Perfecting the Fund-Raising Pitch

Stephen McCorkle took the stage and adjusted his microphone. "We turn poop into energy!" he declared to an audience of 300.

He went on to tout Agricultural Waste Solutions, a startup that converts farm animal waste into diesel fuel, electricity, and natural gas, in a 90-second pitch to the Tech Coast Angels, a private investor group based in Orange County, Calif.

It was a long way from the presentations he used to do for employees and management as a corporate executive. "I never would have used that opening line in a corporate boardroom," he admitted, explaining that he typically adopted a low-key "reporting" style in previous presentations.

It was passion, enthusiasm, and self-promotion he needed to project in order to get to the finals of the ninth annual "Fast Pitch Competition" in Irvine the night of June 9. But none of that came easily. "I would traditionally give a monotype presentation," he says, "so it's tough because this is a big change in style for me."

Competition Can Improve Your Game

Learning to project the proper level of excitement and expertise, then translate it into a quick but compelling committed to memory, is one of the biggest challenges many entrepreneurs face. Unless they pursue private funding, many never perfect their pitch—much to the detriment of their sales, networking, and publicity efforts.

But competing in an angel or venture capital competition forces entrepreneurs to hone the words and attitude needed to sell themselves and their companies. Even watching a competition can provide a valuable lesson about what works and what doesn't. (Videos of prior competitions can be viewed at the Tech Coast Angels Web site, under "Archives.")

The visibly nervous entrepreneurs, and the ones who couldn't satisfactorily answer investors' questions after they completed their pitches, got the lowest scores in the recent competition. Those who came across with the most confidence and showed they had a grasp on both their competitive advantages and their company's toughest challenges scored highest.

Deanna Bebb, one of two women in the field of a dozen finalists featured at the competition, hadn't pitched to investors since she participated in business school exercises. "It seems easy until the first time you do it and they rip you to shreds," she says. While her presentation style fell on the low-key end of the scale, her company, P&E Automation, won the evening's prize for best investment opportunity. It sells energy efficiency and smart-grid technology to government agencies and commercial utility customers.

"Our first attempt to write the 90-second pitch was too much hype. We went for clichés and rhymes and didn't have enough content. They sort of had to put a needle in our balloon and tell us to start from the beginning and try it again," she recalls.

Coaching, Rewriting, Refining

The annual competition starts in April, when entrepreneurs are invited to apply at the group's Web site. This year, 120 entrepreneurs submitted applications and 75 showed up at the initial tryouts, says Richard Sudek, the group's vice-chair. After three extensive coaching sessions, he and other members narrowed the field to 30, who received two more prep sessions before the last group of 12 was chosen. The dozen finalists went through training with a professional speech coach before delivering their pitches this week.

All the coaching, rewriting, and refining helped Ash Kumra with his pitch for startup video distribution firm Desi You, which focuses on Indian culture. "I didn't win any prizes tonight, but the feedback on my pitch was far more effective than anything else I've done," Kumra says.

"The feedback on my first try was horrible. They were practically throwing stuff at me," he says. As a result of the advice he got, he toned down his energy level. While a high-intensity delivery suits him, he says, more conservative investors reacted negatively.

"I was all about this grand vision to revolutionize the world, but I lacked any WIFM—what's in it for me—for the investors," he says.

The potential payoff for investors in Michael Berlin's company, EyeLight, must have been obvious. The ophthalmologist and laser surgeon won both the judges' top prize of the evening and the audience favorite award. His company sells a laser-based treatment for glaucoma that he compares to the popular Lasik eye surgery for correcting near-sightedness and astigmatism.

"You have to love your project and talk about it like you would talk about your children," Berlin says. "You talk about what it is, what makes it different, why it's unique, why it's important. If you love it, the energy and excitement you naturally feel carries through to your audience."

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