I wasn’t going to go to another startup event. Really.
Over the past several days, I’ve watched 37 startup pitches, and those are just the formal ones. Many more were heard in the form of conversations I had in between the microphones and slides at various events.
But then the Pitch Party, hosted by the Carolina Challenge, was on Thursday night, right in my backyard, Chapel Hill. Yes, that third point in the polygon that makes up the Triangle region. The ‘burbs.
And, as usual when I don’t plan on going but go anyway, I’m glad I went. (I never make bad decisions.)
Hot on the heels of its successful Triangle Startup Weekend, Chapel Hill, specifically UNC-Chapel Hill, put on what might just be one of the best startup events in the Triangle.
Here’s how the Pitch Party works: 48 startups led by at least one UNC student, staff, or faculty member founder, give 3-minute pitches. The crowd includes close to 100 judges who each get five $100 ‘votes’ and one $1000 ‘vote.’
Here’s where it gets good: Three pitches are going at once, meaning judges can only watch one-third of the showcasing companies. And before the pitches start, there’s an hour or so of mingling, during which time teams swarm the judges, recruiting viewers for their pitch.
Last night during the pre-pitch mingling and swarming, I found myself standing in the middle of the room next to two other judges who I know well, Joe Procopio of Automated Insights and ExitEvent, and John Austin of Groundwork Labs.
This was unknowingly strategic, as the middle of the room was the eye of storm; the teams were concentrating pre-pitch efforts along the edges of the crowd.
While we took a breather, John told Joe and me that he thought the Pitch Party might just be his favorite startup event in the Triangle.
This was, of course, very quickly followed by John’s realization of whom he was talking to, a smile, and the explanation that by “his favorite startup event” he meant “his favorite special, non-monthly event.” The ExitEvent Startup Social being, obviously, the best event around. Goes without saying.
All joking aside, John has a good point.
The structure of the Pitch Party makes it fast-paced and fun and the venue, Top of the Hill, is always a good one. It’s also a productive experience for the pitching teams.
While the evening includes formal (hopefully) polished pitches, the set up and competition to attract viewers pushes founding teams to get out into the crowd, approach strangers, and have a conversation about why their startup is great. Quickly and concisely.
For startups, this conversation is used hundreds of times more than a formal pitch. It’s how founders interact with customers, investors, and partners. It’s how I interacted with pretty much everyone I met during the very early stages of Local-Ventures. (Some friends and family members understandably avoided me during this time.) And because it’s a conversation, it involves reading and responding to your audience much more so than a pitch.
Being good at this conversation — and being good at getting someone’s attention so you can have this conversation — is a highly valuable and often-used entrepreneurial skill.
My fake $1000 bill went to the team that wound up winning, Let’s Chip In, a collective giving platform for life-event gifts led by co-founder Jeff Hinriod. I had met Jeff on Sunday after Let’s Chip In won at Triangle Startup Weekend. On Thursday night, he had a polished pitch that included a compelling story, an MVP, and, most importantly, the company already has 18 paying customers.
The number two and three picks were Aether Entertainment, which uses drones to capture aerial videos and photos, and Buzz Rides, which provides free electric student transportation.
So is it the best startup event in our region? It depends on what floats your boat, but like John, I’d put it up there on my list of favorites.