Vol. 127 - NO. 39

Blog Startup CPG

SINCE 2019

Lessons Learned from a
Pitch Competition

Gail Ball is a Co-Founder of WellSpices, a brand of organic, fresh ground spices sold directly to consumers in beautiful, secure single-serving packages so we can all Go.Eat.Be.Well.  The family business, a  2021 Unilever x Luminary United for America fellowship winner, has successfully bootstrapped since its launch in 2020 and was a finalist in its first ever pitch contest at the Unilever x Luminary Recovery Summit Pitch Contest earlier this month.

The lessons I learned last week at the Luminary Unilever Fellows for America pitch competition were about…..tables. I won’t forget them anytime soon and I am better for learning them.

My family and I started WellSpices nearly two years ago to change every table to one on which our beautiful, secure single-serving packages of life and flavor enhancing spices were at hand in place of the rainbow colors packets of sugar/sugar substitute poisons. So we could all Go. Eat. Be. Well. We are in market with Ceylon cinnamon, Ginger and Turmeric with customer top vote-getter, Lemongrass, to be introduced next.

On November 9, I was on the other side of the table for the first time, proud to be a finalist and unpracticed at making our case for winning a valuable, meaningful and well timed basket of professional services to help us rise and recover from the last year. Deep, focused, targeted, urgent sales conversations with wholesale customers…no issue. Eager, bonding virtual e-commerce conversations with customers online…no issue (although this is, in fact, where we need to be so much better). Tough due diligence questions to a founder before I made a decision to invest my own funds or those to whom I owed a fiduciary duty…that was my every day! Inviting the pitch judges to take a seat at my table and savor the story I was telling so that they would want to stay far after dessert was served and work with me to help us grow? That was new!

The pitch organizers offered each finalist a communications consultation the week before the event. Sharing the relative immaturity of my company compared to the multi-million dollar traction evidenced by other finalists, the global marketing reach and brand recognition evident by the web presence and content of other finalists, I noted how shallow a traditional pitch deck for WellSpices would be at this stage of our growth and compared to others’ pitches. She agreed with enthusiasm because her advice was that it left a wide open door for me to not use slides at all and simply tell our origin story, the successes and obstacles that produced the our current state of business in vivid language shared person to person as if having a catch up at a table in a coffee shop with a turmeric chai latte seasoned by WellSpices.

The total 5 minutes allotted to the presentation was a very small box into which to fit such a story and so I asked myself…what were the most important things to tell in the first 3 minutes that would make it a fait accompli that awarding the resources to be won to our business recipe today would take us to bigger and more distant tables faster and better prepared than any other competitor given the same resources.

I chose my tablescape. No slides, but a zoom background of our recently trademark protection awarded logo wallpaper style. I tested my recipes with multiple reading and presentations under the little round zoom workspace lights and religiously timed every run through, trimming the fat from the story! I researched the judges looking for hints about their curiosities and the subjects they would most likely ask questions about and prepared fact sheets to support my quick and still fully baked replies in the 5 minutes of questioning allotted. I also asked myself, what might I ask them, given what we might think of as their most authentic cuisines…their own expertise. I felt like I’d done like the best chefs do…reached a state of mise en place where the stage had been set for a win was in reach, mise en place.

That’s not exactly what happened.

I joined the virtual event for the panels and fireside chats in the two hours before the same zoom link would be used for the pitch competition and I’m so glad I did! It was well run, real leaders in the entrepreneurial ecosystem warmly sharing their expertise and experiences. My zoom background looked fabulous! The proportion seemed right, my clothes showed up as the true complementary colors I’d hoped for and the lighting was also warm and real even as daylight was changing its direction and intensity into the afternoon. The table and I were both beautifully set. Unexpectedly, the zoom screen formatting changed at the start of the pitch competition. Not only was my name display changed to include my company name (good idea!) but my zoom background was gone! There I was simply seated in front of a solid white wall.

Calm on the outside, I was busy regrouping in my head. The answer, I thought, was to make sure my story was even more colorful and engaging in the telling, adding more context to the setting, more descriptions, more dramatic pauses which, it turned out, added up to two extra minutes as the buzzer rang just as I’d finished our origin story section and couldn’t share the where are we now and make that connection to the acceleration possible with the awarding of this contest’s prizes. I had overcrowded the table to the point that I couldn’t put the food in front of those who came for the meal!

The question and answer session went very well since I had practiced story points at the ready that I’d been unable to share in the pitch section that I could connect and share in giving my answers as well as adding the added spice from the data tables on my prepared question reference sheets – actual market size by spice, use case data, our marketing KPIs, trends driving growth, competition and more. I was told by on judge that I really made an impression in the Q&A although we didn’t win (shout out to SHINE REGISTRY for the big win and for a great platform that creates immense value for start ups/small businesses). In fact, all of the judges have connected with me and offered their direct counsel and time for follow up.

To sum up my lessons learned:
  • A simple table setting is best and makes it easier to be resilient and still effective if things surprise you
  • Know not just your data but the pertinent data writ large and organize it in a way that makes it very accessible…mise en place
  • Say grace at the beginning and at the end of the meal while you are all still at the table so your thanks are apparent to everyone who has committed to your success

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