Tips on developing a strong business pitch

Lesson learned from Start Garden’s monthly 5x5 pitch competition.

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Entrepreneurs and start-up businesses across the country have many opportunities to compete in pitch competitions to secure funding for their business or concept. Start Garden, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has been hosting monthly 5x5 Night pitch competitions since 2012.

5x5 Night brings together five entrepreneurs each month who have five minutes to pitch their ideas with five presentation slides to five judges. One talented winner goes home with $5,000 at the end of the night. Start Garden reports that 5x5 Night winners have gone on to raise more than $28 million and created more than 200 jobs.

On a recent visit to 5x5 Night in February 2022, I was able to gather some helpful tips from Start Garden judges, team members and entrepreneurs. With only five minutes and five slides to make a case, it is important to develop a well-organized and compelling pitch.

Some helpful tips for an effective pitch:

Explain what the problem is and how it will be solved by the business. Products and services exist to solve problems. Effective pitches describe a relatable problem that many people face that is solved by the business/product. Use a story or a personal experience to explain the problem and the solution.

Clearly state how the funds will be used. If you are pitching for funding, you want to be sure you clearly communicate how the funds will be used. There should be a strong case for why funds are needed immediately and how the business will grow as a result.

Know your financials. In addition to making a case for how the funds will be used, you need to know your financials. How much does it cost you to produce one unit? How many units have you sold to date and how much profit do you make on each item? How many units will need to be sold to reach a monthly or annual sales goal? Your numbers need to demonstrate that your business will be sustainable for the long term.

Long-term vision. You might be starting small, but a strong pitch includes details on how the business can scale. What is your vision for the business for the next several years? Make the case that you have the skills to get there.

Be authentic. Have a personal story to connect to your business. For example, if you have a product related to women surviving breast cancer, tell the story of how breast cancer has impacted your life. If you aren’t a joke teller, don’t try and tell a joke in your pitch. Play to your natural strengths.

Show your passion. Jorge Gonzales, one of the Start Garden Directors, says that passion makes the difference for him as a judge. Demonstrate that you have put in the time to build and grow your business and you have personal investment in the project.

Differentiate from competitors. Laurie Supinski, another Start Garden Director, said she values pitches that explain how their business is different from the competition.

Practice, practice, practice. Sandy Jonick, owner of U Plant Landscape Designs, says it took her two weeks to develop her pitch and she practiced about ten times. She practiced in front of the mirror. She recorded herself on her phone. She also practiced in front of her family and friends. Make sure to practice with your slides – and don’t read your slides line by line. Make sure to have eye contact with the audience and the judges.

Brings samples and business cards. Even if you don’t win the competition, you can still network and make important connections for your business. Samples and business cards will help your new contacts find you and spread the word about your business.

Seek out mentors and counselors. There are many wonderful resources available to entrepreneurs, including the Small Business Development Center, SCORE, and local Chambers of Commerce. Universities and colleges also often have resources available to local businesses. Michigan State University (MSU) Extension's Product Center is also resource for packaged food businesses.

Food product entrepreneurs wishing to work one-on-one with a food business counselor are encouraged to join the MSU Product Center. The MSU Product Center is an organization that brings together on-campus expertise in the sectors of food, agriculture, and natural resources to help entrepreneurs define and launch businesses and products. Field-based innovation counselors advise entrepreneurs on business planning, regulatory requirements, and product development needs. To access business development assistance, select the “Become a Client” button on the MSU Product Center website or call 517-432-4608.

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