Pitchfest! Where Great Ideas Go to Die

Creative Startups Lead Faculty Lena Ramfelt weighs in on the pitfalls of pitch competitions

Pitch competitions are like theater plays. There is a stage, there are actors who are given more or less prescriptive roles to act based upon, there is an audience, there are different acts, and some will get special acknowledgments in the end. The pitch-play goes something like this: entrepreneurs are called upon the scene to make monologues with a backdrop of slides they have crafted. The monologue goes on anywhere between 3 to 10-minutes (don’t overstep the boundaries of that time!). The monologues are then followed by a Q&A session with so-called judges who quite often have been given a sheet with criteria they are to use to assess what was said during the act. The audience interjects with applause after each performance— if allowed to. The whole play ends with some of the entrepreneurs being recognized as the most promising ones in different categories and sometimes also being rewarded with a sum of hard cash and/or soft money as in advice, mentorship, or a chair and desk at a coworking space for like-minded entrepreneurs. Some may say this is a perfect event for entrepreneurs to share and get noticed for the incredible work they are doing.

I do have to admit I am guilty of having done it too, both as the Lead Faculty for Creative Startups and in my work with other programs. I have prescripted the layout of plays, supported individual entrepreneurs performances and their backdrops, and felt the power of being a judge! In these experiences, I have not been particularly convinced that pitch competitions are of any sustainable value to anyone. Of course, there might be small crumbles of lessons for entrepreneurs in the audience aspiring to perform in another competition. For the audience, it is a thrill to see a friend or a family member perform, and for the entrepreneurs, it is probably a “rite of passage” where the amount of competitions together with how tough they were and how many rewards came their way give some sort of validation. To be brutally honest (at least with myself), I am never comfortable with doing it! Here are my main reasons:

Too often (and totally unnecessarily) too many participating entrepreneurs get an F(ail) in these competitions

… when in reality their business ideas are just not ready for prime time yet! It is a disfavour done to many entrepreneurs that so much is at stake during such a performative event. It is built on the view that all entrepreneurial ventures develop at pretty much the same pace, but that is definitely not the case. Some move faster because they have more knowledge of the particular business they are building and/or because they have been part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem for some time so they know the lingo, the people, the expectations in a pitchplay. But that doesn't say anything about their company's potential to sustain and make an impact going forward. Give the entrepreneurs the time they need, and many more of them can flourish. Getting an “F” (i.e., not being chosen as the winner in any of the categories) is unnecessarily cruel and doesn’t contribute any real value. The successes of entrepreneurial endeavors are not decided in competitions but rather by the amount of customers prepared to pay (hopefully over and over again) for something offered by the entrepreneur.

The entrepreneur is not an actor, and the pitch deck is not a work of art

…and should never become one either because content comes first! A mumbling, stumbling performance featuring a black and white slide with a few bulleted words and numbers might be a gem hidden in plain sight, and we might very well be seduced by a “stand-up comedian” performance with a stylishly designed deck while the content for the business opportunity is lacking. My view is that too often success in a pitch competition comes down to the performance, not the content or ideas.

We should, of course, have a fest where entrepreneurial accomplishments are celebrated, not the theatrical performances. A few simple suggestions for how that can be accomplished:

Many more can “win” if the event isn’t a competition

Let me borrow a term from Professor Carol Dweck (Stanford University): growth mindset, i.e the only thing that an “F” implies is that— in this case— the entrepreneur is not ready yet  (because entrepreneurs never are) and that they should always be keen to grow the understanding of their business. These events should center around entrepreneurs meeting knowledgeable, curious, compassionate people that are seriously interested in listening, giving the entrepreneurs more knowledge and furthering the entrepreneurs´ understanding of their opportunities. Entrepreneurs would leave such an event with more confidence in knowing where to go or what to do next— or they might very well realize that they don´t have a sustainable business opportunity. The most important thing is that they understand the pros/cons, weaknesses/strengths themselves

Creative Startups did organize such an event in Kuwait. The entrepreneurs gave a 2-minute pitch, and a large set of investors and seasoned founders then signed up for 45-minute sessions with the startups that they were interested in. Those who signed up had to partly “sell themselves” by including what they wanted to discuss, what questions they had, and why “they” should matter. The entrepreneur then had the choice of saying yes or no to the meeting. I love this because the entrepreneurs were in control and could decide on the next steps to take based on the views of several different experts who gave advice based on their different skill-sets and experiences.

Pitchfests should not be stand-alone events but rather part of a long-term effort

Supporting the growth of entrepreneurs, their mindset, and their businesses takes time, patience, and knowledge— not only knowledge of entrepreneurship but also knowledge about how such knowledge is 1.) “transferred” from the multitude of theory, experiences, practice to individual entrepreneurs and 2.) how the knowledge is then “internalized” by the entrepreneurs and applied to their opportunities. Many are the voices who have stated with a prescriptive tone that only entrepreneurs can transfer such knowledge. Many are the activities where the ambition is to bring in an entrepreneur who tells her story (more or less accurately. It is easy to forget some twists and turns as the years go by, and the legend needs to stay intact).

In our programs, Creative Startups make the conscious choice of offering blended learning where (entrepreneurial) education co-exists with opportunities to engage with and learn from other entrepreneurs. I would be bold enough to suggest that that is one of the contributing factors to the success Creative Startups has had and will continue to have in helping entrepreneurs grow their businesses, employ more people, raise capital (just to mention a few of the metrics used to account for entrepreneurial successes).

Creative Startups is very interested in continuing the conversation about supporting entrepreneurs in furthering their business. Please share any thoughts, questions, comments you may have based on this article with us at info@creativestartups.org (or leave a comment on our Substack)!

A book that should be on the reading list for anyone engaged in educating themselves or others is Mindset. Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential by Dr. Carol S. Dweck. It has made a huge impression on me and how I think about the work I do with entrepreneurs.

Join us Monday, June 14th at 10am MDT for the next livestream in our new series, Making the Case! Creative Startups CEO Alice Loy and Lead Faculty Lena Ramfelt make the case for this new type of pitchfest— one based in dialogue and mentorship instead of competition— as well as debate different perspectives on pitch competitions. Let us know you’re coming here!

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