Just Pitch It

By:  Robin Spielberger

When I signed up for IDEAS Weekend hosted by the Crews Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Memphis, I expected a scene of suit-wearing business mogul wannabes prepared to enter the proverbial dragon’s den and circling newcomers like hungry sharks.  What I found was something completely different.

IDEAS Weekend – Imagine, Develop, Engage, Assess, Startup – is a “high energy weekend full of fun, excitement, and intense competition,” said Mike Hoffmeyer, entrepreneur and Director of the Crews Center for Entrepreneurship.

Barry Parks of StockBoy

Barry Parks of StockBoy

If you have never been to a “startup weekend” type of event, this is how it typically works:

On Friday evening, any participant with an idea has two minutes to pitch it to the audience.  After everyone has had a chance to pitch, each participant votes on which three ideas they believe to be the best.  Those three “winning” ideas are chosen as the projects for the weekend and participants form teams by choosing which idea most interests them.  The person that pitched the idea will become the team’s CEO.

Then, teams work through the weekend in order to build a rough business model and a functioning prototype product.  Finally, on Sunday evening the teams’ CEOs will present an investor pitch to the crowd and the winning team will be awarded the cash prize of $1000.

I hadn’t planned to pitch.  I was sitting comfortably near the back row with my group from Entrepreneurial Journalism – a graduate class at the University of Memphis – ready to watch other self-proclaimed entrepreneurs go up to pitch their startup ideas, when one of the organizers said to our group “If you have ANY idea you’re considering, pitch!  Why not?  It’s great practice.”

My mind immediately snapped to our class startup business, StockBoy, and I quickly tried to remember how much of our class pitch I had memorized.  I looked to my group, hoping they would say that I shouldn’t pitch.  Instead, I saw smiles of nervous excitement and nods of encouragement cross their faces.

“Any of you guys want to pitch it?” I asked, knowing the answer but hoping that someone else had a desire to stand in front of the growing crowd and unpreparedly stumble through a pitch that I had written weeks ago.  The smiles left their faces, their eye brows furrowed, eyes widened, and the nods turned to furious shakes signaling just how much they did not want to be the sacrificial lamb.

Heart pounding, I retrieved the original StockBoy pitch from my bag, crossed out phrases and drew arrows from paragraph to paragraph in order to show their new home.  I scribbled new copy in hopes of grabbing the audience’s attention more quickly and when finished, I look down at StockBoy‘s new 2 minute pitch.  “Great,” I thought.  I’ve just created a roadmap for myself to follow and reorganized something that I already had mostly memorized.

The Crowd at IDEAS Weekend. StockBoy in Back. Robin Practicing

The Crowd at IDEAS Weekend. StockBoy in Back. Robin Practicing

Other people began heading to the front of the large room to pitch their ideas.  Growing more nervous as the time passed, I started practicing under my breath. “Have you ever wandered aimlessly up and down aisles of the grocery store searching for soup, foraging for fish, or rummaging for….”

An hour later, I was in disbelief.  StockBoy had moved on to the top 3 ideas and people were interested in the mobile app that was going to change the way people buy groceries.  My team and I were still shocked as fellow entrepreneurs began to approach us, asking questions about our customer discovery, business plan, and app design.  We obliged them with answers as if they were real investors and began to realize that StockBoy was real.

Unfortunately, as graduate students with a full-time class load and work assistantships we were unable to participate in the entire IDEAS Weekend experience.  Our team graciously thanked the fellow participants for allowing us the opportunity to practice our pitch and for their encouragement.  We forfeited StockBoy‘s third place “victory” to the fourth place winner so that he would have the opportunity to gain a fantastic group of people, further develop his startup, and experience the magic that can come from real teamwork and support, just as we had in class.

My team, and IDEAS Weekend, jump-started StockBoy‘s final phase and helped us believe in each other. We left that night with the knowledge that our pitch wasn’t perfect but that we were on the right road.

The University of Memphis is extremely fortunate to have knowledgeable professionals like Mike Hoffmeyer, available and willing to share their insight as well as host free events such as IDEAS Weekend in order to encourage innovation and offer support to passionate faculty and student entrepreneurs as they turn their ideas into successful startup companies.

The Crews Center houses a world class technology lab with a co-working space for current and aspiring entrepreneurs, furnished offices for visiting mentors and investors, lab areas for prototype development, meeting rooms, a 3D printer, and more.

If you’re an aspiring entrepreneur in need of expert help, a current entrepreneur in need of resources, or a member of the Memphis community interested in supporting entrepreneurship, contact Mike Hoffmeyer by email or by phone at 901.678.1585.  You can also visit the Crews Center for Entrepreneurship on the web, follow them on Twitter, or friend them on Facebook.  For a list of upcoming events, please click here.

The Crews Center for Entrepreneurship is located at 3618 Walker Avenue in Memphis, TN.

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