Published in UT San Diego, January 15, 2013
Every entrepreneur is coached to have an elevator pitch — a compelling, captivating and concise story about you or your company that you can tell in the time it takes to go up or down in an elevator — 30 seconds for a suburban office building, 60 seconds for a downtown high-rise, and two to three minutes for an elevator with a lot of stops. If you happen to be in the elevator with Mark Cuban or Dave McClure and they ask what you do, you need to have an answer that hooks them.
“Her husband had beaten her so badly that she feared for her life. To escape her desperate situation, Lana got on a Greyhound bus in Florida, with $17 and her 4-year-old daughter and came to San Diego where she didn’t know a soul. What led up to that moment? Years of abuse and thoughts of: I’m not good enough, I’m not smart enough. I can’t make it on my own.”
How does that grab you? That is the opening by Dana Bristol-Smith, founder and executive director of Leap to Success, who was the first-place winner at the recent fast-pitch competition for nonprofits sponsored by San Diego Social Venture Partners.
Recognizing the importance of elevator pitches for the nonprofit community, SDSVP provided 20 semifinalists out of 85 applicants with intensive coaching and mentoring to help them convey their impact in three minutes. Ten finalists then competed at a live event for $40,000 in cash prizes plus $10,000 in in-kind services. Leap to Success was awarded $25,000 for first place.
In the process, the winner, Bristol-Smith, learned, “Your story is a flower that is just getting ready to bloom. There has to be a buildup. You have to convey that your organization is on the verge of something big. You want people to feel it emotionally so that they will take action and want to take part in what you’re doing.”
Here are some thoughts on the infamous elevator.
1. No buzz words, no fluff and no arrogance, as in “We are the leading provider of _____.” That is not true. If you were the leading provider, you would not be pitching for pennies in an elevator.
2. Tell me what problem you are solving. “We make _____ and it addresses the problem of _____.”
3. Who is the customer, and what suggests that said customer will pay anything for your “change the world” solution?
After punching the audience in the gut with her opening, Bristol-Smith explained that Leap to Success provides training, life coaching and mentoring for abused women by teaching them “four powerful tools — goal setting and action planning toward jobs or education; reframing negative thoughts to go from I can’t to I can; assertive communication to stand up for themselves and their children; and public speaking skills to build confidence and share their own stories and empower others.”
4. Lastly, do not get off the elevator without the Ask. Be concrete and specific.
Bristol-Smith said, “We are looking for investors to raise $1 million. Ten thousand dollars will change the futures of 10 women and their families, five angels at $100,000 each will fund expansion to reach more than 10,000 families.”
A customer testimonial can also be helpful, and in Bristol-Smith’s case, she offered the audience a surprise, as the real Lana joined her on stage, and she said, “Today I’m a different person. I am no longer a victim … I have the privilege of mentoring women who are just like me.”
Expert assistance and an outsider’s perspective can be helpful in drafting your elevator pitch. “I give a lot of presentations in the community, and this process helped me,” said Trisha Gooch, director of development and community relations for Second Chance, which provides job readiness and life-skills training and won the second prize of $10,000.
“I learned how to better engage the audience when you’re on stage and you don’t have a podium, and how to memorize a presentation and still seem natural,” said Elizabeth Schott, executive director of micro-lender Accion San Diego, which won the third prize of $5,000.
Rule No. 151
Plan for a quick ride, but if the elevator should happen to get stuck between floors, have a pen and a term sheet ready.