Powerful Communication Skills This Startup Founder Learnt From Competing In A Global Pitching Competition

Updated on 21 August 2017

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Powerful Communication Skills This Startup Founder Learnt From Competing In A Global Pitching Competition


“There’s something about the Chivas The Venture (social entrepreneurship competition) that’s even more nerve-wracking than the average pitch,” says entrepreneur James Steere who recently came third at the global finals of the annual pitching competition, held in Los Angeles in July this year.

On stage Steere, together with other finalists from across the world, had to sell his business idea as a possible solution to a complex global challenge, to a panel of judges which included the likes of Halle Berry and Don Cheadle.

Steere pitched his startup I-Drop Water, an environmentally friendly water purification system that helps to purify municipal water at the point of use, which he launched together with co-founder Kate Thiers in 2015. He received $ 50,000 for coming in third place alongside Bioestibas, Colombian producers of ecological stowage and Intendu, an Israeli startup focusing on cognitive skills training for people with brain impairments.

Despite successfully taking on one of the most intimidating stages for any entrepreneur, Steere says he knows all too well the doubts, anxiety and fear that come with having the responsibility to effectively communicate your business idea to others.

 The nerves are part of it. I quite enjoy presenting our business to people, I enjoy tough questions, I enjoy engaging with people about what we do”

​”There is so much on the line. The nature of entrepreneurship is [that it’s] a very personal thing, it’s not like working for a company and your job is to go present someone else’s business. For entrepreneurs, a lot of it holds something that you personally have started. It’s something you quite often invested your life into and the stakes are very high,” he says.

Steere shares the 5 communication challenges all entrepreneurs are likely to face, and his strategies for overcoming each one.  

The nerves are part of it. I quite enjoy presenting our business to people, I enjoy tough questions, I enjoy engaging with people about what we do, our business and our idea, but on big stages I still get nervous and the Chivas one is an example of that. It was designed to be very intense, you know you have very strict time limits and you have to be very slick. It’s a very competitive environment.

How I Embraced This
I think being nervous helps [with pitching].

I was nervous because [Chivas] is a situation that is created in a way to encourage that kind of pressure, and I think that’s often a good thing because what it did for me is it made me prepare vigorously.

The nature of innovation and innovative approaches is you have to explain something people may not be familiar with. You’ll walk in and people have this preconceived idea of what you are and what you do.

It’s difficult enough to say, “This is a very familiar product, but we have a slight variation which is better than the others”. That’s one challenge. The much bigger challenge is saying, “I’m going to describe something you’ve never heard of before”, and then still explain its business merits.

See also: Here Are the 3 Startups Representing Africa at the Chivas Venture Global Competition

How I Embraced This
Being able to succinctly and quickly summarise the key elements of your business takes discipline that helps in all sorts of environments, not just pitches. From media interviews to networking events or chance meetings with important stakeholders, it’s a very important part of using limited time to make sure your audience gets what it is that you’re doing differently.

If you’re an expert in a niche technology or have a new product, people may lose interest – even though you’re fascinated by it. 

Often the details of how a new idea is going to do something is less impactful than what it’s going to achieve, so there’s value in preparing thoroughly and testing how you describe the business to trusted friends and family.

I think the whole notion of pitching has two sides to it. There is a lot of pressure, and on the other hand it’s a fantastic opportunity. The nature of entrepreneurship is you’re going to be rejected, who knows how many times, by investors, customers or competition judges you present to. In the beginning it really hurts, but after a while you get used to it.

How I Embraced This
What I now find is that there are benefits to the process. If you present the business well, the questions you get asked and the engagement with the smart people who are in front of you, judges or investors, is an opportunity in itself.

Even if they don’t invest, they know people who may be interested if you do a good enough job, they also ask really good questions, some of which you may not have thought of before. The nature of the pitch itself has inherent value if you are open to it, there’s more to it than just a yes or no.

“Once you’ve handled the pressure of a 30 second pitch, a 10 minute presentation feels easy”

Entrepreneurs and founders are often very passionate about they do, and as a result we could talk for hours and hours about our businesses, getting info across in a short time period is tough.

How I Embraced This
There’s real benefit in distilling how you describe your business down to its most vital elements and a time restriction forces you to do this. In the first round of the South African Chivas Venture in January this year, we replicated a 30 second elevator pitch to Phuti Mahanyele (CEO of asset management company, Sigma Capital) – inside an elevator!

Thirty seconds in an elevator is a seemingly impossible time to explain a brand new business concept, but it forced each of the 10 participants to pick the key features of our business that matter the most.

Having a well-practiced pitch is also helpful as it can serve as an outline for longer pitches or presentations. Once you’ve handled the pressure of a 30 second pitch, a 10 minute presentation feels easy.

My opinion is that if you’re standing in front of a crowd and judges or investors, and you doubt the value of what you are presenting to them, then you should probably not be standing up there.

How I Embraced This
The complexity of running a startup in an uncertain environment is the most exciting part. That’s the part that makes being an entrepreneur so invigorating. Every single day you wake up and the plans have changed, something has happened and you now have to figure out what and adapt, fix and come up with creative solutions all the time and it’s exhausting, but I think that’s also what’s so fascinating about it.

Entrepreneurship is tough. It’s not for everyone, in my opinion, and there’s people that often see the confident side of standing in front of a crowd and talking about what they are, what they do and how rewarding it is, but what people do not see is just how hard it is every single day. 

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