If ever you should find yourself pitching your startup to Steve Case, make sure you project confidence -- but don't overdo it. 

Excessive cockiness in an entrepreneur is the AOL co-founder's biggest turnoff as an investor, he said Thursday, during the Google For Entrepreneurs demo day in Mountain View, California. "A certain degree of pragmatism, a certain degree of humility is important," Case said. "It's a tricky balance because you need to be aspirational, you need to be confident, you need to get people to believe in your idea, your vision, and make them want to be part of that journey. But you also have to carry yourself with a certain balance."

Case, who's also the founder of the investment firm Revolultion Growth, was at Google's headquarters in Mountain View to act as a judge at the pitchfest and pledged to invest $100,000 in the winning company. (See more of his pitch tips below.) Two of the 12 presenting startups secured their places though Case's "Rise of the Rest" tour. Nine others were drawn from the "Tech Hubs" Google sponsors in cities around North America, and the final was selected after a public call for submissions. 

The winner selected by the judges was Mati, an all-natural energy drink founded in Durham, N.C., by a Duke University student named Tatiana Birgisson. Mati was the only one of the presenting companies that's not a technology business. When the judges called her company's name, "I was shocked," Birgisson said. "I couldn't believe it. I kept thinking, what's it going to mean when I'm pitching in front of all these tech investors? Are they really going to get what I'm making here?" 

Mary Grove, the director of Google for Entrepreneurs, said the symbolism was fitting, since the program is all about supporting startups from outside the Silicon Valley echo chamber. "We want to dispel the myth that you have to a technology company or you have to be in Silicon Valley to be successful," Grove said. 


1. Don't be cocky.

2.  Have a "crisp" idea. Vagueness, like unearned cockiness, is a turnoff.

3.  Have a big crisp idea. "It has to be an idea that's inspiring and aspirational and that, if successful, you really do have to have the potential to have impact and change the world," Case says. Don't waste his time with small, safe bets. 

4. Explain why you and your team are the people to execute it

5. Don't claim it's an undiscovered market. "When you hear someone say ther's no competition, that's a red flag for one of two reasons," Case says. "If there's no competition, it's probably because it's not a big idea, or there is competition and you don't know about it or aren't being candid about it, both of which are problems."

6. Don't go it alone. Case believes strategic partnerships are increasingly crucial to success. Listing yours could be the clincher to a killer pitch. Case is fond of quoting an old African proverb: "If you want to go quickly, you can go alone, but if you want to go far, you must go together." 

Published on: Apr 3, 2015