How to co-pitch your startup: Five important lessons

My co-founder and I had our first pitch experience last week. There was no equity involved, just a cash prize, so that meant less pressure — but it was in front of a live audience and six judges, including a real life Shark (the Shark Tank variety — not the aquatic version), so there was some potential for public humiliation.

In the end it was an incredible experience and although we didn’t walk away with the moolah, we were the crowd favourite and managed to truly connect with the audience. But most importantly, what did we learn?

1. There’s no such thing as over-preparing…

Both my co-founder and I are perfectionists. While this is great in some circumstances, we’ve had to learn to be OK with ‘good enough’ in other scenarios— in startup land it’s all about getting feedback as quickly as possible, rather than spending hours perfecting your product.

In this particular scenario, our hours of preparation paid off. We NAILED the pitch and couldn’t have been happier with it. It was worth the hours of prep that we’d both done together and separately, polishing the words, breaking it down again, refining, tweaking, rehearsing, rehearsing again…my dog knew all the words by the end of it.

And the words were just the start. We’d also thought about how we’d be standing, where we’d be standing, body language, hand gestures (you’d be surprised how animated you need to be on stage to look like you’re actually doing anything), rehearsed holding a ‘microphone’ (a spoon or pepper grinder in our case) and in front of a mirror.

Sure, my throat was sore from rehearsing so many times and my brain was feeling slightly fried — but there were absolutely no nerves or fumbles on the night, so it was totally worth it.

2. …but don’t forget to let your passion shine through and be YOU.

The challenge with co-presenting is that you do need to be relatively scripted in order for the other person to know when their cue is. It’s also easy to fall into the trap of ‘you do one slide, I’ll do the next’ for the sake of ease, but it doesn’t come across as natural.

My co-founder and I are fortunate in that we’ve worked together before and know that we bounce off each other really well. It’s always easy to get excited and passionate when you’re talking about your business to people one-on-one or in a small group. But throw in a script and hours of rehearsal and you get so focused on getting the words right (particularly important in this case as we only had 5 minutes to pitch), that it can become just about getting the words right at the expense of the overall vision, despite the fact that your vision is ultimately what you’re trying to convey.

Personally, I found that once I was relatively familiar with the script, I could pay attention to what I was actually saying and tap into that inner fire. I’d also revised my parts of the script so that it sounded more like ‘me’. Now, I’m normally super shy so public speaking isn’t exactly within my comfort zone. But the combination of these factors meant that for the first time ever, I had zero nerves in the lead up to and on the night.

3. You’ve gotta trust each other…

My co-founder is awesome with words but he has this weird quirk whereby whenever he writes, it’s generally crazy formal — you know, as though he’s writing a job application or something. No abbreviations and always the more sophisticated version of a word rather than the simpler version (albeit more precise) — and it’s not as if he talks like an English boffin from the Elizabethan era normally. This is great on most occasions, but not so much when we’re pulling together a speech.

By the time we got to rehearsing together the day before the pitch, I’d already revised my sections so that it flowed fairly naturally for me. His sections, however, were still slightly awkward, which also made it more difficult for him to memorise. I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t slightly concerned that we wouldn’t be ready by pitch night (remember, perfectionist here)— despite his reassurances that he “always peaks at the right time”.

24 hours later it was pitch night. We got to the venue early so that we could do a final rehearsal in the car. And as promised, he’d revised his sections and it just flowed. My parts integrated seamlessly with his parts — we sounded awesome and were ready to blow the crowd away.

You’ve got to trust your co-founder…and if you can’t, then just like any relationship, maybe you’re with the wrong person.

4. …and that includes trusting each other with feedback.

As is the case with most startups, as a founder you’re a Jack (or Jill) of all trades, particularly in the early days. But my co-founder’s strength is anything to do with words, whereas I’m all about design, visuals, the creative, so that’s generally how we split the work albeit with input from the other person.

In this scenario, I was responsible for the all important pitch deck. I’d poured my heart and soul into getting the visuals on point — it needed to reflect our ‘voice’ whilst also conveying the information that we needed to include (we were limited to six slides). When I sent it through to my co-founder for his opinion, he had some constructive criticism. It wasn’t really anything huge, but it’s hard to not take it personally when someone tells you that your baby is abnormally hairy. And this pitch deck was my baby. So I may have been a little short with him when responding to his comments, despite my best efforts to not be.

The day after the pitch deck was submitted, he brought up the fact that my comments had made him feel belittled. Now, I’ve always struggled to talk about my feelings (despite being female) — in fact, some years ago my manager at the time had asked me how I was feeling during a routine catch-up, and I’d responded with, “I don’t talk about feelings.” But I’ve had to learn (and am still learning) to get comfortable with it, as it’s critical that stuff like this is sorted out between co-founders and not left to fester. We put it all out on the table and worked out a plan for the future. This doesn’t mean that it won’t happen again, but we’re certainly more self-aware and will (hopefully) recognise the signs of a similar situation before it happens.

5. And finally, make sure you debrief!

The next day we met up to debrief. We were happy with the pitch and agreed that it went exactly to plan — and we were happy with the plan. We’d fumbled on a couple of the judge’s questions and were analysing what we could’ve done better.

During our planning sessions, we’d agreed to split questions by topic, based on what each of us was more across — for example, tech, design, customer development was me; team, business model, psych stuff was him. But we ultimately worked out that that had been the wrong way to approach it. We’d tried to play to our strengths, not recognising that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. My co-founder is much better at storytelling and I tend to be direct and to the point, so in hindsight, what we should have done was agree to answer questions based on the style of answer warranted. Lesson learned — and here’s hoping that we don’t make that mistake again.

Conclusion

Building a business is hard work and there’ll be lots that you learn in the process. But regardless of whether it ends up being a success or not, as cliché as it sounds, remember that it’s a journey. Don’t forget to pay attention and appreciate how much you personally develop along the way as your life will be so much richer for it.