November 3 2009
by Tim Rowe

MIT $100K Elevator Pitch Competition

This past Thursday was the Grand Finale of the MIT $100K Competition’s precursor competition, known as the EPC or Elevator Pitch Competition.

Over 350 entrants had made their 60-second pitches over the past several days to persevering judges.  The resulting twelve finalists did not yet know who they were, however everyone who was in the ‘top 10%’ was encouraged to come and prepare to be called.

The Grand Finale judging panel consisted of myself, General Catalyst’s Hemant Taneja, .406 Ventures’ Maria Cirino, and Waltham Technologies’ Una Ryan.  I was honored to be in such company.  The pitches, which could from anyone, not just MIT people, were in numerous categories: energy, mobile, web/software, life sciences, development, etc. Between the four of us we had reasonably good knowledge of these areas, and we were psyched to get going.

In the rear of the main assembly hall in MIT’s dramatic Frank Gehry-built Stata Center there is screened-off exit that leads to a kind of underground concrete tunnel.  The tunnel makes one immediately think of motorcades whisking VIPs in and out, with black SUVs fore and aft.  I suddenly realized with a pang that I had neglected to bring my limousine, and that after the show I would have to walk back to where I parked my bike.  Live and learn.  ;)

The first thing I noticed about this event is that it was incredibly tightly choreographed, with an Oscar-like precision.  The organizers constantly checked their watches, which they must have synchronized, and the whole event went off like clockwork.  Watch out, Hollywood.

The theme this year was “Space”, and sure enough the MC was dressed up in a NASA outfit, and was regaled by two miming partners dressed up as astronauts.  The crowd had big red clapper things which they would thump whenever the energy level got high, which was almost all the time.  As each contestant would get ready to make their pitch, the MC would lead the crowd in a countdown: “3… 2… 1… Liftoff”.  I suppose this kind of showmanship could have fallen flat, but it didn’t at all.  It was perfect, and the crowd of about 600, including some in nearby simulcast rooms, was totally into it.

The biggest challenge I faced as a judge was sorting out how to weigh the different factors we were to consider.  For instance, we could give weight to the pitches that were clearly the best businesses, or to those where the delivery of the pitch was the best.  To some degree, these two are in conflict.  If you talk fast and provide a lot of data, you are bound to lose some style points.  Yet those who kept it simple couldn’t give us all the data we would need to feel confident that theirs was a good business.  Herein lies the beautiful challenge of an elevator pitch, and this is why this format is so fun to work with.  Its the haiku of business.

So what should one do?

A couple of weeks earlier, I had been asked by the organizer group to co-lead a seminar with my colleague Steve Marcus about how to deliver an elevator pitch.  This is what I said:

  • The key thing to know about an elevator pitch is that the goal is not to convince the listener to invest (which is not going to happen in a few seconds), but rather to cause the listener to want to learn more.  Your goal is to get a meeting.  As such, the two elements I consider most important in a pitch are allure, and credibility.

Allure: the pitch needs to excite the listener, leaving them wanting to know more.  If I say: “we’re making a new type of solar panel that has a 3-year payback without subsidy” anyone in the energy industry is going to want to learn more.  If I say “we’re making solar panels that involve the use of a gallium-arsenide compound over a polymer substrate”, the listener, who is probably not a materials scientist, is less likely to go for a follow-up meeting.

Credibility: in addition to having allure, you must have credibility.  Every investor from time to time hears wild stories about secret inventions that will revolutionize an industry.  Thus there is built-in skepticism.  To get past this, you need to include hard data points that make your listener pay attention, such as “One of our advisors is a Nobel Laureate in this area of science, and she will be happy to explain it to you”, or “we’ve installed our product at three Raytheon laboratories, and all three have just come back asking if we can give them more units to expand the trial.”  For best results, you want to tie back to a known brand/entity that the listener can readily, independently check with.

Overall it was a fabulous evening and an honor to be able to participate.


November 4 2009
by MIT $100K

Great write up on the 2009 Elevator Pitch Contest from @rowe – one of our finale judges. Check it out here:

November 4 2009
by Brian Cantwell

RT @mit100k Great write up on the 2009 Elevator Pitch Contest from @rowe – one of our finale judges.

November 4 2009
by Carlo Tursi

RT @mit100k Great write up on the 2009 Elevator Pitch Contest from @rowe – one of our finale judges.

November 4 2009
by Sombit

great write-up by @rowe regarding $100K Elevator Pitch Contest – Thanks, Tim!

November 5 2009
by Greenhorn Connect

RT @mit100k: Great write up on the 2009 Elevator Pitch Contest from @rowe – one of the finale judges:

November 5 2009
by Reid Albecker

Allure & credibility: 100K Elevator Pitch Contest mini debrief by @rowe – one of final judges. RT @cantwell @mit100k

November 6 2009
by Nico

RT @mit100k: Great write up on the 2009 Elevator Pitch Contest from @rowe – one of our finale judges:

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