Are You Not Entertained? How to Win a Startup Pitch Competition in 5 Steps


I’ve either attended, judged or put together so many pitch competitions I thought it would be a good time to share 5 main points on how to win one.

Yes, there is a formula and I’ve seen it work on big VC judges, media judges and the general audience. If you have these 5 things you will most likely win or at least place in audience favourite (as long as the other teams don’t read this post! ;-). When I sit as an audience member I can guess who will win everytime based on these factors no matter what the product is and no matter the founder’s experience level.

Luckily my friend Masaru Ikeda from The Bridge filmed the Lots of Buttons pitch at Startup Asia 2013 because that was one of the best pitches ever from Hong Kong. On the outside, it sounds like the dumbest idea for a startup – but it stole the show, the judges votes and showed the audience what makes a startup pitch work.

I’m going to discount a few obvious things like making sure the pitcher has fluent, non-accented English (this applies to obviously English pitch events), the slide deck is beautiful and not done with Comic Sans and that doing a live-demo is the kiss of death when wifi goes down and you have nothing else to show.


1. Story is key

The key to a pitch is to make it just like a Hollywood movie – you need a cool intro, an exciting hook and an epic finale. Many people will say you need to do a pitch so that your mother would understand. That is true to a point, but to tell a story like Iron Man in 3-minutes with just a bunch of slides is what I would aim for. There are many ways to organize a slide deck to make it effective and understandable. Make it real. Make it personal. And you will get the audience on your side. Roll out a bunch of numbers instead of emotions, and you’ll keep them at the other side of the room when you want them as close as possible.


2. Awesome metrics

This is very important because anyone can pitch something awesome but to have some stats to back it up is like when Vin Diesel hits the NOS button on his car to turbo-charge it. For instance, if you were to pitch Uber (and that is a fun game to play too) and how an iPhone can connect drivers and customers, that is already pretty cool, but if you can say you book 10,000 rides a day or that you have an 80% margin on your product – trust me, no matter how boring the product is people will sit up and listen. Startups are ideas looking for a business model or market fit – and when you display this, everyone gets excited.

3. Bring the energy

When I say this I don’t mean go in like the GIF above – I mean make sure the energy is there in the passion. Believe everything you say and have the facts to back it up when it goes to Q&A. Startups can lose everything they built up in the 5-minute pitch with a bad Q&A. But your energy has to be infectious even if its the low-key kind.


4. Show them your journey

The biggest mistake is to do a pitch with more than 1 person on stage and hand it off mid-way, the audience doesn’t care that you are the “ideas” guy and the other person is the “tech” guy – the idea is that you present it as a cohesive story told from one persons perspective. You also need to connect your startup idea to yourself – if it’s about agriculture in Thailand, show the audience why you are vested in creating something to help it grow. If you are doing a fashion app, you better come to the stage dressed like you know what you’re talking about. The journey connects the audience to YOU – beyond the slide deck, beyond what you will say in the next 3-5 minutes its about putting them in your shoes. This is why you see many family-specific startups win at pitch competitions because the pitcher has matched his journey with that of the judges who most likely all have kids as well.


5. Make them laugh

If you can’t get one laugh out of your pitch you will need a really big “WOOOAAAHHH!” so if you don’t have that then you can always get a good laugh and something that pertains to the market you’re in, the problem we all have that you are solving or – never be self-degrading in your jokes like making fun of your clothes or your slides – you are the boss and for the next 5 minutes what you are pitching is bigger than Facebook but don’t be too uptight. Humour will also relax the hell out of you as no doubt your nerves are shot in the minutes leading up to your turn.

As you can imagine these 5 tips can be done even without a deck – so just use the deck as a visual guide. I’m going to embed only one video in this post and it’s a video not of Steve Jobs but a video of lessons from Guy Kawasaki – a disciple of Steve Jobs. It’s an old video so the chances are you’ve seen it by now – but I like to watch this video every once in awhile as Guy lays down the rules fast and simple and since he’s gotten great mileage out of it, you might as well too.

A piece of what you need to on is in this video – the rest will be up to you so make it insanely great:

Casey Lau (@casey_lau) is the co-founder of StartupsHK – see his profile on

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