The ability to pitch successfully is essential for startups seeking finance and customers. Neil Cocker, Director and Senior Partner at Vodafone accelerator Tomorrow Street, talks about the best and worst pitches he has seen and shares some golden rules.
What kinds of pitches do you get to see and hear at Tomorrow Street?
My main responsibility is to lead our Scouting function and find and evaluate scaleups for our programme. We discover scaleups in different ways – sometimes we get recommendations from VCs and other people in our network, and other times we actively run scouting projects to search the market and find solutions that can meet a particular strategic need at Vodafone.
I have probably seen over 1,000 pitches in the last five years, mainly over Teams or Zoom. If companies proceed through our evaluation process we will see them pitch many times. Overall around 80% of the pitches we see are very professional. There is so much education and information out there about pitching, and founders and their teams sacrifice so much to follow their dream when creating a startup, that they usually invest a lot of time learning how to do it well.
Then there are the 20% that are not so successful.
What was the worst pitch you ever heard?
The least successful pitches are mainly to do with Zoom or Teams etiquette when people don’t pay attention to the basics of presenting, timekeeping, and researching and understanding the audience. Other times, companies switch into hard-sell mode in the first call before we’ve even had a chance to understand the product and its value proposition, or are so focused on reading from a script that they don’t listen properly to questions.
Sometimes you have companies that have a charismatic founder who gives a brilliant pitch. Then something happens and that person leaves and suddenly the magic’s gone. The pitch feels very flat. And then they’re struggling to replicate that sprinkle of stardust because it comes from just one individual.
We’ve seen some surprising things over the years. Once the screen popped open and the guy who was pitching was sitting in a garden with a beer in front of him. That is startup life but you know, if you’ve got a first call with a corporate, maybe don’t drink a beer when pitching!
“Anyone can do that, no matter your level of experience.”Neil Cocker, Director and Senior Partner at Tomorrow Street
What was the best pitch you ever saw?
There are a couple that come to mind. What is most memorable is the storytelling aspect. Some of the best follow a fairly classic formula, often similar to Joseph Campbell’s famous ‘Hero’s Journey’. The hero is the customer and they face a problem that they need to solve. And along comes the guide – the startup – who helps them to solve the problem.
The really memorable ones incorporate a short demo into the problem-solution dynamic. One scaleup created a digital journey with Vodafone-branded UI. They sent us a link in the chat that we could access from our phones. And then as they gave the pitch, we could see on our phones how that customer journey would work. That was really powerful!
What are your golden rules for a perfect pitch?
The first component, the foundation, is to get the basics right. Anyone can do that, no matter your level of experience. It’s things like researching the people you are talking to and bringing the right pitch for the right audience, and making the pitch within the allocated time. You need your punchy elevator pitch if you only have 5-10 minutes. If you have 30 minutes, then you can bring your extended presentation but you need to tailor it for the audience.
The second component is to be creative, memorable, and bring a special energy to the pitch. That’s the more unique part and it’s harder to get right if you’re new to the game. This develops over time and you have to do it a lot to find your own brand of magic. The key thing is to throw yourself into it, take every opportunity you can to pitch, and then always take time to reflect and learn after every pitch.