Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, September 18, 2023
by Neil Senturia
One of the early things that an entrepreneur worries about is raising money and giving The Pitch.
There are pitch fests where you get two minutes, there are incubators that teach you the 12 slides you need in order to pitch and there are angel investors who think they know a pitch when they hear one. Let me be clear. Pitching has very little to do with the PowerPoint, the idea, the numbers or even the team. Pitching is an art unto itself. Herewith a story:
I can’t stand entropy, and I am considering one more dive into the deep end with an investment into a half-baked-algorithm-AI-investment-hedge-long-short-alpha whatever fund. The genius has been sitting in my office for a year. How could I resist?
I hear his pitch. C+ at best. The problem is classic. He is brilliant. But telling a semi-coherent story that an idiot like me can easily understand — well, that is not his long suit.
He needs a designated pitcher.
In 2010, Mr. Donald Trump is peddling Trump University, a program offering online real estate training courses, in-person seminars and personal mentorship from hand-picked instructors who will teach the secrets of financial security. “I am going to put my famous brain to work for the little guy,” said Trump.
Trump University puts on a seminar at the Town and Country Convention Center, and yours truly signs up. Starts at 8 a.m. When I get there the room is packed, more than 425 people. Shorts, T-shirts, hoodies, men and women, a wide swath of middle America. Not a coat and tie in sight.
The first presentation is about stocks and bonds. A man comes on stage and his opening sentence is: “Today I am going to teach you the things that Wall Street does not want you to know.” Wow, I’m thinking, what if someone from Goldman Sachs has slipped into this conference — do you think maybe they sent a spy?
The pitch begins. For one hour and 45 minutes, the guy on the stage explains that when the software program shows a green arrow, you buy and when it shows a red arrow you sell. It is that easy. And Wall Street does not want us to know this.
As time is running out, he gives the close. The first 100 attendees who go to the back of the room and sign up will get a special deal. The special deal is $1,495 for the three-day course and $35,000 for the “Gold Elite” program. To my amazement, a third of the room gets up from their seats.
Ultimately Trump and his “university” get sued for a variety of fraud and falsehoods, and he settled the class action lawsuit for $25 million.
But this story is not about Trump, it is about the guy who pitched the program. Now, I can tell a good story, but this guy was in a league of his own. It was as if you were in a room watching Leonardo Da Vinci at the Sistine Chapel with a paintbrush. He was spell-binding, mesmerizing. He owned the room.
I needed to meet this guy. Not so easy. Trump University was not talking. I had to dig, and I finally find him. On a farm in Colorado, he picks up the phone. I tell him that I was in awe and dazzled. His explanation of the stock market was brilliant and compelling. I wanted to hire the guy.
I ask him the seminal question. How long have you been investing in stocks and bonds?
“Huh, I don’t invest in the market. I don’t own any stocks or bonds. If you ask me, that is a sucker bet.”
What! This guy didn’t even know where Wall Street was. His presentation was a script, learned lines. Trump paid him a lot of money to go around the country twice a month and pitch the green arrow and the red arrow. He gave a standing ovation performance, and then he went back to his farm.
If you have a great story, get a great storyteller. Every entrepreneur needs a designated pitcher. Might be the founder, might be the CEO, might be a ringer, but as they say, “don’t leave home without one.”
Rule No. 776: Come one, come all. Step right up, everybody is a winner.