Winding up for Success | Lessons from 500+ Pitches

Kevin Sandlin is a name any newcomer to the Atlanta startup community will quickly hear. He is an entrepreneur champion, living on the pulse of the Atlanta’s expanding tech startup ecosystem. Sandlin is the founder of the Atlanta Tech Blogs and a seven-time startup veteran, including one IPO and two acquisitions. He is also the founder of Pitch Practice at the Atlanta Tech Village.

Through Pitch Practice, Sandlin has helped entrepreneurs at all stages of their startup journeys transform through process, coaching and mentorship. Leading and documenting the 500-plus pitches presented over two and a half years at Friday afternoon meetups, Sandlin has become an expert of the pitch. Here he shares 21 lessons that he has learned from those brave enough to step up to the mound.

21 Tips from Pitch Practice

People new to Pitch Practice ask me often, “Why did you start this?” I started Pitch Practice because the folks at ATDC offered Pitch Gauntlet once a month at 7 a.m. on Tuesdays. I needed more and, apparently, so did 500 or so other people. I started it to fill a need in the community, and I’ve learned far more from every session than anyone else. I learn something new every time. Here are some of the main takeaways:

  1. Having a construct in which to create your pitch is crucial. Just like when you start a business, you need some boundaries, a business model, something upon which to base how you go about everything on a day to day basis, you need a place to start and some boundaries around your pitch.
  2. You really don’t need 30 seconds to get your message across. We use 30 seconds as an arbitrary tool for building discipline into your words about what it is that you do. TenRocket is a great example of a 13-second pitch.tenrocket-pitch
  3. Telling a story makes everything better. There’s a reason that fiction is so popular. People love a story, and when you’re pitching a business, your story is about how the business came to be. The story of the problem you are determined to solve will hit home with your intended audience.
  4. The problem is the problem. Define the problem first, best, and most of all. If I had to identify the biggest issue that rears its head nearly every week, it’s defining the problem. The word “problem” is circled in red above for a reason. It’s your “why”, according to Simon Sinek, and you really, really, really need to be able to concisely state what the problem is. But the problem with that is that many – ok, most – people confuse what you do with the problem you solve. These two things are not the same. The problem is the pain in a market space. Your solution is what you do to solve it. You must know the difference.
  5. Adjust to your audience, particularly with your ask. When you pitch, you are almost always asking for something, even if it’s “Vote for us to win!”, so you should (a) know your audience before you pitch and (b) get very comfortable with asking for whatever it is you want from your audience. It might be referrals, advice, feedback, a vote, or if you’re pitching investors, money! Ask for something you can control, like “Can I please get your business card so I can call you to arrange a meeting?” or “Please visit and join our crowdfunding campaign.”
  6. You don’t have time for more than 5-6 slides in a 3-minute pitch. On average, most people talk for 2-3 minutes for each slide in a presentation. Do the math. More slides do not make a better pitch.
  7. Video is prohibited, unless it’s really freaking good. I’ve only seen video in a pitch work one time, and it happens to be very recent. Gimme Vending used video like. a. boss. at the TAG Business Launch Competition, and they won. But their video was short, dramatic, and added to the pitch, rather than taking part of the pitch and putting it into the video. Be careful with video.
  8. Your slides are the cake. You are the icing. This is a fun way of saying that your slides should have no text at all ever unless it’s absolutely necessary. We have the interwebz, so you can find a picture to illustrate anything, or you can use Fiverr and pay someone a few bucks to create an image that illustrates your point. Then you tell the story behind that picture, much like Instagram: image first, then tell the story.
  9. Practice makes perfect. Get so comfortable with your pitch that you don’t sound canned. That takes time. Until you say it out loud, in front of actual people, you never know how it’s going to sound. 
  10. If your idea sucks, your pitch doesn’t matter. Better to hear “that sucks” after lunch on a Friday at the Village than after spending thousands of dollars and sitting across from an investor.pitch_practice_info
  11. The total addressable market (TAM) belongs in every pitch. Use actual numbers that you’ve discovered in your research, rather than “I firmly believe” or “I feel that”. If you don’t know the size of your addressable market, learn it first, before you pitch. 
  12. Your body language really matters. Until you stand up and do it in front of real people, you don’t know that your hands never came out of your pockets or that you sway back and forth or never look at anyone. That’s what we’ll tell you.
  13. There are customers and users. Customers pay you money, but users don’t. Facebook has 1.4 billion users, but we don’t pay them money. Make sure you can identify who your customer segment is, and that you know everything about them.
  14. When you say you’re raising money, say an exact amount and say it with gusto: “We’re raising $500k.” You are never “looking to raise” money. You are “raising” X dollars to accomplish Y and Z.
  15. If there’s a simple analogy you can use (e.g., “ for networking”), use it. Sometimes that’s what makes it clear or real for your audience. However, be careful using “Uber for __________.” That can backfire on you in a hurry.
  16. Anyone can steal your idea. Nobody can steal your execution. Therefore, share your idea. This one doesn’t come up as often as it used to, but we still get it every now and then. Some people come to pitch practice, eager to get feedback but refuse to share their idea because they are afraid someone will steal it. Look, someone already has stolen it! They just call it something different and you don’t know about it yet. If you have to get an NDA from everyone you talk to, you’re doomed from the start.
  17. If you’re pitching in a contest, you would be wise to pay the $100 to get a pro to design your slides with as few words as possible and beautiful visuals. There’s just no substitute for a great design.
  18. Traction rules, especially in Atlanta. If you have 10 or 20 or 100 entities using (or paying for) your service, you must share that fact. More than anything else, what I’ve seen in Atlanta is that traction wins.
  19. Atlanta is more conservative than Silicon Valley, so you’ll often hear, “Come back when you have X customers using the product” even if they are not paying customers. If you have 10 customers, you’re that much closer to product market fit.
  20. You have competition. Don’t ever say “we have no competition” anywhere in your pitch, or anywhere else for that matter. If you really don’t have any competition, you have discovered something far bigger than you know, or there is no market for other competitors to enter.

It’s been a fun ride these past few years. I had no idea where Pitch Practice would lead, but I’m grateful for all the people who have ever attended, pitched, participated, helped, and encouraged everyone else.

So, one last lesson (#21): start something that benefits someone else. You’ll be glad you did.

Kevin Sandlin is an upstanding member of the Atlanta entrepreneur community. Check out his websites, Atlanta Tech Blogs, Kevin Sandlin, and Pitch Practice.