Last week I was invited by the organizers of the ideas.inc Business Challenge to sit as one of the judges on the panel for its semi-final round. It was an incredible – if extremely tiring – experience, but we managed to see through over a dozen pitches in a day.
What interesting about that experience was not seeing how startup founders reacted when under pressure. Sure, it’s certainly not easy trying to remember all the lines you’ve prepared for this pitch, especially when bombarded incessantly by difficult – and sometimes hurtful – questions. What struck me most were all the thoughts that raced through my mind as I tried to not make myself look or sound stupid.
People more qualified than I have shared how founders should prepare for such public pitches. Instead what I’d like to offer here is some insight into what can go on in the minds of judges sitting in such business competition panels, so founders know that us judges have our own unique challenges.
1. It’s not personal.
I vividly recall, during the day of pitching, how the face of one co-founder turned purple with barely suppressed anger when I asked a seemingly innocuous question. His color progressively got worse as my line of questioning continued, and his partner had to stop him from arguing with me.
But do remember that even as we’re ripping your idea to shreds, it’s the idea we’re attacking, not you. In fact, we’re trying very hard to understand your thought processes and thinking about how to help you develop your idea. We have better things to do then sit there and thinking of ways to insult your intelligence.
2. Judges aren’t always right.
We know we’re not. We all come from varied backgrounds and have different experiences, so forgive us if we don’t quite totally understand you or your product. All we can do is dredge up what knowledge we have of your industry – it can be a very precious little – and apply our own experience accordingly. So we can’t be right all the time.
But neither is it your place to tell us off if we’re wrong. It certainly does not give you the right to call a judge “myopic”, as one founder did during a recent startup pitching event (who promptly got chastised by another judge, and rightly so). Instead, let others call our mistakes out (see below).
3. Realize that we’re just as nervous as you are.
You may be the one pitching to us, but know that judges also get the jitters. I’m not kidding when I say that, in many cases, we’re laying our reputations on the line when we open our mouths and say things that may end up making us look stupid in front of the audience or with our fellow judges. So yes, we can be just that little bit scared too.
This is worse in the days of social media – think Twitter walls at startup events – when people (all around the world) are more than happy to comment on, speculate about, misunderstand, misquote, or pull out of context what we say in public.
4. Judging can be a thankless task.
Not everyone on a judging panel is an investor looking out for the next idea to put their money in (or another startup to take advantage of), in the hopes of hitting the VC jackpot further down the road.
Think of it this way: some of us do take time out of our busy schedules (which can be better invested in our own businesses) to go through hours of painful pitching with little to no return. We’re not paid to do this, you know (that thank-you mug or T-shirt doesn’t quite count). Some of us do actually look at it as a way to give back to the community at large.
So give us a break, yes? Put yourself in our shoes, and you may come out with a pitch that goes down better with the judges.
(Image credit: StrategicDC)