No surprise that a great source for for inspiration and lessons on speaking technique are TED talks.
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Startup accelerators have been around since about 2005, when Y Combinator was founded in Cambridge, Mass. Since then, they've exploded in popularity — expanding from startup hotbeds like Boston and Silicon Valley to assorted locations around the globe.
Milwaukee, though not traditionally known as a tech hub, is home to Gener8tor, an accelerator that recently launched an artist fellowship program. Sydney is an international city in its own right, but it's also attracting tech entrepreneurs with its Future Transport Digital Accelerator.
And, while Cairo certainly has a rich history, it's also preparing for the future of innovation with the Flat6labs accelerator, which celebrated its 10-year anniversary in 2018.
As the number of accelerators has grown, so has the number of applicants. For example, for the Ameren Accelerator, our own 12-week program for energy-tech startups here in St. Louis, we went from about 200 applications in 2017 to in excess of 330 this year. Such explosive growth, however, can be a double-edged sword for those hoping to earn a spot in an accelerator:
More opportunity may abound, but the competition is also stiffer than ever.
Standing out in a sea of applicants
Responding to the increase in applicants, accelerators these days are asking tougher questions: "How close are you to revenue?" "What's the business model?" "How do we [investors] ultimately make money?" Therefore, if you're one of the applicants, you need to not only know the answers to all these questions, but to deliver them clearly, succinctly and in a way that sets you apart. That's a tall order, to be sure, but if you follow these three key steps, you'll be on your way to nailing your pitch.
1. Cut out the "maybes" — focus on the facts.
Most startups fail because they don't solve a problem. Just look at Juicero, the now-famous startup that raised about $ 120 million before it shut down last September. That $ 400 juicer simply wasn't filling a need, and as a result, couldn't find a solid customer base. Juicero is not the first or the last company to make this mistake. According to an analysis by CB Insights, 42 percent of startups go under due to "no market need."
Accelerators always want to know that there's an actual customer need. In fact, this is critical. Don't recite a laundry list of problems your solution might solve; instead, focus on the most important one — and detail step by step how you came to that conclusion. The best way to prove your problem exists is through market research. Engage directly with potential customers by conducting surveys on pain points, wants and needs. When you come with hard research in hand, accelerators will take you much more seriously.
2. Lay your cards on the table.
Once they're convinced of the problem, accelerators want to understand your solution. That sounds simple enough. Yet according to research from Marketing Experiments, companies often struggle to identify and articulate their value proposition.
A good value proposition is easy to understand, concrete and unique; it doesn't rely on fluff, superlatives and jargon. So state your solution, and more importantly, state how it's different from all the other ones already out there. Ideally, people will be able to understand your value proposition in fewer than five seconds.
Take Uber's value proposition, for example: "The best way to get wherever you're going." This simplistic copy accurately captures its offering. And its homepage copy expertly sums up what makes the service more appealing than a traditional taxi: "Tap a button, get a ride; always on, always available; you rate, we listen."
Additionally, accelerators want to know what you, as the founder, bring to the table. Show up, add to the chemistry and culture and be an active participant. At the Ameren Accelerator, we specifically look for leaders who come in ready to roll up their sleeves and drive growth.
3. Stay on track and weave a story.
There's nothing worse than an applicant who drones on and on. Try to keep your pitch clear and simple. For inspiration, look at TED Talks. Though those speakers pitch ideas rather than businesses, they are coached to become master storytellers. Most talks are fairly brief — they can't be longer than 18 minutes — but more importantly, they're succinct. An analysis of the top 20 TED Talks showed that all speakers stated their "big idea" within the first two minutes. Follow this format in your accelerator pitch.
Additionally, rather than spouting off statistics to make your point, try telling a dynamic story, lacing supporting facts throughout. Stanford University professor Jennifer Aaker tested the power of stories through an informal study. She asked her students to give one-minute pitches and then had the others write down what they remembered from each pitch. Sixty-three percent of participants could remember the pitches that were stories, compared to the mere 5 percent who could remember statistics.
Since I started working in this field, I've seen enormous growth in the number of accelerators across the country and around the world. However, those who wish to participate in these programs are up against fierce competition, and gaining one of these accelerators' coveted spots will take more than passion and a potential patent. By following these three tips, you'll set yourself up for success on your next pitch.