Hacking startup marketing – lessons from a year of pitch competitions

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Last year, my co-founder and I launched Hello Scout to help hotels get more TripAdvisor reviews via an SMS concierge service. We’d signed up some great beta partners and built out a product that we were proud of. Now we just needed to get the word out. But as a cash-strapped startup, we didn’t have much of a marketing budget.

NB This is a viewpoint by David Temple, co-founder and CEO of Hello Scout.

Many people I’ve spoken with in the travel space have similar stories. They try paid marketing, PR and social media, but one channel I believe is consistently overlooked is the good, old-fashioned pitch competition.

Pitch competitions as a marketing tool

Pitch competitions are not a silver bullet, but when approached correctly can provide the three foundations of a good marketing campaign: connections, legitimacy, and a crisp story.

  • Connections

The key here is choosing the right pitch competitions for your business. We joined four competitions last year and we chose each one of them for a particular audience. Sometimes that was potential customers (e.g. HITEC’s E20X) and other times it was industry veterans who could help us expand our reach (e.g. Phocuswright).

  • Legitimacy

One of the hardest things about marketing a travel startup is the scepticism about new travel ideas — so many fail that there’s an understandable reluctance to embrace the new ones. We’ve found that pitch competitions are a good way to rise above the noise. Not only do you get to tell your story in your own words, but there’s validation in being selected to go on stage.

And winning a couple of competitions gives you a reason to reopen that conversation with a formerly doubtful investor or customer.

  • The story

Finally, and potentially most importantly, pitch competitions by definition create the imperative to clarify and condense your brand, mission and product.

Our pitches have consistently helped us identify and address lingering problems with our sales pitch, our business model and our product.

If you’re embarrassed to talk about something on stage or having trouble fitting it into a 3 minute pitch, chances are there’s something deeper that needs addressing.

How to win a pitch competition

There’s no magic formula, but here’s what helped us win awards at three of the four competitions we entered last year.

  • Know your audience

This is the most important part. If you’re pitching at a conference of potential customers, don’t tell them the market size or why your company is going to make lots of money. Tell them what problem you solve and give examples.

Similarly, if you’re pitching to industry veterans, acknowledge the pitfalls that have tripped up others in your vertical and explain how you plan to address them. For investors, it’s all about the big opportunity.

  • Show Don’t Tell

One of our investors, Jason Calacanis, always says that if you haven’t gotten to the demo within the first 15 seconds of a pitch, you’ll lose your audience. Skip the detailed intro and show how a real customer used your product. Provide pictures and details that help the audience envision themselves in that customer’s position. Not only will it keep them engaged, it’ll make your value proposition more tangible.

  • Say Less

Be ruthless. That feature may be cool, but is it really essential to understanding your company? If not, leave it out.

The nice thing about pitch competitions is that they’re self-reinforcing — if you do well in one, you’re invited to more. Ask for discounts, you won’t always get them but it’s worth a shot. And prepare for them as if you’ll win. Have your press release ready to go and your prioritized list of people you want to meet.

If you choose the right ones, pitch competitions can be a cost-effective marketing channel to add to your mix.

NB This is a viewpoint by David Temple, co-founder and CEO of Hello Scout.

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