Entrepreneurship is way more than a pitch

By Ray DePaul

A few years ago, I was asked to coach a group of entrepreneurs who were getting ready for a Startup Calgary pitch event. A young man got up and gave a decent 2-minute pitch about providing a delivery service for consumers who wanted a broader choice when ordering takeout food. It was a classic, and somewhat overused, "Uber for xyz" pitch and the coaches went into our standard mode of refining his message. Then my fellow coach and angel investor extraordinaire, Randy Thompson, asked a simple question: "Have you launched and do you have any traction?" I expected the typical answer about having a prototype but needing money to launch a full product. Instead, I was floored to hear that they were in six cities and had $14M in revenue! Somehow this little fact didn't make it into his pitch. The entrepreneur was Andrew Chau and his company was Skip the Dishes. In December 2016, they were acquired for $110M.

In the last decade, there has been a shift in entrepreneurship towards a pitch culture - call it the Dragon's Den effect. While it has really helped raise the profile of entrepreneurs, I sometimes worry that a good pitch has overtaken the primary goal of building a good company. Business isn't done on a stage. If you can deliver something so valuable that your customers not only pay you but also tell everyone they know about the difference you've made in their life or business, your pitch writes itself (apparently with a little coaching).

As MRU approaches its 5th annual $70,000 JMH LaunchPad Pitch Competition, I know that all of the preparation that our students put into the competition is rooted in building their business. It's why many of our student entrepreneurs are already engaging customers and have revenue. As I reflect on the previous four years, the true standouts have always been great businesses. It turns out that if you have a great business, a great pitch follows pretty effortlessly. This is never more clear than in the Q&A portion of the pitch. If all you've done is crafted a great pitch, the weakness of the business comes through in your answers. If you have lived and breathed your business for months or years, then your answers are full of depth and understanding. Those are the entrepreneurs that inspire me.

Don't get me wrong. The ability to articulate your value proposition to an audience of hundreds of people is a great way to market your business and it's worth learning the finer points of pitching. But if forced to choose, I pick the entrepreneur who struggles with pitching but has a lineup of customers and advocates who can't live without their product.