The mistake 90% of Harvard MBAs make during their startup pitch

I pledge to get to the point.
I pledge to get to the point.
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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Twice a month, I go to Harvard Business School to listen to eight different startup pitches from students. When it comes down to whether I want to offer my connections or assistance to these entrepreneurs, I make snap decisions based on my judgment of their capabilities. The ones who come in raw and unpolished are at a disadvantage, even if they have a world-class idea. But one universal truth is that 90% of the students who pitch me “bury the lede”—it takes me a full five or 10 minutes to figure out “the point.” Alas, those muddled stories often land on crowdfunding campaign videos and company home pages. There is no substitute for being face-to-face to hone your story until it’s the shortest possible length with maximum clarity.  Your goal is to invite the next level of questions by being clear, inspirational, and credible.

If you’ve never seen the TV show Shark Tank, here’s how a product pitch works: Inventors submit ideas in a video entry explaining why their product idea is should become a household name. After a tough culling process, a few finalists are chosen. If you make it through to the final round, you find yourself in front of a panel of judges with just a few moments to tell them why they should believe in you. It’s undeniably intimidating—but you’ll rarely enjoy a better chance to have so many talented and experienced entrepreneurs take an interest in your product and offer you their pragmatic, professional feedback.

Some product pitches require that your product be ready to ship. Others welcome offerings that are still in the concept stage. Even then, however, I recommend having a working prototype (take advantage of 3D printing and other services) ready, rather than just a sketch. If the judges can hold your invention in their hands, they’ll have a better idea of how it works and how it may succeed—and where it may need further refinement in order to succeed—in the real world.

Don’t believe that you’ve had experience pitching just because your friends and family have listened to your spiel a few times. Pitching to people who are already in your corner is not real life. They already know your product story and they care too much about you. A real pitch in front of judges simulates that rough and tumble reality. Here’s why it’s one of the most important exercises an inventor can take part in:

You’ll hone your pitch: Product pitches offer you the chance to distill your idea down to its essence. You will get advice on how to cut through the unnecessary details and deliver your product’s story in just a few minutes. In other words, if you don’t yet have your elevator pitch down, a product pitch will help you get there. It’s an exercise in discipline that will pay dividends. Most importantly, you’ll learn how to make that magic connection with a skeptical, judgmental audience—a stand-in for the consumer.

You’ll receive high-level, high-quality feedback:  Marketing. Logistics. Manufacturing. Retail. Supply chain. You will never be in front of so many people with so many areas of expertise in one place again. You would normally have to fly around the country and attend a dozen meetings to have access to the professionals who will be assembled in front of you, listening to you and holding your prototype in their hands. Beyond being able to ask the tough questions you’ll need answers to in order to sell your products widely, they’re the best set of fresh eyes you’ll ever have.

You’ll earn instant credibility: When Home Depot or Staples puts its name on an event as a sponsor or partner, it’s vouching for the quality and innovativeness of the contestants. Simply by appearing under the banner of companies that have become household names will elevate your status as an inventor. To potential investors, your presence at top-level events signals that you’ve stood out from the pack and created something that’s worth taking a closer look at.

You’ll get energized all over again: When you quit your job to work on your amazing idea, you were filled with excitement; 18 months later, you may well find your enthusiasm flagging. There’s a reason why most rock stars want to be on stage rather than in the studio. The roar of the crowd powers them and they feed off the excitement. Putting yourself in front of an audience and a panel of judges will help you remember why you took the big risk in the first place.

We’re hosting our 2nd Annual Product Pitch in Boston on March 20, and my best advice for the participants is to hone their pitch to meet the time limits and get the most important points across very simply. Think of delivering the “preschool board book” version of your story, with just big pictures, models, and words that provoke understanding and interest. If you engage people by being clear, simple, and you can inspire confidence in your ability to seize a big market, a lively dialogue with the panel is sure to follow.