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December 1, 2017

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How We Lost

November 17, 2017

Well, the FuzeHub Commercialization Competition 2017 is now in the past.  Obviously, being a finalist and then losing is really disappointing.  Even more so because I feel like we gave a solid pitch.  It was a good story and hit the points asked for in the judging criteria.  We had the judges nodding their heads during the Q&A, so I was pretty sure they got it.  We received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the staff and folks in the crowd about how we did.  So we were feeling really good going into the winner announcements.  And then we weren’t called.

 

So, did we mess something up?  Are we fundamentally not what the judges wanted for some reason?  Could we have done something differently to bring home the prize?

 

Pitch Competition Judging is Unpredictable

This was actually my first time delivering a pitch in a competition, even though I have been a judge for several.  And maybe that gives me a unique perspective.  

 

I think my judging experience allowed me to manage my expectations somewhat better because I’ve been through deliberations myself.  I’ve seen first hand how something that one judge feels strongly about (positive or negative) can completely turn a decision.  I’ve seen teams and pitches I thought were great get ripped apart by fellow judges.  And I’ve seen ideas with major flaws get carried by one or two enthusiastic supporters.  So, I went into the competition understanding that judges are human and the decisions they make are subjective.

 

That said, I think judges generally do a good job.  They can’t be experts in everything they are asked to evaluate.  They do the best they can based on their personal experience, the criteria they are provided for judging, and how each presenting company connects with them.  In this competition, it was clear that they had also had an opportunity to review the written project summaries, commercialization plans, and project budgets we had submitted to make it to being finalists.  And with 17 teams and multiple judge panels trying to arrive at a single slate of winners, that’s a lot to process.  I’m sure the results represent their best efforts.

 

Thanks to all of the judges for taking the time.

 

Did We Eff Up?

As I said, I feel like our pitch delivery, while not perfect, was pretty good.  I don’t have any regrets on that front.  There were a couple of points I had to drop as I got the 1 minute warning and still had some ground to cover in the last two slides.  But I can’t imagine that those points were all that material and none of the questions from the judges suggested a gap in our presentation.

 

As I look back at the whole process, I feel like the weakest part of our pitch may have been our project plan itself.  Our company, market, product, and mission are solid.  But we had to provide a specific project and budget for the possible $50K award and I chose a 6 month iterative design project to support our NY supply chain and assembly by disabled workers.  I put that plan together back in August.  It probably is not the plan I would have submitted now.  The goal of the plan we submitted was launching our NYSID partnership with Herkimer Industries.  From where we stand now and the progress we have made with Herkimer Industries and GC Controls, I don’t think we are $50K or 6 months away from that goal.  That means our project and budget may not have seemed entirely credible.  As a startup, we are learning constantly and it’s amazing how quickly we obviate  our own plans and predictions.  Perhaps we should have changed our plan.  But it didn’t really occur to me to ask before the competition, since that plan was how they selected us as a finalist.

 

In the end, I also wonder whether it would have made any difference in the outcome.  Looking at the teams that won, they were all presenting fundamentally new and speculative technology, most of it out of a major research university.  So, our 10 year old tech looking for just a little nudge to accelerate commercialization may have just been too down-to-earth to be interesting.   Already being able to deliver our product might have actually worked against us.  Maybe we are past pitch competitions.

 

Is Pitching a Waste of Time?

Pitching is certainly part of the startup process.  Being able to tell your story and engage investors, partners. customers, and even your own team is a good skill to have.  I worry a little that pitch competitions can become a distraction.  Sure, sharing your story with anybody can be useful and we did pickup some valuable networking connections from this event.

But I do wonder whether adding up the time we spent at the competition and all of our preparations for it could have been better spent.   We could have been directly identifying and pitching customers and potential channel partners.  Or maybe we could have attended a trade event in the energy efficiency, HVAC, or facilities management space.  

 

It’s one of my central concerns about entrepreneurial ecosystems full of grants, support programs, and pitch competitions.  They can all be critical at certain points to help things get started, keep moving, and solve specific problems.  We would not be where we are if it weren’t for the milestone-based funding and guidance we have received from the incubator programs we are in.  But at some point, are they really distracting you from focusing on your customers and business?  Can your business inadvertently become more about telling your story to get more support and less about actually getting a product into the hands of paying customers?

 

As we were leaving the competition, someone asked us whether we would be back next year.  We answered with a vehement NO.  In hindsight, it could have been interpreted as bitterness over our loss.  But the reality is that this competition was for startup companies with less than $50K in lifetime revenue.  If we haven’t made more than $50K by this time next year, we won’t be here.  Our goal is to get our product into the hands of customers and start scaling, not just to talk about it.

 

We have our Demo Day presentation for Commercialization Academy on November 30th, which is another pitch competition.  I hope we win.  But win or lose, our energies need to be directed to customer projects and the industry partners who can help get us there.

 

You can check out who won FuzeHub 2017 here.  And thanks to Page at FuzeHub for the picture above.

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