitch Their Startups

A duo gives a presentation to a crowd
A duo gives a presentation to a crowd

This week I took a few hours out of my day to listen to some friends and acquaintances pitch startups. They’re participating in a challenge to get some funding for their companies, and they wanted some feedback. I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to listening to these pitches, because I was busy myself. Little did I know I would spend a few hours listening, and critiquing them meticulously by the end of it all. I fell in love with listening and questioning it all. I can’t lie, I felt a bit like Mark Cuban on Shark Tank, without the money. Listening to these pitches was pretty eye-opening in that I learned some things I would otherwise have never noticed.

  1. Ideas Are A Dime A Dozen

Your ideas aren’t worth much. Everyone has ideas. In fact, I think everyone has plenty of ideas daily that they could build upon to create a successful business. 99% of the time, it isn’t your ideas that matter. I say this, because every idea sounds like shit if you really get down to it. Ideas are like throwing shit at all — which ones stick? Go with an idea you believe in, there are surely others who believe in it too, but don’t expect it to be everyones cup of tea.

2. Execution is What Matters

So, if ideas don’t matter, than what does? Execution. If ideas are 10% of your business, execution is the other 90%. You can make anything successful if you have great execution. On the flipside, you could have the greatest idea of all time, and if the execution is shit it will have been for nothing. Your execution decides who sees your product, what your product is, and so much more. When you’re starting a business, get your idea down, then focus on execution.

3. Market Research Needs to Be Done

Ever sat through a pitch for the exact same company as one that already exists? It’s a bit uncomfortable. I felt second hand embarrassment as one of the others there pointed out that this business already existed. It was the exact same. If you don’t do market research, expect to fail. Here’s what could have happened with some market research: he discovers what he’s trying to do exists already and goes onto another idea, or (I prefer this option) finds the weak points of that company and creates a competitive advantage.

4. Design Can Make Or Break Your Presentation

I was totally thrown off by a presentation that used 3 different themes and included some pictures that looked like they were taken in the 60’s. If your presentation doesn’t look good it shows that you don’t really care, and that isn’t the kind of vibe you want to give off while asking people for money.

5. Everyone Wants to Change The World

Everyone wants to create the next Apple, or Amazon, but those sorts of companies only come around once in a while. No one wants to simply make things easier for a consumer, or lower costs for a business. The fact is, this is what most companies are. Your company may not solve climate change, but that’s ok. Stop trying to revolutionize, or disrupt. Focus on a small change that positively impacts a group of people.

6. If You’re Not Willing To Change, You’re Doing it Wrong

I watched as one hopeful entrepreneur took every critique personally, and stated that he was right, and everyone else was wrong. He basically said, fuck you I’m not changing anything. If you’re unable to acknowledge your weak points, and improve them, then you’re not going to make it.

7. Numbers are Necessary

If you’re walking into a pitch without any numbers, you’re going to fail. You don’t have to meticulously cover all of your numbers, but please have them. We want to know your costs (estimates, and how you arrived at those numbers), revenue, etc. We don’t want arbitrary numbers that mean nothing. For instance one presenter explained they would be charging their clients 3%. They didn’t have an answer for how much money that would come to, or how that would cover all their costs. They said they arrived at that number because it is what Uber charges. If you don’t have numbers that you researched and are willing to back up, then turn around.

8. New Ideas Are Rare, and Usually Unnecessary

Something completely new comes around once every hundred years. Most ideas are simply improvements on existing products and services, and that is fine. You don’t have to create something totally new, and if you’re trying to you might discover that you’ve been chasing an unachievable dream. Do we really need or want a new form of transportation? Or do we want a car that doesn’t take so much work, and that is better for the environment?

I noticed a lot by watching people talk about these companies they hoped to start. I realized that a lot of people were ill prepared, but I realized something else too. There is such a thing as being over prepared. What I mean by that is this: it is certainly possible to research for too long and not spend enough time actually doing. I think a little bit of research will tell you what you need to do, and from there you need to actually get started. I don’t mean by this that you can skip market research, etc. but you certainly don’t need to spend a year figuring out how to design the perfect pitch deck, or how to be a good leader. Take the time to figure out what you need to do, then do it. The amount of projects that die, because they simply never actually get started is, I’m sure, absurd.

“A Genius” — Mark Cuban, not about me but like he’s definitely said that before (probably).

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