This past week, I judged a business pitch competition, hosted by the small-business development center at the university where I studied as an undergraduate. Of the five judges, I was probably the least familiar with the Shark Tank format, which gave me a near-blank slate of expectations.
It also left me open to impressions and observations that are relatively unbiased by popular culture's current characterization of entrepreneurs and their pitches. I don't know how to be a "shark." I just want to hear great ideas and cast my vote for the one that makes the most viable business sense.
There's a lot more to it than that, of course, including the dynamic among judges and a mostly-internal calculus about how likely the nascent businesses are to find funding outside of this specific pitching opportunity.
Still, there were three variables (and one bonus consideration) that rose to the surface for me as I listened to the student pitches, processed their responses to questions from the audience and other judges, and ultimately submitted my scores for final judgment.
Here's what mattered, what mattered more, and what mattered most of all.
1. Clever counts.
I often look for the difference between "clever" and "innovative" when I'm listening to business ideas. They're almost synonyms, but to my ears they're distinct, especially when I consider the impact each term makes.
I associate "clever" with something a little more self-conscious: it makes me smile a bit, nod my head slightly, and quietly exhale hmm, a little like when I get an inside joke. On the other hand, I associate a business idea that's "innovative" with something more extroverted and look-at-me.
Both styles of ideas can be excellent, of course, though "clever" seems more organic and born-from-experience as opposed to splashy. At the pitch stage, and particularly with young entrepreneurs, I personally lean toward clever.
2. Narrative counts more.
There's also a difference between ideas with a storyline and ideas that are presented as though they've been pulled from thin air. We hear the advice to "tell the story of your product" over and over again, but it's abundantly clear when that story is fabricated market-speak and when it can be traced, sometimes painstakingly, back to the light bulb moment of origin.
A way to kick the tires on an idea's narrative is to pose a question that starts with, "What does your research tell you about...?" A response that points directly to academic studies or analysis tells you one thing; a response that points to that analysis and also includes actual conversations with real people as users tells you something quite different.
3. Authenticity counts most of all.
The differentiator for a product's narrative is, of course, authenticity. An additional layer is authenticity of voice: At the pitch stage, is it the authentic voice of the person with the original idea that resonates most of all?
This isn't always possible, but being face-to-face with an idea's originator and hearing their authentic voice is a refreshing component of a competition. For me, it's refreshing to see a stark contrast between young entrepreneurs' ideas that are alive with authenticity and those who are more or less dialing it in. It's also a reminder to gut-check my own pitch for how it's currently landing with hearers.
One of the most poignant moments for me during this student competition was watching how the adrenaline of the competition manifested differently for each student. There was adrenaline based in anxiety, adrenaline based in unshakable belief in the product, and adrenaline based in utterly comprehensive preparation.
In every case, I encouraged them to savor that adrenaline. Pitching can be nerve-racking, particularly to a panel of judges, a roomful of observers, and an unknown number of viewers live-streaming the action.
Savor that adrenaline, because what you're tasting is the juice of the change-maker. It's what's going to bring your ideas into reality.