Eight Tips for Better Business Pitches

MEM Director Mark Werwath offers advice to help entrepreneurs find the funding they need to make their startups soar.

Entrepreneurs are missing out on millions of dollars to fund their startups simply because they don’t know how to ask for it. 

Mark Werwath stresses that to students so they can change the narrative in their futures.

Mark WerwathWerwath is the director of Northwestern's Master of Engineering Management (MEM) program and teaches aspiring entrepreneurs in NUvention: Energy, a course designed to promote innovation in sustainable energy and clean technology. In developing future business leaders, Werwath guides students through learning the art of the pitch. 

“There are many millions of dollars of funds available for startups that are basically delivered and awarded based on the quality of the pitch,” he said. “I hate to say that most of that money goes unawarded because there aren’t enough compelling business plans and pitches out there to support it.” 

Werwath’s advice is plentiful and can be grouped into eight main themes that provide a guide to better business pitches. 

1. Have a hook

Venture capitalists hear upwards of 100 pitches a month, Werwath said, which makes capturing their attention a challenge. Finding a compelling opening is vital, he said. 

“You’ve got to get that hook in there, usually in the first 20 or 30 seconds,” he said. “Find that something that gets them to stay with you until the end.” 

2. Make it a quest

Humans are captivated by quests. Werwath suggests appealing to that neurological hardwiring by using the pitch to clearly outline the business’s quest. 

“People want to see that you have an endeavor, a goal,” he said. “You might be climbing that mountain, but you’ve got to get them to climb that mountain with you, at least for those eight to 10 minutes (of your pitch).”

3. Share your discoveries

If the hook gets people interested and the quest creates excitement, new discoveries keep them engaged. Clearly show the ah-ha moments that research revealed, whether it's an unmet need, a market inefficiency, or some other opportunity. 

“If you’ve done enough research, you should have some type of discovery,” Werwath said. “You either heard it in the interviews or you saw it in the data, but that discovery is what the investors are going to lean in for.” 

4. Be respectful

The pitch isn’t the place to show off why an entrepreneur would be great on a game show. Pitches need to be understandable at all levels of education, from seventh grade and up, Werwath said.

“It’s not a time to test your audience’s knowledge,” he said. “The rule of thumb I like to follow is if you can explain it to your grandma without having to re-explain it multiple times, then maybe your audience will be able to understand it.”

5. Make the ask

One of the biggest problems Werwath said he’s seen in pitches is that those doing the pitching don’t precisely ask for what they want. A startup that needs $75,000 to run tests on a prototype should ask for that amount.

“You’re bringing them into their world for a few minutes,”Werwath said. “The best pitches, especially in front of investors, finish with an ask.” 

6. Make the pitch scalable

Yes, it’s great to have a formal presentation complete with visual aids delivered over 10 to 20 minutes, but what about when there’s a spontaneous opportunity for a one-minute elevator ride with an investor? The best pitches can be delivered in a variety of formats, lengths and settings. 

“You’ve got to be flexible,” Werwath said. “You’ve got to be able to give your pitch whether you have Powerpoint or not, with or without visual aids, with or without your team surrounding you.” 

7. Be ready for questions

Having a good pitch is a great first step, Werwath said, but it’s not enough. Most pitches end with time for questions that usually lasts as long as the pitch itself. 

“Your audience is going to ask you questions that maybe are a little bit off script,” he said. “Your ability and agility at answering questions is just as important as your pitch.”

Among the tips he offers: Create backup slides that can easily be referenced to answer any possible question – even those that might seem off-beat or unlikely.

8. Show you are ‘imminently fundable’ 

The goal of the pitch is simple: Find funding for your dream. The path to that goal is paved in preparation and practice, Werwath said. 

“It’s important to have a comprehensive pitch that’s concise, that’s lean, that’s well-rehearsed and something you can deliver virtually at a moment's notice,” he said. “It’s not just the company and the pitch, but also the fundability of the CEO. You have to come across as imminently fundable.”

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