Pitch Coaching for Techies

Originally appeared on Supercharged Startups.

You have an idea for a technical innovation. An idea that will change the world and make you a lot of money. You have a prototype and are ready to show it to investors and use their money to ride into the sunset of prosperity. There’s just one problem – you’re an engineer and the idea of pitching in front of people scares the bejeebers out of you. This was me 5 months ago. Last night I successfully gave an engaging and enticing pitch to investors thanks to a volunteer pitch coaching team. My community, probably like yours, has an active entrepreneurial spirit of people helping each other. One that you should make sure to take advantage of.


Why Coaching

I am a seasoned entrepreneur having spent the last 10 years in tech based startups. However, one of my co-founders was always the one to pitch and talk to investors. I was always on the product/development side. Now that I am soloing it, I need to be able to do the pitching. Pitch coaching helps all entrepreneurs but is especially important for those of us more comfortable behind the screen than in front of a group of shark investors.

You often have just one shot with an investor group and pitch coaching can help prepare you in putting your best foot forward. Even the first 20 seconds of the pitch is critical in hooking your audience. You know the old adage about first impressions? Coaches can make sure your pitch comes off as professional and engaging.

There are a number of best practices for your slide deck and coaches can help you with them. The background, font size, number of bullet points, and even the color choice all help in ensuring your presentation is readable, professional, and sends the right message. You’ll want your audience focusing on you and what you’re saying. A good coach will help make sure your pitch deck compliments your presentation.

Public speaking is not easy, especially for those of us not accustomed to it. My biggest fear is losing my place and getting stuck with the “dear in the headlights” look. However, it’s really just about practice. And not just practice at home by yourself. I could always ace my pitch alone. But doing it in front of your coaching team gives you the practice you need to speak in front of a group.


Are you ready for Coaching?

Now that you know you need it – are you ready for it? Your pitch deck is your business plan boiled down to around 10-12 slides over a 10-minute presentation. You must know your business from the problem you’re solving to how you’re going to get your first customers. Your pitch tells a story. And at the root of the story is the problem. So, you must completely understand the pain you are solving. A great way to validate or find potential pain points is through the process of Customer Discovery.

If I’ve learned anything from coaching, it’s been to narrow my initial target market. My company, Odeum, makes virtual worlds for education. This is where I started, and it’s very broad. So, I removed corporate training and higher education to just focus on K12. I then narrowed further to just secondary education. When my coaches asked how I’m going to make the first 10 sales I realized I needed to narrow even further. I had a final beachhead market of middle school social studies teachers who use social media here in the US. That’s what you need to do – make sure you’ve narrowed your target market and know how you will reach your first customers.

In order to create your pitch deck you will need to have really thought about and have answers for the following questions:

  • What is the problem and pain you are solving for?
  • What is the solution and benefits (not features) you provide?
  • What is your Total Addressable Market?
  • Who is your first customer? How will you reach them? How will you reach your first 10 customers? First 100?
  • How do you make money?
  • Who is your competition and how do your benefits (not features) compare to them? What is your advantage?
  • Have you looked at your expenses and revenue projections for the first 5 years? Do you have it all detailed in an excel spreadsheet including hiring, marketing, and selling costs?
  • How exactly will you use the funds you are raising? What percentage goes towards marketing, selling, operations, and technology?

These are just a few of the items you’ll need ready when meeting your pitch coaching team for the first time and creating your pitch deck. You need to know the details of each of these or at least know where you need help. Coaches are more than willing to help as long as you’ve given it some initial thought. I created a pitch deck for my first meeting and gave a stab at presenting it. Almost the entire pitch ended up changing, but you need a starting point.


The Process

The business community here in Ann Arbor is a local tech hub and has a thriving community of fellow entrepreneurs willing to share their experiences and help others. I found the New Enterprise Forum (NEF) through a regional entrepreneur conference. NEF forms coaching teams for entrepreneurs to help them pitch and connect to investors. NEF teams are all volunteer so there was no charge for me. I gave a 3-minute pitch to their program committee to apply for their program and they decided I wasn’t ready.  They felt I would be in a much better position to attract investors after I had an MVP (minimum viable product). I spent the next 3 months building an MVP using the customer discovery method and returned to the NEF program board with my results. They then formed a pitch team of five industry experts who worked with me to perfect my pitch deck and presentation skills. You’ll want to make sure you’re really ready to start talking to investors before getting coaching. So apply and don’t get discouraged if you get rejected. Listen to their feedback, correct, and re-apply.

Your coaching team should be striving to help you effectively communicate the value of your business to potential investors. I met with my team about once every 2-3 weeks. As soon as I got home from a coaching session I would immediately decide which recommended changes to make. I would then practice with the changes and continue making revisions until it sounded right. This would take about a week to fit in with my busy schedule. I’d then have a meeting setup within the following two weeks and practice the pitch. Make sure you practice. I probably practiced 20 hours before each meeting. You don’t want to waste your money or coach’s time.

A typical coaching session for me started with presenting my 10-minute pitch in full without interruption. They would then take turns giving overall feedback. Then we would go through the deck one slide at a time and they would offer feedback. I had a printed version of the deck and would write/draw changes directly on it. Don’t be surprised if sometimes they have you revert changes they had you previously make. It’s all part of the process of making a single coherent presentation.

By the time you finish your coaching you will have presented so many times you will deeply understand your pitch. You will have given it in front of groups to build confidence that you can speak in front of investors. There is truth behind practice making perfect.


