As a startup CEO, there are many opportunities to pitch your company. Between fundraising, press interviews and scrappy word-of-mouth tactics that often involve testing your elevator pitch on unsuspecting family members during the holidays, I’ve had a lot of practice. With a continual loop of feedback from a broad range of people, I like to think I’ve honed my MarkITx story into a strong pitch that gets better over time.
Yet somehow, all the repetitive practice couldn’t have prepared me for my four minutes of fame at the recent Bloomberg Business Summit in Chicago. Naturally, it was incredibly humbling to be invited to present at an event that included Madeleine Albright, Eric Schmidt, Walter Isaacson and many other esteemed figureheads on the same bill. This was definitely the coolest collection of leaders I’ve ever been around. It also might explain why I was so incredibly nervous to tell the MarkITx story to a room full of business royalty, press and my wife.
For those who know me, nerves are not something I typically deal with. I can pretty much talk to a rock if said rock were in a position to buy a seat on the MarkITx exchange or discuss the latest Blackhawks or Bears game. But I learned something really important about myself after this event. In short, I over-prepared.
For weeks, I read and re-read a carefully crafted pitch that told a sweeping tale of how some of the biggest commodities exchanges got their start. For days leading up to the event, I memorized key stats and trend data. Hours before the pitch, I continued to practice and remember all the words I had to cram into four minutes. All of this careful planning was to no avail. When the time came to stand up and tell my tale, I froze.
Just look at me. I was a fumbling, bumbling ball of nerves up there, reading word-for-word from the slides and breaking every presentation best practice that’s ever been written. All I could do was look at my wife and will her to run out and pull the fire alarm or set the carpet aflame to distract from my Bloomberg breakdown.
It’s a given that there will most certainly be nerves when you are presenting to an important audience. And many experts will tell you that the best way to combat those jitters is to be prepared.
In my case, I went to a preparation extreme – a tack that was way outside my normal modus operandi. And I now know that over-preparation doesn’t work for me. (Interestingly, once I let go of the fear and just told my story, things got better and I rocked the Q&A!)
Sure, there are hard and fast rules that accompany the perfect startup pitch. And if this were my first rodeo, I would think nothing of following these rules to the letter. But in this specific case, I was so star-struck by the venue and audience, I opted to wear an unfamiliar and obviously ill-fitting hat, one that resulted in a mangled pitch that sounded nothing like the smooth and natural story I’ve been telling for years.
To those of you who were unfortunate enough to have seen that pitch, I’m sorry and will buy you a drink next time I see you. For those startup entrepreneurs who will undoubtedly face a similar room someday, here’s my advice: Know yourself. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Think of these opportunities as one-on-one conversations and just tell your story with as much passion and fervor as you can muster. It is precisely that kind of enthusiasm and authenticity that will fill the room and speak for itself, louder and stronger than the nervous voice in your head telling you to run for the hills.