The purpose of this blog post is to sum up my experience at the Tech23 event, which I have been planning to write for the past few weeks. It is a long read, but it describes what I did to prepare, what is involved in pitching, and everything I went through. It is a perspective that most people won’t see, so I wanted to share that experience with my readers.
As we were applying for the Sydstart event, I heard that the Tech23 applications were closing in mid-August. By way of background, Tech23 is an event for up and coming Australian tech companies. It is probably the best startup technology conference in Australia. So it was definitely on my radar, but I wasn’t sure that we would get in. As you always hear about other companies that get into these kind of events.
Approximately 150 companies applied and Native Tongue was one of the 23 companies to be chosen. Our team was pretty stoked to be amongst this group. It was a great accomplishment to be chosen, but I knew that the hard work was just beginning.
Leading up to the day, we had one briefing session and two pitch rehearsals. At the briefing session, we were required to synthesise our business into 6 words. I chose to go with “We make language learning fun, fast and effective“. This is our normal tagline and most people in the room understood it, even though it was longer than the suggested 6 words.
Some of the other startups struggled as its really difficult to summarise what you do into one line. Especially one that is punchy, concise, and clear to a wide audience. I have to admit that the whole exercise did seem kind of lame, and it looked like some people zoned out or weren’t interested. But I didn’t care. I was here for the experience and was amongst some of the best up and coming startups in Australia, and I soaked it all in.
In our next rehearsal, we had coaches help us out with our presentations. I jokingly referred to them in my head as the “pitch doctors”. I was slightly skeptical about the coaching sessions before they began given the previous “tagline” exercise. But I have to admit that it helped us to refine our pitch. I listened to each of our allocated advisers intently and adjusted my presentation slightly. I think its very important to accept feedback and to act on it. It doesn’t mean you have to always accept feedback, but you do need to listen to it and take what you need.
I can honestly say that each of the coaches improved our presentation and I also listened to the feedback that the coaches publicly gave to other people. Niki from Startmate mentioned that we needed to say our tagline 3 times – at the start, in the middle and at the end. So I quickly added that into my powerpoint slides just before I got up and practiced. The pitch went well, and I got really positive feedback. I had a few followup questions at the end about voice recognition, our business model, etc… which I also added into the slides as well.
More practice and finalising slides
I had about a week to finalise my slides and send them in. I spent a lot of time that week practising and refining my pitch, particularly with the Pocketbook team since I was working out of Silicon Creek (Wolli Creek).
I pitched in front of some overseas visitors staying at our house, my brother, my parents and to a friend at church, in front of the mirror and in my room. I probably pitched it about 50 times that week. My dad also helped me out by timing me and ringing a bell at 4 minutes and then ringing continuously at 5 minutes to signal the end, to replicate the real life experience on the day.
Some of the best advice I got was my friend Bosco Tan (Pocketbook), who told me to personalise the story about why we started Native Tongue and my frustration with language learning. He’d seen me pitch that at Sydstart and wanted to hear that side of it. The other advice he gave me was that even if the slides didn’t work on the day and all else failed, the one thing I could control was my energy and emotions and knowing our story. I knew our story back to front, and that always gave me confidence.
Good artists copy, great artists steal
I studied a lot of other pitches and presentation styles leading up to the event. I’d been to many startup demo days in the past – Startmate, AngelCube, Founders Institute, and PushStart. I also watched all the Tech23 pitches on YouTube from the previous two years. I also took presentation ideas from BugHerd and Happy Inspector which I found online.
I further watched videos for tips on presentation and public speaking. I discovered techniques like verbal punctuation, where you breakdown the content so people can follow it and if they zone out, they can zone back in easily. For example, you say “Our 3 key advantages. #1, we are a game experience. #2 – a multi sensory experience, etc…”. If you line them up, its easier for people to follow. See the video below (at 1 min 40):
Finding your presentation style
Some people said my practice pitches were a little flat, other people like my casual style. When I watched myself on tape, I could see that I was a bit monotone and tried to convey my passion and enthusiasm more.
I spoke to people that I trusted and they all had differing but useful advice for me. My friend Humphrey suggested that I shouldn’t change my style that much, but find someone that had a similar style to me and see how they did it. So again, I went to Youtube and watched the Steve Jobs speech at Stanford for inspiration. Jamie Andrei also suggested that it was like a song, some bits got faster and more excited and other parts you need to slow down.
I think you just have to find your own style and see what works for you. You want to sound authentic, and upbeat as well.
On the day
The day started with me waking up at 3am as I was excited about the day. Did some work for an hour or two and then went back to sleep. I had to go to the city early because there was a breakfast for the event at 7.30am.
The event kicked off at 9am and l’ll have to admit that I was nervous beforehand sitting amongst the audience. I have previously pitched at Sydstart, Innovation Bay, Aurelius Digital, Startup Weekend, but it seemed to be a step up in terms of expectations.
I got to sit on the education panel in front of everyone, and saw that there were 400 people staring back at me. I was tempted to take a picture on my iPhone to post it later on twitter, but decided that didn’t look very professional!
The pitch started off well and I made sure that I was looking around the room to ensure that I could connect with everyone. When the 4 minute bell rang, I was halfway through a sentence. I lost my train of thought for a split second and just started on the next point. Even though I had practiced many times for it, nothing replicates the real life experience of speaking in front of a large audience.
As I’ve pitched it so many times, I knew exactly where I needed to be when I heard the 4 min bell and I had sufficient time. When I got to the team section, I also accidentally repeated one sentence twice. I decided to slow down on the last slide and I made sure they heard the tagline correctly, because it was the last thing I was going to say and the audience needed to walk away knowing that.
The question time came around from our industry judging panel – there was 4 of them sitting on a table parallel to ours. Its not easy when you are in the hot seat and being drilled in front of 400 people. Looking back, I should have taken my time to answer them by thinking of the response first. Also, some of the questions posed to me were opinions, and what I should have done is answer back with facts. When you answer an opinion with another opinion as I did, it becomes an endless debate. I also could have answered some of the questions more succinctly.
The general feedback was that most liked it, while others said I could have had more “pop” and “energy”. After watching some of the other presentations, I definitely felt that I could improve in this area as well as being funny with the responses and more interactive with the audience. I think it comes with experience and being comfortable presenting in public.
The experience was really good, from start to end. I also got to catchup with some of my friends that have spent time in Silicon Valley and are further along the startup track. We spoke about raising money, pricing models, and hiring staff. Its really good to have these guys around to help out newer guys like myself. They are bringing the Silicon Valley experience back home.
As you can gather from my experience, I spent a lot of time preparing for the pitch. However, it was well worth it to get the exposure, recognition and help from coaches/judges. Now, more people know about Native Tongue. The questions from the judges also helped us to refine our business strategy and positioning. I also believe it takes a series of events to happen for people to invest in you or partner with you and this is one of them. I’d definitely recommend it to other startups to apply for next year.
Finally, I’d like to thank Ned (GoCatch) who reviewed our pitch, Darcy Naughton (Adventure Capital) and Clive Lam (Style Tread) for being our references, and the SlatteryIt team for putting on a great day.
I’m out like pitch practice,