Finding a coaching team

Finding pitch coaches or pitch organizations in your community is really about tapping into your available network. If you don’t belong to a local business accelerator you may be missing out on a wealth of knowledge and possibly grant help. My local accelerator helped with funding for branding and customer discovery bootcamp. Finding a mentor is also critical. I have a mentor I meet with every week who helps with strategy. Your mentor, business accelerator, or small business development center should be able to help connect you to a pitch coach or coaching team.

One final note on coaching. And this probably applies to any type of coaching/mentoring. You must be coachable for this to work. You must be able to listen and take advice and incorporate it. You don’t have to agree and use all advice. But you must be able to understand the advice and know why/how it does or doesn’t apply to you. Nothing will turn off a coach more then you not listening to their advice. So, get connected with your business community, don’t give up, and most of all listen to the feedback you’re given. People are willing to help you, you just have to reach out and ask for it.

My Dreams for Immersive Games in Education

Originally appeared on Gamasutra

I love to play role-playing games. I love pretending to be someone else in another world. Whether it’s fighting Orcs or stealing cars, there is a magic when you’re immersed into Azeroth or Vice City. But what if there was a way to capture this pastime that engages our kids for countless hours and make it educational. So, instead of taking on quests to fight in the The Battle of Darrowshire in World of Warcraft – kids would take on quests using their critical thinking skills to help Paul Revere in the American Revolutionary War.

This is not ground breaking or even a new idea. It’s one that many of us have had. In fact, there are groups of teachers who have banded together to form World of Warcraft in Schools where they use quests as the content for reading and writing. But I’d like to take it a step further. I’d like to create historic Boston and let kids explore. I’d like to immerse kids into ancient Rome to learn about the Republic and its politics by actually being a senator. It’s like bringing the fieldtrip to the classroom – except this ensures Active Participation.

My dream started to become real while I was getting my Master’s Degree in Computer Science with an emphasis on Educational Games. I was back to school after having taught Kindergarten and English. My Master’s project was a virtual world for learning Chinese. The idea was that students could practice their Chinese by interacting with the NPC’s of the virtual world.

My experience working with Game Engines for my Master’s degree landed me a job in Southern California where I led the development of a game client for playing the Trading Card Game Chaotic. I learned about startups, leading teams, and creating reliable/redundant/reusable/scalable code for games. This brought me to the startup Game Time Live as the Director of Software Development where we created GameSlam, a sports predicting game that won ESPN’s Best New Sports App of 2011. Finally, in 2012 I Co-Founded Dark Vale Games where I led the development studio to create Forge – a multiplayer Arena game on Steam.

In 2015 I decided to return to my passion: Educational Games. But now, armed with 10 years building startups and entertainment games, I have the experience and contacts to make a real contribution; to make games that are engaging like the entertainments games I’ve worked on while bringing educational value from my experiences as an educator. Odeum is the result of that dream.

Odeum is a 3D Role-Playing Game (RPG) Platform that promotes Critical Thinking among 6-12 graders in the areas of History, Literature, and Foreign Languages. In Odeum you are the hero. You are immersed (much the way kids are immersed in World of Warcraft) into 3D virtual worlds from history and literature and must complete Quests that contain educational objectives.

So what does this all really mean? Imagine how you learned Macbeth. You probably took turns reading the Old Text and followed along while other’s read. But does that mean you had comprehension? In Odeum’s Macbeth game you still read the Old Text carrying out Quests, but now you must understand the Old Text in order to complete the Quest. And if you don’t? Odeum will automatically adjust and build the required scaffolding (educators call this Differentiated Learning). Teachers don’t have time to assess each student’s comprehension as they’re reading and offer one-on-one help to those that need it. But Odeum can.

We’ve built the platform and a few Role-Playing Games. We’ve tested in schools and teachers and students have responded very positively. One student told me “It’s just like Oblivion” which as you know is an incredible complement. And while we might not be just like Oblivion, compared to the alternatives they see in the computer lab, we definitely have something special.

So, we’ve built the platform, received validation from teachers, and students are engaged and showing active participation. Now, we need to build out the rest of the library of games. My dream is to have a Role-Playing game in our library for every lesson in History and Literature a teacher would want. And with our platform’s ability for teachers to customize and even create and share their own games, I think we can do it. But I need help and that’s why I’ve started a Kickstarter Campaign to build out the library of games.

But that is not the end. All of our games, environments, and characters are in 3D. This means that as Virtual Reality continues to grow in Education there will be a need for content. And we’ll be there – Ready.

Does Process Belong in a Startup?

I’m often confronted with the question about adding process to a small software development team of a Startup. It seems to be a common myth that adding process to a small team hampers the speed and pace at which developers must develop to quickly get a product to market at a startup. That process on a small team takes time away from developers that they could be using to develop the product. That process is a luxury for development once out of the startup phase. This is not only false but can actually lead to missing deadlines, poor quality, poor team moral, and extra resources.

I have been part of development teams at startups with the “Wild West” mentality of each developer focusing on their piece and only communicating when they need something with little to no accountability. These teams always miss deadlines, have a poor product, have frustrated engineers, and managements answers seems to be to through more bodies onto the project. I’ve also been part of and lead development teams that did incorporate process. The difference is night and day. Process brings projects on schedule, holds them to higher quality, has happy developers, and doesn’t require more resources or time then the “Wild West” method.